1922 is a time of change. Hairstyles along with hemlines are getting shorter, and women are leaving their corsets for the simplicity of brassieres, slips and underwear. All this change is knocking at the door of Wichita’s housewives, who out of expectation and maybe even habit are adverse to these changes. Speak of prohibition and they can tell you how drink causes families to fall apart. When birth control makes the shelves of the local drug store in the mid 1930's it is still immoral even though families are struggling to survive the dust-bowl.
Cora is one of the housewives that behave by the rules of Kansas society. Though, less can be said of her 15 year old charge Louise Brooks. Traveling by train, they accompany each other to New York City, where Louise is to attend Denishawn School of Dance and Cora plans to confront her past. The trip isn't easy for either, as they push each other’s boundaries, which causes Cora to doubt her provincial attitude as she comes closer to discovering her identity.
As an orphan, Cora rode the Orphan Train from NYC to Kansas, where orphans like her were paraded for potential families to adopt. Although she was adopted by a kind family, married a lawyer who provided her with a family and name, Cora struggled with her sense of abandonment. She needed to find who her parents were.
I wish I could say that Cora’s journey ends with her finding closure and happiness, but that is only partly true. The story of Cora’s identity is driven by over the top, shocking plot twists. With each layer of the story, there is an element of surprise that causes controversy and shock value. I found it ridiculous that all these experiences happened to Cora, while everyone else in the novel seems to be unaffected by the changing world (I can’t say more without giving away major plot spoilers).
I can say that the tolerance shown in the novel is a redeeming quality. As Cora’s character grows, she demonstrates a great amount of tolerance even for things she doesn't always understand. Leaving behind her small town convictions is part of how Cora is able to finally break away from Kansas society values and create some of her own.