I’m reading my way across the USA–3 to 5 books from each state, with a focus on books where the setting really becomes another character in the book. Unfortunately, Murder in Burnt Orange by Jeanne Dams (2011), did not meet that criteria. It was a fun, quick book, with an authentic historical feel, and some good information given in an accessible way. However, it could have taken place in just about any city. I didn’t get much of a feel for South Bend, Indiana.

One factor in this lack of setting is that the main character, Hilda Johansson Cavanaugh,  is recently married, and is still adapting to her change in status from a housemaid in the Studebaker household to the wife of a nouveau riche department store owner-in-training (her husband’s uncle owns the store and is training him to take over). So, she hasn’t made a lot of connections in the upper echelons of society as yet, and is somewhat disconnected from her former connections among the servants. This isolation is made much worse (for Hilda, and for us as readers interested in the Indiana setting) by the fact that she is pregnant, and her movement outside the house is severely curtailed by the societal norms of the day! (So, perhaps the other books in the series would work better for my challenge.)

There are, naturally, a few times that she defies this restriction to leave the house, and the narrative occasionally mentions a few street names–but there is no real context given for those names. Context such as: does that street run along the river? Do the wealthy live along the river, or further back due to flooding? Is that street the commercial district? At one point she visits an old friend who does live in company housing by the Studebaker factory, but that kind of detail is pretty minimal.

I just didn’t get much of a feel for the city–heck, I didn’t even make the connection that “South Bend” would have been named for a bend in a river until at least midway through when they started talking about dumping a body. Even then, the main description was of the river being “low and slow, as dry as the weather’s been,” and a brief mention of the “LaSalle Avenue bridge.” I’d have liked a bit more information about where the river (which river?) was in relation to the various parts of the city that are mentioned, and what role it played in the city’s past (founding) and present (meaning the 1905 present of the book). Does the city span both sides of the river? Is the LaSalle Avenue bridge one of many in the city or one of only a few?

Apparently, based on my research over the last couple of hours, South Bend grew up on the site of a popular portage route that connected Lake Michigan (via the St. Joseph River) to the Mississippi river (via the Kankakee River to the Illinois River and then the Mississippi). Access to the river was, of course, important for early manufacturing concerns, including the Studebaker factory and the Oliver Chilled Plow Company (also mentioned in the book). The Oliver Hotel, where one of Hilda’s “Baker Street Irregulars” works, was also owned by James Oliver–of the plow company–though I don’t think the connection was made in the book. According to this site, Oliver also built an Opera House in South Bend, which opened in 1885.

Murder in Burnt Orange contains a few other brief nuggets: mention of the “coal mines down in southern Indiana,” and of the Woolen Mills in Mishawaka, a few miles to the east (and slightly higher in elevation than South Bend).

“Hewlitt, that’s the name. He’s got that new bank on the corner of Lafayette and Jefferson, Midwest State Bank.”

But, in general, it was well researched, and there was a fair amount of historical information given about the labor movement in the United States Midwest. There was some basic information about Eugene Debs and the founding of the International Workers of the World in Chicago (as well as his presidential runs). There is also a bit of discussion about Tammany Hall, in New York. The Author’s Note confirms that the Montgomery Ward strike of 1905 in Chicago was real, as was the Twentieth Century Flyer train wreck and its cause.

Both the Studebaker factory and the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, as mentioned above, were real businesses in South Bend in 1905, though the plow works was formally known as the South Bend Iron Works until 1908. Apparently, the Midwestern soil was different from that in the east, and Oliver developed a new technique for making plows that worked better in this type of soil. Clement Studebaker’s 1888 forty-room mansion was called Tippecanoe Place and he lived there until his death in 1901; his son George lived there until 1933. It’s a bit unclear to me why it was named after Tippecanoe, which is about a hundred miles south-southwest, but maybe that is discussed in one of the earlier books when Hilda worked for the family in the mansion itself.

Overall, the book was a mildly entertaining quick read, but not very thought-provoking or particularly satisfying. It was, unfortunately, pretty much a bust in terms of my challenge. Hopefully one of my other picks for Indiana turns out better!

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