TBR Day. Conor's Way / Laura Lee Guhrke. 1996
Back in the early 2000's, when I began lurking at the old AAR boards, I heard talk of this book. And according to Amazon, I apparently broke down and purchased a copy for myself via Marketplace in 2004 for a "mere" $4.75. Today a used print copy goes for about $25. I don't know why I waited so long to read it. I'd keep seeing references to how good it is, especially from KristieJ who has been nagging our TBR hostess to read it forever. I think I was saving it for a day when I knew I needed to read a really good book. But when I saw that this month's theme was "Recommended Read" it was clear that this was the book I had to read.
I was really, really stupid to wait 8 years to read this.
Frankly, I should just end this review with that statement. I am writing this Tuesday evening. Earlier today I saw on Twitter that at least 2 other TBR participants are reviewing this for today as well. And they'll probably do a better job at it than me. But this book deserves lots of love.
This American historical takes place in 1871 in Louisiana. Clearly, the Reconstruction South is not at all a romantic setting, but Guhrke uses the history of that time and place with a light and deft hand to bring two characters to life in a wonderfully nuanced way. Olivia Maitland is a 29-year old woman, the only surviving member of her family. Her brothers had been killed at Gettysburg and her parents are now dead. She owns the remains of a plantation; the freed slaves are long gone, her hired hand has passed away, and she has 3 young girls she's raising--the orphaned daughters of her childhood friend. Olivia needs a man to help her out.
Conor Branigan is also the only surviving member of his family. Evicted from their home in Ireland when Conor was 11, Conor's sisters died from starvation and Conor himself eventually joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood. After he's arrested for smuggling guns, he's imprisoned, tortured, and eventually let out. He winds up in America and travels a circuit as a prize-fighter. The book opens with Conor at a fight in Louisiana where he refuses to throw the fight in favor of his opponent. This earns him a severe beating and he's left on the road for dead. It's here that Olivia finds him and she takes him home and nurses him back to health.
When Olivia was looking for a man to hire to help around her farm, Conor was not what she had in mind. A former prisoner with a history of violence, Conor is not the sort of person Olivia wants anywhere near herself or her girls. As Conor recovers, he begins to help out around the farm and agrees to stay through Olivia's peach harvest. The bulk of the book is the growing relationship between Olivia and Conor. Olivia and her girls represent everything that Conor ever hoped to have, yet now does not feel that he deserves. He insists that he is not there to stay. And Olivia is too pragmatic after all she's been through to expect that she can change his mind.
There's also a subplot here involving one Vernon Tyler, a wealthy man who was once the overseer on Olivia's plantation and a suitor for her hand. Olivia's father wouldn't allow Vernon to court his daughter and now, after the war, thanks to Vernon's wealthy Yankee father-in-law, Vernon wants to build a railroad through that part of the country. All that stands in his way is Olivia's land and she won't sell. Olivia naively thinks her "no" is enough, but Conor knows all too well that Vernon will do whatever it takes to get that land. Conor is torn between his need to protect Olivia and his need to be on the move again.
The romance here is beautifully done; it grows throughout the course of the book. There are some flashbacks to Conor's past in Ireland, but they are brief and to the point. They barely distract from the main narrative, instead giving us insight into who Conor has become--a bitter, angry man. He views the South's destruction during the war as justice since he can relate to the inhumane treatment former slaves once received. Olivia could have been an equally bitter woman. She may still have her home, but it's falling apart around her and she is on the verge of losing everything. But she goes through each day with purpose and dignity. She strikes a balance between missing the luxuries of her former way of life and and recognizing it was wrong. She loves her daughters as if she'd given birth to them and soon loves Conor as well. It's up to him to accept that love and choose to reciprocate.
The book is well-crafted. Guhrke lightly weaves in the history without hitting us over the head with it. As I said, the flashbacks are brief and to the point. I got a strong sense of place and the characters--all was believable. I loved the emotional quality to the book; this is actually something that I've always admired about Guhrke's writing. She manages to reveal her characters to us little by little and the journey made it very hard to put the book down. All I wanted to do was read it.
Let me repeat: I was really, really stupid to wait 8 years to read this.
So Kristie, if you're reading this, you are absolutely right about this one. I hope this redeems me to some small degree as I was one of the few who just never felt the love for Broken Wing.
Finally, if you want to read the book but don't have an e-reader, leave a comment. I'm buying myself an e-copy for my Kindle and I'll hold a drawing--the winner gets my used paper copy. It's well-worn, but all the pages are here. I'll draw a name on Sunday night. I'm willing to mail world-wide. Just promise me you won't wait 8 years to read it.