Always And Forever
by Beverly Jenkins, historical (2000)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-81374-2

Allow me the chance to be presumptuous and condescending: let me say that as a whole, Always And Forever does better as a novella than a full length novel. Beverly Jenkins is an author who specializes in creating small, precious scenes, but sometimes she falters when it comes to focus and direction of a story. Always And Forever is loose and lacks tight focus - I find it easier to read it page by page at a time, short segments each time, than to take in the whole book at one go.

Grace Prescott Atwood is a spunky lady who decides to lead a wagon of mail-order brides to Kansas from Chicago. She hires hunk Jackson Blake (readers of Topaz will recognize this fellow) to lead the entourage, and er, that's it. Thing is, the book is almost halfway done before the entourage gets a-moving. The backdrop of this story - the late stages of the Black Exodus - is fascinating, but really, the story redefines the term plods.

The story literally tells a day-by-day account of Grace's life. Really, I'm surprised the editor lets pass all those long, unnecessary scenes of Grace's moving from one end of town to the other, even right down to a conversation with a helpful cab driver before raiding a brothel in search of Jackson (don't ask). With such draggy pace, the romance and characterization have better be compelling or I'll go straight to dreamland with Thomas Gibson.

Alas, the characters are also a disappointment. I'm talking about Grace, who is a typical, faultless proud woman this author is well-known for or Jackson who is also the typical sex symbol whose only fault is a penchant for honky-tonk ladies. Without anything happening, the perfection of these characters start to stick out like sore thumbs. They become, unfortunately, bland.

Then there are the sometimes overpowering black-and-white morality in Always And Forever that is more often than not clumsily done. For instance, it doesn't take much for a reader schooled in stereotypes to realize soon enough that the gambler lady in the entourage would end up the one with the heart of gold, while the proper twin snobs would be the Evil Rich Pompous caricatures. Every other lady in the entourage seem content to be placidly led like sheep by Grace. Such obedience makes storytelling easier, of course, but they don't make things interesting.

But when read bit by bit, the story transforms into something else entirely. It becomes a delightful collection of warm anecdotes. I really smile at the scene when Jackson comes to dinner and meets Grace's aunts for the first time. Or when Grace rallies the ladies in church and the ladies fret over the portraits of their husbands-to-be. These and many more are tiny snippets of an idealized slice of Americana fiction, inspiring in their good ol' fashioned values and family and communal piety. And the sisterhoods of the women in the book resonate loud and clear throughout.

Maybe with tighter editing and clearer focus, the virtues of Always And Forever will stand out clear. As it is, I have to have a bit of patience and dig in bit by bit before I hit gold.

Rating: 81

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