Awake Unto Me by Kathleen KnowlesAwake Unto Me by Kathleen Knowles is a coming of age story following two young women in turn-of-the-century San Francisco (pre-earthquake) from very different backgrounds.

Kerry comes from the rough-and-tumble Barbary Coast neighborhood of gamblers and whorehouses. She’s more comfortable in trousers than skirts and seems set to follow her father into a number of illicit professions. But his death brings her under the patronage of an up and coming doctor who offers a chance to find a more respectable path.

Beth’s strict parents have her life carefully planned: working in the family store and a respectable marriage. But they couldn’t shelter her from dangers they didn’t dare to recognize, nor from desires she barely understood herself. When Beth sets out to become a professional nurse, it puts her on a collision course with Kerry and a tentative courtship that is endangered by the secrets both have in their past.

The Characters

Both characters have complex backgrounds and motivations that make their interactions realistic and believable. The narrative style feels a bit like it keeps us at a distance, often telling us what they’re feeling rather than making the reader feel it directly. Given the historic context, the psychological hurdles to their romance never felt contrived.

The Writing Style

Structurally, I would consider this a coming of age story–a bildungsroman–rather than a romance, as such. The focus is very much on Beth and Kerry’s individual life stories and experiences, with their eventual courtship and romance being only one of the threads of the plot. I’d go so far as to say that I would have found the book equally enjoyable even if there had been no happily ever after and they had moved on to othe relationships. The prose style is spare and accessible with a focus on descriptive details of the setting.

The Pros

Knowles has a deep familiarity with the history of San Francisco and weaves the events and geography of the place deeply into the story.

The Cons

The narrative tended to keep the reader at arms-length, telling us the story rather than immersing us in it. There are several episodes where secondary characters express cultural bigotry that may be accurate to the time and place but may interfere with a modern reader’s enjoyment. Part of Beth’s journey includes sexual abuse (not including rape), in case that’s a no-go zone for readers.

The Conclusion

Awake Until me does a good job at providing a window into a variety of women’s lives in historic San Francisco, for those interested in exploring history through women-centered lives. There’s a richness to the setting that goes beyond a straightforward girl-meets-girl story.

Excerpt from Awake Unto Me by Kathleen Knowles

They drove slowly through the streets. Kerry gave Beth an umbrella and tucked the carriage blanket around her securely to guard against the late-January chill. Their conversation was trivial and desultory as they rode through the quiet streets. They smiled at one another constantly. They hadn’t even debated for a moment that they would go to Golden Gate Park. Kerry would turn and look at Beth when she was able to take her eyes off the street for an instant. Beth looked much like Addison—worn and weary—even though she had had a few weeks’ rest. She was thinner. Kerry longed to cook her large amounts of food and even, God forbid, cluck and fuss over her like Laura did with Addison.

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Series

A Spark of Heavenly Fire 

Two Souls 

Bits and Bobs

  • ISBN number: 9781602825895
  • Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Kathleen Knowles Online

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