August 2012, American Historical Romance (1899 American West)
Cedar Fort, $8.99, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 1599558971 Part of a series
I once said that I’d happily read anything Carla Kelly wrote. Unfortunately, this book convinced me what works for her at around 200 pages doesn’t seem as compelling and interesting when the page count more than doubles.
No one who’s a fan of Kelly’s expects her stories to be seat of the pants exciting, but rather thoughtful introspections of how two adults find each other and love in quiet, everyday events. This book is no different except that the dull, everyday events that make up so much of the story feel more like the lifeless prose found on visitor center brochures and only two of the three primary adults in the book act grown up.
Kelly herself admits that the book “is a work of fiction, based strongly in fact. I have woven true stories in with fiction.” And here lies the problem. A greater filter needed to be put in place when Kelly did her research in order to make this story more balanced and to weed out somewhat interesting but unnecessary true stories.
In this book, Della Anders, whose single-parent father died in a mine accident, is shuttled off to be raised by relatives who don’t want her. Consequently, she becomes Cinderella-like, working while her cousins lead the good life.
At twenty-four, she is informed she isn’t invited on the European tour her aunt and cousins will be taking in the fall of 1899. Because she’s earned a one-year teaching degree, for which she alone paid, she takes a job in the mining community of Winter Quarters, Utah, which has a large Mormon population.
There as the lower grades teacher, she meets two promising beaux. Owen Davis is a widowed Welsh miner whose daughter will be in Della’s classroom. Emil Isgreen, on the other hand, is a single physician dedicated to the care of the community’s people. Both court her in their individual ways — Owen with teasing and his wood carving, and Emil with his steady invitations to dinner on Saturday night.
But Della must get rid of her past before she can accept a future. Her domineering aunt has made her feel inferior because of her birth. Della dwells and over-dwells on her humiliation and shame in being placed in a posh school with nothing but rags to wear. This is an anomaly of her aunt’s since the woman prides herself on her public façade. Why would she want the world to see Della like this? Why not instead put her in a public school if she’s going to be dressed in rags? This is one of many such oddities in the story.
In its own way, this is a Pollyanna story. After she gets over her fear and deprecation, Della brings sunshine and light to a valley whose inhabitants already relish it. She turns around the one nay-sayer, the school’s Miss Gulch-type principal, so that the only downside of living there (other than poverty, raw winters, and excruciatingly hard work) is death.
The Mormon choir figures heavily in much of the story, mostly because Owen has a beautiful voice and he badgers Della into becoming the choir’s secretary, a position he invents to be with her. The book’s title comes from a lyric in an old lullaby that my grandmother used to sing to us when we were children, “All Through the Night.”
Other than the lazy, meandering pace of the story, one of the bigger problems is Della. At twenty-four, she often acts childish. While a hard upbringing may have toughened some women, it hasn’t Della, who at times seems almost pathetic.
She has two cardboard foils to provoke her. Her aunt channels Cruella De Vil, while the principal, who does manage to change due to Della’s kindness and good humor, puts the fear of God in everyone attached to the school.
Between Della’s two suitors, Emil seems the more likeable even though he is a cardboard cutout without background or much to say for himself. He, however, has an obliging shoulder where Della can unburden herself with regularity.
Owen is the grieving widow — even after six years or so. At the beginning, Della feels threatened by him, thinking of him as a bully, even though readers will probably not have the same reaction to him. Owen is the type of man who does little acts of kindness for Della, but can never shake off his sense of obligation to his dead wife in order to admit that he’s falling in love. Consequently, the entire romance part of the book drags on for hundreds of pages before Owen actually commits.
The first hundred pages, when Della makes her decision and comes to Winter Quarters, are wonderful as are the last hundred pages, especially the last fifty pages about Utah’s largest mining disaster, a point which figures prominently in the book’s promotional copy. Between those parts, however, two hundred pages sag and die, and have absolutely nothing to do with the mining disaster.
Will I read Kelly’s next book? Absolutely. Will I hope she has an editor to guide her if it’s another massive undertaking? Assuredly.
-- Pat Henshaw
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