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The Dressmaker's Dowry: A Novel
by Meredith Jaeger

Published: 2017-02-07
Paperback : 384 pages
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For readers of Lucinda Riley, Sarah Jio, or Susan Meissner, this gripping historical debut novel tells the story of two women: one, an immigrant seamstress who disappears from San Francisco’s gritty streets in 1876, and the other, a young woman in present day who must delve into the ...

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For readers of Lucinda Riley, Sarah Jio, or Susan Meissner, this gripping historical debut novel tells the story of two women: one, an immigrant seamstress who disappears from San Francisco’s gritty streets in 1876, and the other, a young woman in present day who must delve into the secrets of her husband’s wealthy family only to discover that she and the missing dressmaker might be connected in unexpected ways.

An exquisite ring, passed down through generations, connects two women who learn that love is a choice, and forgiveness is the key to freedom...

San Francisco: 1876

Immigrant dressmakers Hannelore Schaeffer and Margaret O'Brien struggle to provide food for their siblings, while mending delicate clothing for the city's most affluent ladies. When wealthy Lucas Havensworth enters the shop, Hanna's future is altered forever. With Margaret's encouragement and the power of a borrowed green dress, Hanna dares to see herself as worthy of him. Then Margaret disappears, and Hanna turns to Lucas. Braving the gritty streets of the Barbary Coast and daring to enter the mansions of Nob Hill, Hanna stumbles upon Margaret’s fate, forcing her to make a devastating decision...one that will echo through the generations.

San Francisco: Present Day

In her elegant Marina apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Sarah Havensworth struggles to complete the novel she quit her job for. Afraid to tell her husband of her writer’s block, Sarah is also hiding a darker secret—one that has haunted her for 14 years. Then a news headline from 1876 sparks inspiration: Missing Dressmakers Believed to be Murdered. Compelled to discover what happened to Hannelore and Margaret, Sarah returns to her roots as a journalist. Will her beautiful heirloom engagement ring uncover a connection to Hanna Schaeffer? 





Editorial Review

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Chapter 2

Hannelore Schaeffer

San Francisco, January, 1876

The sting of Father’s palm spread across Hannelore’s face like the burn of hot coals. He leaned in close, his sour breath reeking of whiskey. Blood trickled down Hanna’s nose, the metallic taste reaching her tongue.

Raising his sinewy, soot-covered arm for another strike, Father resembled a roaring bear covered in grease. Hanna’s heart pounded against her rib cage. Perhaps this time he would kill her, just as he had her mother.

Hanna shielded herself from the second blow, dropping the bowl of small boiled potatoes. It clattered to the ground, spilling its contents to the dirt floor. Hans and Katja cowered beneath the table, whimpering. Father frightened them so.

“You dumb cow!”

He spat the insult in German. Years of working as a blacksmith had hardened his muscles, and Hanna hurled herself away from his swinging arms. Martin ran from his hiding place and thrashed his fists against Father’s burly chest, his twelve-year-old arms thin but strong. What a brave, stupid boy.

Father pushed Martin to the ground, where he landed with a heavy thud. Martin’s chest heaved and his nostrils flared. “Stop it!” he yelled. “Don’t hurt her.”

Father laughed, resting his hands on his round belly. In addition to drinking too much ale, he ate his fill at the gambling houses, where men were served hot luncheon. Yet he gave nothing to his children, so that Hanna and her siblings had no means to quell their hunger. Father’s laughter grew louder and louder.

“You sound like an American,” he bellowed, wiping a tear from his ruddy face. The next one left a trail on his cheek before reaching his black beard.

Hanna’s younger brother, Martin, had no trace of an accent, and a clouded memory of the boat that had carried them to this godforsaken place. Martin stood up, hands balled at his sides, his body shaking.

Looking at Hanna with bloodshot eyes, Father tilted his head back and cackled. She waited, holding her breath, until he stumbled backward and fell into his chair.

“Where is my money?” Father asked, pointing a thick finger at her. He was so drunk he couldn’t hold it straight.

“We gave you all of our money,” Martin said, stepping between them. “She doesn’t have any. Tell him, Hanna. Tell him we don’t have any.”

“I have no money,” Hanna answered, trembling as she spoke. “I’ve given you every penny that I’ve earned, and you’ve spent it all!”

Father lunged for her, smacking Hanna hard across the jaw. She should have seen it coming. He would never take her accusations without a fight. Hanna held her ground. Father’s eyelids drooped even as he glared. Once more, he slid into his chair. A moment later, a snore like a bear rumbled from his throat. He’d fallen asleep, drunk, his mouth open, his cruel hands hanging by his sides.

“Come now,” Hanna whispered, gathering Katja and Hans into her arms. “You eat your potatoes.”

She set the small spuds down on their crude wooden table, wiped the blood from her nose, and managed a smile. Katja, Hans, and Martin reached for the food with dirty fingers, and swallowed it down like wolves. Hanna’s stomach growled. How she craved the fatty taste of meat. They never had bratwurst anymore.

Smoothing Katja’s dark curls, Hanna kissed the toddler’s damp forehead. “Eat up, little deer.” Katja’s soulful brown eyes darted toward their slumbering father.

“It’s all right,” Hanna whispered, hoping the child wasn’t coming down with a fever. She’d once found her little sister curled up in the grass outside after one of Father’s drunken rages, like a fawn in a meadow.

With her mother dead, and her father useless, Hanna found herself solely responsible for keeping her siblings clothed and fed. A portion of her wages from the tailor shop went to their elderly neighbor, Frau Kruger, who watched Katja and Hans during the day. The widow fed them brown bread and eggs. Thank God, for they often had nothing more than scraps. Father spent every penny at the saloons.

He beat Hanna when he thought she was withholding her coins from him. And she had been. She’d managed to stash away nearly eight dollars in a jar, which she kept hidden. Soon it would be enough money to escape.

Hanna closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. Mountain air. Wildflowers. In her memories, she could see the green fields surrounding her cottage in Mittenwald and Mother’s wise hands, rolling dough for schnecken.

But when Hanna opened them, Mother was gone. An icy wind seeped through the cracks of the ramshackle house, and Hanna shivered. While the children were eating, she pried the board in the bedroom floor loose, and added more coins to her savings jar. Next to it stood the delicate plate Mother had painted. Hanna wished to live in that idyllic scene amongst the weeping willows. Trailing her finger along Mother’s brushstrokes, she imagined Mother watching over her from heaven.

Hanna sniffled, pulling her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. The damp air penetrated the threadbare fabric. Setting the wooden plank back into place, she ignored her rumbling belly and hoped the children had eaten their fill. Father groaned in his sleep, causing her to flinch. Mother had been foolish to fall in love. Such vulnerability was a sign of weakness. And Hanna could not be weak if she wanted to stay alive.

Father’s greed had been the reason their family had left Bavaria and come to this vile and sinful place. No man would decide her fate, not Father, not a husband, no one. From the doorway to their kitchen, Hanna looked at Martin, his face partially illuminated by the glow of their kerosene lamp. Her brother’s lip quivered.

“Martin,” she asked. “What are you feeling?”

When he turned to her, his eyes shone with tears. Hanna didn’t need him to explain further. Their mother’s absence ached like an open wound.

“Do you remember the ship?” Martin asked. “And the train from Hamburg, how we were loaded in like pigs?” He shook his head. “Mother was sick with pneumonia, and yet Father insisted we travel to America. We never should have come here.”

Martin had been only a boy of seven when they had traveled in the belly of the steamer. It stank of feces and rot. Hanna hadn’t expected him to remember Mother’s rattling cough, or her ragged breaths. But perhaps it was the painful things in life that people remembered most. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. The novel is set in 1876, years before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Margaret says, “There’s enough sin in this city for it to burn someday.” Is there anything about this time period in San Francisco’s history that surprised you? Do you think it was more dangerous to be a working-class woman at that time than a woman of society?

2. At the wharves, a street child expresses anti-Chinese sentiment to Hanna. She fears the gangs that are opposed to foreigners living in the city. Did immigrants have a more difficult time finding jobs and assimilating into American culture than natives? Can you trace the arrival of your own ancestors to the United States?

3. Sarah is hiding a dark and painful secret from her husband. What was your reaction to finding out Sarah’s secret? Did she have a right to conceal the truth from Hunter? Did it change your opinion of her character?

4. Lucas and Hanna’s relationship crosses a social divide, and is unconventional due to both class and cultural differences. What were your thoughts as their relationship develops?

5. When Hanna discovers that Robert murdered Margaret, she makes the difficult decision to leave Lucas, without ever telling him the truth. She believes someone else will hang for the crime—Kieran McClaren or Clive, and Robert will get away with it. Did you agree with Hanna’s heartbreaking choice? How was her decision influenced by her position in society, and Lucas’s position?

6. Hanna is steadfast in her devotion to finding Margaret. What did you like about their friendship? Were you surprised that Margaret kept her pregnancy a secret from Hanna? Why do you think she did?

7. Sarah receives threatening emails, and is blackmailed into keeping the truth about Margaret’s murder a secret. Why does Walter Havensworth want to hide Robert’s crime? Why do appearances matter to him?

8. In the epilogue, we learn that Hanna has escaped San Francisco and made a new life for herself in Sutter’s Creek, under a new name. She remarries, and continues to paint. Do you believe she is happy? How is this life different than the one she would have had with Lucas?

9. In the Victorian era, post-mortem photography was common. Do you find this practice creepy? Did it surprise you? Why do you think these photos were taken?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Sharon D. (see profile) 08/28/19

  "Engrossing Read"by Betty T. (see profile) 03/26/17

San Francisco was and is a city of many cultures and has a fascinating history. Thus, being a fan of historical fiction, I was quickly drawn into this story that alternated between present d... (read more)

  "The Dressmaker's Dowry"by Elizabeth P. (see profile) 02/25/17

From San Francisco 1876 to present day, we learn of the plight of the poor, the privilege of the wealthy, and secrets of a family that connect both eras.

Sarah married into a wealthy fa

... (read more)

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