James Hoggard’s beautifully written family drama, set in the 1920s, begins with a simple and very familiar premise. An artistic, intelligent young woman who is still in high school falls in love with a young man who dropped out to work at an oil refinery. But her parents disapprove of him. They consider him far beneath their daughter.
The young man has no father, and his mother runs a boarding house of questionable repute, the parents point out. Furthermore, local rumormongers have said that men and women both live under its roof, so it might be a whorehouse.
The young woman, Ru-Marie Coleman, tries to expand her independence and continue her relationship with Buster Lopreis. But herr parents respond by escalating their efforts to break them up. Meanwhile, Buster keeps trying to win Ru-Marie’s parents over, even though they call him “the problem” and refuse to speak his name.
From there, the story’s tensions gradually build, until events finally spiral out of control and two families are ripped apart.
Along with love and hate, Hoggard’s engrossing tale delves into “the airs of superiority” that people who grew up in poverty can take on once they become financially successful or at least reasonably well off.
Ru-Marie’s father, Jeff Coleman, owns a sporting goods store in a growing Texas town known as Kiowa Falls. (It bears some slight resemblance to an early-20th century Wichita Falls, where the book’s author is an English professor at Midwestern State University.) Coleman also has become Kiowa Falls’ mayor, with help from wealthy backers to whom he now owes allegiance.
There is irony in Jeff Coleman’s and his wife Eileen’s expanding hatred of Buster. “The problem” is almost a mirror image of who they used to be. The mayor grew up poor, living in a boarding house without a father. His wife grew up in a boarding house, as well.
Now that they have been accepted into their town’s society, one of their greatest concerns is what other people will say about them. Indeed, Ru-Marie’s mother has become obsessed with what’s “acceptable” and “not acceptable” for her daughter.
“He’s trash, Ru-Marie, just trash, and what will people think?” Eileen says during one of her many arguments with her daughter over Buster.
At one point, Ru-Marie complains to Buster about her father: “He won’t ever say it—I don’t even think he dares think it—but it crazes him to no end to think if I keep going around with you, I’ll end up p.g.—their damn silly term—and me somehow his surrogate, back in the same, impossible poverty he thinks he grew up in.”
Buster, ever the peacemaker, responds by urging her not to be hard on her parents. He remains hopeful that he can somehow change their opinions of him.
The Mayor’s Daughter takes on increasingly darker tones as it delves into secret marriage and one other aspect of early 20th-century North Texas life: a lingering tolerance for “frontier justice” in a city that is now modernizing and growing rapidly.
With this book, James Hoggard, author of 19 other works including novels, short-story collections, poetry and translations, demonstrates once again that he is a masterful storyteller worthy of his many writing awards.