by Maggie Osborne, historical (2002)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-8041-1990-2
Much of the high grade given to this book rests on the first half of Prairie Moon. An unfortunate trend in Maggie Osborne's books is that no matter how powerfully drawn her characters are, her stories tend to flounder in more and more painfully clichéd resolutions as the story progresses, and this one is no different. But for a while, I thought I was reading a story that's pure magic.
Della Ward lives at the edge of a small Texas town during the Reconstruction period, living day by day the best she could (which isn't much). Then one day comes a handsome stranger, James Cameron, who claims to be her late husband's friend. This complicates matters, because Della is a widow of a Confederate soldier and she is still affected by the man's death. Her reasons for this are complicated and yet so real that I actually am moved to tears while reading about her emotional turmoil. James is also a beautifully complicated man who is badly affected by the war, and his pain is so vividly rendered that he hurts me. Ouch.
Watching them come to life around each other is... I don't know how to describe it, but it makes me smile and cry all at once. Two badly wounded people slowly healing, and best of all, two people who make their relationship feel so right, now that's a fine romance.
But James has a really awful secret. You probably can guess the secret. I sure did even before the secret is revealed in Chapter Five, and I understand completely why he doesn't have the nerve to tell Della the truth or why he feels that he must help reunite Della with her daughter (it's a long and tragic story).
For the first half, Prairie Moon is pure unadulterated romance between two characters who are walking wounded yet strong enough to keep their chins high. There are many little things that add to the poignant romanticism of these two people, such as Della's little play pretend that her daughter is still with her and James' bemused expression when fans of those novels based on his exaggerated Texas Ranger exploits swamp to shake his hand.
The conflict dividing them is real. The Secret, for one. And Della's hurt is so well rendered that I can only emphatize when she realizes that she shouldn't fall for another man who will only die too soon and leave her again. After losing both husband and daughter, she doesn't think she can bear another loss. As for James, his guilt, reluctant love, and conscience create a turmoil that is eating the poor man from inside.
But as the story progresses, the author just has to lug in painful plot twists and devices that, when added together, can spell "Cliché" ten times over, such as her overplaying James' keeping mum until, yup, the love scene thing, and the predictable and direly familiar events that just have to ensue. Della turns into a shrew, James a high-handed idiot that begins justifying things that should never be justified, and I throw my hands up in the air in disgust.
The final few chapters are rushed, but the author succeeds in reeling me back in somewhat with a poignant smooching-up session and another heartbreaking revelation regarding Della's life. By the time these two make up and walk off to their happy ending, I'm almost ready to forgive the discordant second half of the book. Not that the second half is actually bad, but the first half is so good and powerful that the mediocre but readable second half comes off really bad in comparison.
I do agonize whether to give this book a keeper grade. The disappointing way the story pans out can really poison my enjoyment of this book, because oh, that first half of the book! In the first half, those two beautifully hurt yet strong and honorable people are so real and vivid and so good together, it feels as if my heart doesn't know whether to beat a little faster with joy or break into pieces because these two people are finally having a second chance at happiness. Della is an intelligent heroine in that half, and I especially love how she has no illusions about her first love being a 16-year old naive girl's crush on a handsome man. But even after the war has made her a wiser and more weary woman, she doesn't think any less of her late husband. James' own confusion, guilt, strength, and cowardice all in all make him a fascinating hero, a noble knight and a coward at the same time, a beautiful exercise in paradox and always fascinating.
It is for these reasons that I'm giving this book a keeper grade. I know I won't reread this book again though. The disappointing descend into Western road-trip clichés is like a stab in my heart, and I don't think I'm up to reliving the magic only to have everything crumble around me in the end.
Then again, I'm too picky a reader. You'd probably love this book to pieces, probably not, but I'd suggest reading a few pages at the bookstore to see if this book will hook you in the way it did me. Maggie Osborne can work powerful romanticism in her books, but too bad she doesn't go easy on the tired plot devices. Maybe one day.
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