I’m kind of fanatical about having purpose and structure in my reading. I can’t just pick a book off a shelf and go for it. I even have a hard time reading from recommendations. Ten years ago I started making my way through the list of Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction, and I rarely departed from my agenda. When I was pregnant, I switched over to a near-exclusive focus on pregnancy and childbirth books. But post-Soren, I’ve been in a reading funk. Many of the Pulitzers are just too heavy for my frazzled mom brain. Parenting books are OK here and there, but you just can’t do too many of those in succession. So I welcomed the invitation from my Segullah cohorts to read through the five Whitney Awards finalists in the historical category and then cast my vote.
Here are my brief reviews of those five novels, ordered alphabetically by author.
Softly Falling, by Carla Kelly (Sweetwater Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort Media and Publishing)
The intriguing Lily Carteret is transplanted from her privileged life in England to the rough Wyoming Territory, only to learn that her alcoholic father has gambled away his cattle ranch. As Lily adjusts to the harsh conditions of her new home, she’s befriended by a number of charming characters — especially Jack, the handsome but illiterate cowboy who quickly falls for Lily. The bulk of the story takes place during a very long, grim winter (known a century ago as “the big die-off”), where Jack, Lily, and the others on the ranch work tirelessly to save the cattle and themselves.
Kelly’s characters and historical details were the highlights of the book for me. The drama of the terrible winter provided constant tension, but the pacing of the story was incredibly slow. It was a long, long winter, and the reader definitely feels this (for better or for worse — and for me it was for worse). The action was also very sluggish, but with just enough blips of excitement to keep me going. The dialogue between the protagonists felt contrived, at times, but the characters overall were engaging and pleasant to follow.
Eve: In the Beginning, by H.B. Moore (Mirror Press)
This fictionalization of the story of Adam and Eve dives into the struggles of our first mother, first in the seemingly perfect Garden of Eden and then in the harsh and pain-filled real world. The tale includes the basic stages we’re familiar with from the Bible — Eve partakes, Adam joins her, and they are cast out of the Garden. But Moore throws in a number of possible scenarios that I found to be very thought provoking, like a tragic miscarriage, incredibly challenging weather and living conditions, and problems between Adam and Eve as they attempt to become united in marriage.
I really liked the voice of Eve — she was curious and inquisitive, yet largely faithful amidst her trials. Adam, though much more rigid in his obedience, was not self-righteous in his devotion to Elohim, and I appreciated the way he cared for his wife even when he didn’t agree with her. Lucifer was present throughout the book and was as eerie as one would expect, providing constant confusion and manipulation. I was surprised (as were Adam and Eve) by the overwhelming silence of Elohim — I kept waiting for him to come to the rescue and make it evident that He was mindful of them. But, such is life. The story was well crafted and really nicely written, though there were a few moments that felt redundant as Adam and Eve blundered along, trying to find their way.
An Ocean atween Us, by Angela Morrison (self published)
The first book in a new series, “An Ocean atween Us” tells of 19th century Scottish coal pits, young love and heartbreak, physical hardships, and family bonds that are put to the test. Will Glover leaves the love of his life and begrudgingly joins his family in a grueling journey across the ocean for a new start that is every bit as disappointing as he expects it to be. The new opportunity in North America is filled with hardship for the entire family, and it is ultimately left to Will to care for the family and bring himself out of his estrangement from happiness.
In her author’s note, Morrison said she spent more than a decade researching her family’s Scottish history for this novel, including trips to coal mines in three countries. Her desire for authenticity is readily apparent — the book’s narration uses a flavor of the Scots language (which, for some readers, will be a little too authentic, as the brogue at times feels distracting), and the historical details were on point. I loved this story’s strong family bonds and the importance of home, which remained constant despite the protagonist’s choice to wallow far too long in his self-inflicted pain. Though Will’s pining after his first love grows old quickly, the book’s overall narrative is skillfully crafted and consistently engaging.
Deadly Alliance, by A.L. Sowards (Covenant Communications)
“Deadly Alliance” is the final book in a trilogy, though it works just as well as a stand-alone novel (which is how I read it — I actually had no idea there were two other books). Like “An Ocean atween Us,” it was abundantly clear that Sowards had done her due diligence on the time and place she wrote about — World War II in Italy and Yugoslavia. The novel follows Peter Eddy and his commando team as they drop behind enemy lines, unaware that they’ve been deployed on a suicide mission. Meanwhile, Peter’s girlfriend Genevieve, an OSS spy, finds herself battling new enemies as well. With heart-pounding plot twists and turns aplenty, Peter, Genevieve, and their various comrades experience plenty of action, with true-to-the-era violence and death.
“Deadly Alliance” drew me in quickly and kept me hooked right through the last page (although the far-fetched finale disappointed me a little). The history was, at times, hard to follow, but it didn’t detract from my interest in the book. The characters were well drawn and appealing — or hateful, in the case of the enemies who played significant roles. I appreciated the believable dialogue and the relationships that felt so genuine. Overall, this book was my favorite in the category — strongest writing, most intricate plot, realistic narrative, and great characters.
Gone for a Soldier, by Marsha Ward (WestWard Books)
Part war story, part love story, “Gone for a Soldier” features a range of characters (11 members of the Owen family, plus a few love interests and fellow soldiers), with each chapter rotating between different characters’ perspectives. Rulon Owens, the central figure, moves quickly to enlist in the war after Virginia secedes from the Union — but not before asking for the hand of his love, Mary Hillbrands. Off at war, Rulon sees and feels it all — his tent-mate threatens him regularly, he aches to be with his new wife and their new son, and he struggles physically through battles with the impossible-to-defeat Union army. At home, Mary faces her own battle for independence from parents who disapprove of her marriage.
Like a few others in this category, this novel was rich in historical details and authentic in its language, relationships, and descriptions of day-to-day living. The narrative became increasingly realistic as well-loved characters faced death and debilitating injuries, leaving relationships and situations unresolved, which was surely the case during the Civil War as lives were cut short or changed dramatically. I enjoyed the flow from chapter to chapter with the focus on different characters and different storylines, and at times I found myself growing anxious to get back to Mary’s situation or Ben’s adventure to learn what would come next. “Gone for a Soldier” kept me engrossed and tugged at my emotions more than a time or two — which doesn’t happen easily.