I love it that New York, editors, authors, readers, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy (take your pick) keep telling me the western romance is dead. It's not dead. It's being neglected. It's in hibernation. It's dormant - but it ain't dead. The themes, the atmosphere, the heartbreak that exemplifies the western romance will never completely go out of fashion. It's too powerful. It's too profound. It's a part of all of us - even you non-Americans reading this. It feeds into the best parts of human nature - resilience, grit, and hope.
I like books that challenge me emotionally. The kind of books that speak to me on a deeper level. Romance at it's best does this for me. Romance at it's worst makes me want to drink Drano - but that's another blog post entirely.
I literally could have read Maureen McKade's latest, A Reason to Live (laydown date September 5 folks) in one sitting if not for this pesky working for a living gig I have, and the fact that this book emotionally walloped me. Seriously, I needed to take the occasional little break but it kept calling me back. As is, I still read it in under 24 hours.
Laurel Covey is from Massachusetts, but married a man from Virginia. When the Civil War breaks out, she follows her husband - so she is disowned by her family. While Robert is fighting in the Army, Laurel is a nurse - then Robert dies in Gettysburg. Laurel transfers to a field hospital close to the front lines and witnesses the horrors of war. She also hears the final words of dying men, and after peace is declared, takes it upon herself to visit the families of these young men and deliver their final messages.
On the road she meets Creede Forrester, who just so happens to have come looking for her. A Texas cotton farmer, he traveled to Virginia only to learn his only son is dead. The doctor he meets with tells him about Laurel, and suggests she might know more about his son. She does. Austin came into the field hospital dead on arrival. There was nothing she could do.
Creede has now lost both his wife and son in tragic ways. He feels guilty, having been unable to keep them safe, and also mourns the last words he spoke to his son - words of anger and contempt. He is also haunted by his past - a terrible childhood tragedy and stint as a hired gun. Maybe it's his guilt that drives him, or his fascination with Laurel, but he tells her (in no uncertain terms) that he will accompany her on the rest of her mission.
This story is so good it's painful. It's the kind of book that rips your heart out, dances a jig on it, then puts it back together again. Laurel is haunted by her past and believes she is going crazy. She has night terrors. She has flashbacks where she can smell the blood, death and hear boys screaming for their lives. We, as modern readers, know she is not crazy. She has post-traumatic stress disorder. But she doesn't know that, and it gives her mission a frantic quality. She wants to deliver these messages before her sanity completely melts away.
Creede admires Laurel, and desperately wants to get close to her, but can't quite figure out how. She's a tough one to crack, and he too is a haunted man. News of his son's death has stripped the last of his new life away - he figures he might as well go back to being a hired gun. Then he meets Laurel and it all changes.
One of the many things I loved about this book is how McKade handles the aftermath of the War. She doesn't dumb down the Civil War, bless her heart. Yes, it was about more than slavery. She also doesn't have villains. She doesn't place blame. The North is just as guilty as the South. She also portrays freed-slaves in a manner I've never before seen in a romance novel. A people exhilarated by their freedom, but left adrift with no resources.
Also notable are those messages that Laurel is delivering. She meets people from all walks of life and not all of them are happy to see her. Some are grateful for the dying words she brings them, others are angry and bitter. Grief, while a universal emotion, is not dealt with in a universal manner. Even Laurel questions whether or not she is doing the right thing - but she made promises to those dying boys...
I guess if I had to name a quibble it would be I wanted a bit more on the death of Creede's wife. But really, that's a minor detail hardly worth a mention. What makes this story work is that it emotionally exhausts the reader in a good way. You bleed for Laurel. You admire her for what she tried to do and what she is doing. This isn't an easy book to read, in fact it's heartbreaking, but McKade rings out more emotion with this book than in 95% of the other romances I've slogged through this year. It's wonderful, it's tender, it gives me hope that someone out there had brains enough to see this fine book published. Even if it is a western and the western is apparently dead.
Final Grade = A.