ARC Review: The Divorce Colony

The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier by April White

April White’s The Divorce Colony is set during the Gilded Age, in the America of the late 1800s. It revolves around the lax divorce rules then to be found in South Dakota. 

Today, getting divorced is almost easier than getting married. But in the Gilded Age, divorces were not so easy to obtain. Divorce was viewed as a moral concern for the state, and was denounced from the pulpit for threatening the sanctity of marriage. Even President Theodore Roosevelt spoke out against it. 

Laws around divorce tended to be most lax on the frontiers of the United States. By the 1880s the territory of Dakota gained the dubious honor of posting the largest rise in divorces in the country. At the turn of the century one city - Sioux Falls, South Dakota - gained a reputation for having the laxest divorce laws of all, and required only a three month residency in order to take advantage of them. Those who came to Sioux Falls (mostly women) seeking to escape their marriages became known as the Divorce Colony.

White takes us through the stories of four well-known women of the day in their journey seeking divorce in Sioux Falls. Because of their high social status, and their wealth (or the wealth of the family they had married into), their stories were closely followed by the press of the day. Because of that, these women stand in for us for the hundreds of other “colonists” whose stories are no longer easily uncovered.

In White’s hands the stories of these four women - Maggie, Mary, Blanche and Flora, along with that of the good Reverend Dr. Hare - come together in Sioux Falls to give us a history on the attitudes toward divorce and how they have changed. 

This is a really well done narrative nonfiction. White resurrects a forgotten history as she tells the stories of the four women, and how they came to be seeking divorce. She also has uncovered and discusses their connections to one another and to other “colonists”, some of whom get shorter stories of their own in the book. 

Of the four stories, I felt those of Maggie and Blanche worked best, Mary's less so, while Flora’s story seemed in comparison to be less detailed and less interesting. 

This is a great summer read, as it’s a book you can easily pick up and read in sections and then come back to later without losing the thread. 

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Hachette Books. I am voluntarily providing this review. The book will be available to the public on June 14, 2022.

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Title: The Divorce Colony
Author: April White
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publish Date: June 14, 2022
ISBN-13: 9780306827662
Publisher’s List Price: $30.00 (Hardcover as of 05/2022)