The photo binds two women – Elizabeth Haberlin and Lee Parker – in a story that Hogan begins light-heartedly with the frivolous concerns of debutante Elizabeth. Her wealthy family lives near Pittsburgh, and they travel to a lake in South Fork, Pennsylvania, every summer.
The chapters in The Woman in the Photo alternate between the days before and after the Johnstown Flood, “May 31, 1889” when Elizabeth’s story is told, and the “present,” Lee’s time, 125 years later, or about 2014.
Lee sees the old photograph when she turns eighteen, and the state is obliged to open her adoption file to tell her about the medical risks of her Ashkenazi heritage. There in the file is the photo of a woman, her ancestor, standing next to Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Lee then decides to find her biological mother.
Elizabeth lives in an era when respect for a woman comes from her ability to land a husband of standing. She proves she has the ability with an amusing episode. The young, feisty lady meticulously and cleverly maps out a ruse to win the attention of James Tottinger from England and wipe out the efforts of any other girl vying for his affections.
Author Mary Hogan uses identical phrasing when describing both young ladies in their separate times. They share the same physical attributes. Neither is a morning person. They have the same thoughts: “It’s more than any eighteen year old should have to bear.” They close their eyes to enjoy the fresh air blowing about them on the train.
Such a technique seems obvious at times, but Hogan leads us to an unexpected place, the place where Elizabeth and Lee’s connection is revealed, and most interesting of all, what separated them in the first place.
The heroines are strong women. They follow their own path and listen to the voice inside of them, two key messages of the book. Another message goes directly to adoptees: “Birth is not destiny. You must create a destiny that is yours. Uniquely yours.”
Another strong woman in the story is Clara Barton, a personal hero of mine because she gave herself completely to the needs of others affected by disasters, and shattered obstacles that might have prevented her from eventually founding the American Red Cross. Though I knew I was reading fiction, the details about Barton’s childhood that shaped her future and molded her tenacious spirit pulled me deeper into the story. She was there, of course, following the flood that occurs when the lake spills into Johnstown, the event that directs the futures of Elizabeth and Lee’s lives.
Hogan dedicates her novel, The Woman in the Photo, to “the resilient people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, past and present.” Actual historical photographs provided by the Johnstown Flood Museum Archives, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association and the National Railroad Museum lend credibility to the story and clarity to the reader’s ability to envision it.