Emily Roebling builds a bridge
David McCullough, who died August 8 this year, wrote the definitive history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. His research uncovered much about the Roebling family and Emily Roebling’s role in assisting her husband to finish the project. To this factual knowledge now is added a fictional account in novel form. The book is replete with researched facts, some new, in a setting that is hard to believe.
The Engineer’s Wife: A Novel by Tracey Enerson Wood (Naperville, Il: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2021) is a rather fanciful narrative about Emily Roebling. The book imagines the life of the first wife of Washington Roebling, the chief engineer who supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Except we find that she insinuates herself into her husband’s every crucial moment.
True to the original model, Emily Warren was a free spirit who met Roebling during his service in her brother’s regiment during the Civil War. She had been highly educated in subjects unusual for a woman of her time before American women’s suffrage. The author takes that image and runs with it creating a contemporary character disguised in 19th century dress. According to the unlikely story, once they met, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
The text is well researched and written with details of bridge building accurately described and historic events depicted in general. Gaps in source material, such as conversations, have been creatively imagined. But the gap in believability becomes apparent when Emily, the key character, assumes responsibility for the original concepts of her husband once he is stricken with caisson disease, as the bends was known.
With Washington Roebling bedridden, his wife initially acts as a messenger to the engineers and workers but in the book, her role escalates bringing her onto the construction site and into the mammoth caissons that support the new roadway and, eventually, to the towers of the bridge itself. While many women of the age fought for the right to vote and recognition as individuals, the author seems to transpose their struggle into the current “me too” movement with Mrs. Roebling on the front lines of battle weathering abuse and attacks.
Actual characters and events in Roebling’s life provided drama and intrigue to the history of construction of The Brooklyn Bridge but fictional interactions with some historic names make her tale incredulous. Even though Ms. Wood adds explanations in an afterword, other literary techniques could have substituted for inclusion of P.T. Barnum as her lover and the remonstrations of the imaginary Benjamin Stone. Real individuals, both villains and heroes, played roles in the lives of the Roeblings such as Mayor Seth Low of Brooklyn who was totally ignored in the book as was Richard Fox’s Police Gazette which covered the opening of the bridge.
The health of her husband, Washington, wavers in the book as does his love and loyalty to Emily. Public scorn and abuse seem an unnecessary literary device that tarnishes the reputation of the original Mrs. Roebling. The independence of both husband and wife could have been demonstrated with more positive facts. Her invitation to the coronation of Czar Nicholas of Russia in 1898 demonstrates her positive international reputation.
Alterations to chronological events seem arbitrary: the catastrophe on the bridge occurred a month after the opening, not before; the 26 elephants that Barnum introduced to test the bridge strength happened a year after it opened; President Taft walked, not rose, across half of the bridge; the ride Farrington took on the bosun’s chair is more dramatically described by McCullough in The Great Bridge.
The book about The Engineer’s Wife presented a curious alternative to history while introducing literary portraits of the times and issues that still have not been resolved. The author has offered aspects of Victorian life and social commentary about the role of women in American society. But cliches abound; some of the issues were predictable and unlikely to have occurred in that time. Many of the awkward incidents could have been approached using different literary devices such as omniscient POV or edited out.
Eventually, recognition of Emily Roebling’s support of her husband’s plans and contributions to construction of the bridge were identified with a plaque on the Brooklyn tower and the naming of a neighboring park and an elementary school after her. No such honor was bestowed on her husband in New York.
–John B. Manbeck
Tracey Enerson Wood biom courtesy of the publisher:
Tracey Enerson Wood loves discovering amazing women whose stories have been lost to history, and bringing them to life for today’s readers.
Her debut novel, The Engineer’s Wife, historical fiction about the woman who built the Brooklyn Bridge, is an international and USA Today best seller. Her newest novel, The War Nurse, which tells the unforgettable story of Julia Stimson and her nurses during WW1, was released in 2021, and in trade paperback in 2022.
Coming in 2023 is The President’s Wife, a novel centered on Edith Bolling Wilson, second wife of Woodrow Wilson and sometimes thought of as our first woman U.S. president.
All three novels are published by Sourcebooks.
Tracey has always had a writing bug. While working as a Registered Nurse, starting her own Interior Design company, raising two children, and bouncing around the world as a military wife, she indulged in her passion as a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. She has authored magazine columns and other non-fiction, written and directed plays of all lengths, including Grits, Fleas and Carrots, Rocks and Other Hard Places, Alone, and Fog. Her screenplays include Strike Three and Roebling’s Bridge.
Other passions include food and cooking, and honoring military heroes.
Her co-authored anthology/cookbook Homefront Cooking, American Veterans share Recipes, Wit, and Wisdom, was released by Skyhorse Publishing and all authors’ profits are donated to organizations that support veterans. Life Hacks for Military Spouses is her latest non-fiction release, also an anthology from Skyhorse.
A New Jersey native, she now lives with her family in Florida.
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