The Woman at the Wheel by Penny Haw
I fell in love with Penny Haw’s previous novel, The Invincible Miss Cust, and was really excited to receive an advance copy of her newest book, The Woman at the Wheel. Haw does an amazing job of featuring little-known historical women and truly bringing them to life on the page — and the character of Bertha Benz is absolutely one that deserves to be highlighted!
Inspired by the real-life of Bertha Benz, this book is told from Bertha’s perspective — whose husband, Karl Benz, designed and built the first prototype automobile. (Eventually evolving into the brand, Mercedes-Benz.) But while Bertha’s father described her as “just a girl,” Bertha’s contribution to history is finally becoming known. Despite living her life in her husband’s shadow, Bertha’s desire for “more” and her passion and belief in her husband’s dreams, propelled her family forward to make history.
Obviously, Bertha’s account in The Woman at the Wheel is fictionalized, but Haw does a fantastic job at taking facts and filling the in-between with plausible motivations and events. I was constantly hopping back and forth between Google and this book as I was sent down a rabbit trail of my own research — and I love when historical fiction invites readers to learn more.
While some scenes felt repetitive, I think this was only because of the constant, repeated struggles Benz faced in having his invention become reality — and the story certainly got that across.
I also struggled to connect with Bertha as deeply as I’d hoped to. I’m not sure whether this was because Bertha’s life goals were so intricately connected with her husband’s work and yet, she was often left out (just the reality of the time period and a part of her true story) or perhaps because the book occasionally leaned into feeling like a fictionalized biography. I do think one of the challenges in portraying a historical character is trying to accurately hit the main events while building authentic emotion for readers, and there were some chapters where I felt this more strongly than others.
Despite this minor critique, I found Bertha to be a savvy, daring and determined woman who was extremely talented in her own right. It was a lot of fun learning more about her, and I really appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book outlining where fact met fiction.
Overall, this was an interesting and highly educational read. Well-written and researched, I am eagerly awaiting to see what historical figure Haw takes on next. I would certainly recommend this one for those wanting to learn more about women in STEM, and women who changed history in their own right.
Historical fiction fans with women who changed history “from the shadows”
This post contains affiliate links; as an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Advance e-copy of the book provided courtesy of the publisher, Sourcebooks and NetGalley. All opinions expressed are my own.
About the book:
(From the publisher) “Unfortunately, only a girl again.”
From a young age, Cäcilie Bertha Ringer is fascinated by her father’s work as a master builder in Pforzheim, Germany. But those five words, which he wrote next to her name in the family Bible, haunt Bertha.
Years later, Bertha meets Carl Benz and falls in love—with him and his extraordinary dream of building a horseless carriage. Bertha has such faith in him that she invests her dowry in his plans, a dicey move since they alone believe in the machine. When Carl’s partners threaten to withdraw their support, he’s ready to cut ties. Bertha knows the decision would ruin everything. Ignoring the cynics, she takes matters into her own hands, secretly planning a scheme that will either hasten the family’s passage to absolute derision or prove their genius. What Bertha doesn’t know is that Carl is on the cusp of making a deal with their nemesis. She’s not only risking her marriage and their life’s work, but is also up against the patriarchy, Carl’s own self-doubt, and the clock.
Like so many other women, Bertha lived largely in her husband’s shadow, but her contributions are now celebrated in this inspiring story of perseverance, resilience, and love.