Sally Wheeler is The Empress of One. When Sally is five, her father reads her the story of “The Empress of One Hundred,” about an empress who almost loses her whole kingdom when citizens drift away seeking neighboring villages’ monthly parties the empress bans in her own town after a subject is killed by an ogre. The empress finds the parties frivolous in light of the town’s loss. At the suggestion of a beloved advisor, the empress reinstates the parties, and with them her own joy. When Sally is a teenager, her father accuses her of becoming an “empress of one,” of shutting out all her loved ones because of her sadness. Old friends cajole Sally to find her passion again. In so doing, she embraces her father’s accusation as a point of pride: she gains command of herself, regal in her bearing as an actress, daughter, granddaughter and friend.
The second of five stories about Harvester, Minnesota, after Cape Ann, this one focuses again on the place of imagination in the process of healing. Shortly after her father reads her The Empress of One, Sally’s mother is committed to a mental institution in St. Peter. Sally not only endures her mother’s increasing distance during her grade school years, but then her absence and the taunts of her school mates, as well as her father’s divided attention as he builds a teaching career and cares for her. She wonders if she will follow her mother’s fate, and, indeed, in high school she almost comes undone. She falls in love with Cole Barnstable, cousin to Neddy Barnstable, who’s always had a crush on Sally. Cole is brash and brazen to Neddy’s calm politeness. “I feel like I’ve known Cole since Day One of the Universe, like we came from the same lump of clay. When I put my hand on his arm… it’s as if two parts of me that got separated a million years ago are back together.” But Cole needs more than Sally can give. When she won’t give up the only thing keeping her in school, he takes revenge. And in return for Cole’s trouble, Sally accepts Neddy Barnstable’s request to write and act with him and the other Harvest Moon Motleys acting troupe, started by their late speech teacher M. Davis. She calls her piece The Kingdom of Making Sense.
If not in honor of Mr. Davis, Sally says she wouldn’t have done the play. Faith Sullivan sets Cole’s revengeful act against Sally’s brave memorial to a teacher who caused a scandal in the town but compelled Sally to recognize her gift for acting. Before Sally’s debut in acting, narrating the second grade Christmas program, her teacher gets her out on stage, encouraging her to “give everyone a Christmas present… make them forget that the car wouldn’t start this morning, and the dog died last night, and all we had to eat this week was beans and bread…. I chose you for narrator because I knew you could do that.” Not only does Sally succeed in her narration, she succeeds that Christmas in pretending Santa is real, to please her grandparents. She waits for them at the tree Christmas morning, calling, “come see what Santa brought!” It isn’t just presents, but a great actress of a granddaughter, who uses her acting as a gift for others.
Sally’s acting is as much a gift to others as it is healing to herself. Mr. Davis casts her as Emily in Our Town even after a lackluster audition. When he calls her in to tell her, she asks, “you sure this isn’t some kind of therapy?” He reassures her that, “I’m casting you as Emily because you’ll do the best job.” Of course, he knows playing the part will heal her from the tragedy of her home and love life, but that that isn’t why she’s compelled to act. Her mother’s committal and subsequent death, as well as a failing love affair, certainly give her reason to escape into the world of pretend, but they can’t sustain her commitment. When Cole asks her why she needs to be in Our Town, against his wishes, she answers, “‘because I can die and come back as somebody else.’ She couldn’t think of anything more satisfying, necessary, impossible to explain, or impossible for someone else to understand, than that.” Propelled into acting against forces in her life from which she runs, acting gives an ultimate gift back to her.
Sally comes of age in this novel, and at the same time becomes tangible evidence of art’s life-giving properties. Just as Sally finds rejuvenation and purpose in acting, we readers find solace and hope in Faith Sullivan’s novel about her. We enter the kingdom where ogres roam, wars rage, loved ones die, and where pleasure is still possible, through our own creative acts and experiences. We further explore such creations in subsequent novels about Harvester: Gardenias, What a Woman Must Do, and Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse.