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Katharine's Remarkable Road Trip

by Gail Ward Olmsted

Rating: *****

Olmsted’s delightful novel is inspired by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, an independent trailblazer of a woman born in 1830 who became a Civil War nurse and a highly sought-after translator of French literature among many other pursuits, the majority of which were pragmatic and philanthropic.

She never married although she had meaningful relationships, one being with a distant relation of the author’s husband.

Raised in England, her family emigrated to the US when she was 18. Later in life, she portioned her time between houses in Newport, Rhode Island, and Jackson, New Hampshire.

Katharine’s Remarkable Road Trip is an imagined account of her journeying the nearly three hundred miles between these East Coast properties.

Olmsted’s affection for her subject shines through from the opening chapter of this singular novel. It’s difficult to believe that the entire road trip is a fictional imagining albeit influenced by Olmsted’s thorough research into this remarkable woman.

Olmsted places Katharine toward the end of her life, she is 77 and, has barely a year left before her death. The story is written from Katharine’s first-person perspective and although she is vocal concerning her age and associated aches and pains, she does occasionally present physically as a little younger.

The novel takes a couple of chapters to settle but once it reaches cruising speed, it’s an absorbing and rewarding read. Olmsted skillfully uses the framework of Katharine’s journey to sprinkle the narrative with intriguing chance meetings with a host of well-drawn characters.

This lends opportunities for Katharine to bring her past into focus as she reflects and reminisces while imparting gentle wisdom and, in most cases, a hefty pinch of benevolence.

The reader begins to build up not only a captivating biographical picture of Katharine but also the measure of the woman as Olmsted ensures the reader is privy to her internal thought processes, musings, and doubts. She’s incredibly likable. Warm, quietly tenacious, and self-aware yet still possessing moments of emotional vulnerability.

Among the random encounters, she has planned stopovers with friends along the way. These overnight stays give further circumstances for Olmsted to unfold retrospective fragments and also keep the momentum driving, (no pun intended). The chapters involving her slightly fragile friend, Priscilla, were poignantly layered with the weight of things unspoken.

Olmsted also places Katharine in interesting situations, allowing additional glimpses of her motivations and personality. By the time Katharine is partway to New Hampshire, the reader is completely enamored of this extraordinary woman, her fearless attitude, and her accomplishments.

Olmsted sets Katharine’s road trip in early October and nicely utilizes the fall scenery and its rich, Autumnal tones as a backdrop. It also serves, possibly, as a touching metaphor for Katharine; the reader is aware through strong hints that she will soon face her own Winter.

Nonetheless, she is refreshingly candid as she regales her romantic and flirtatious entanglements. Her connection with Frederick Law Olmsted is intriguing and the warmth of the bond between her and the wonderfully depicted Stephen is palpable.

Katharine’s Remarkable Road Trip is a thoroughly enjoyable novel that manages to be both moving and enthralling. Highly recommended.

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