Growing up I read a lot of historical novels. Many were set in the U.S., most in rural areas like the Appalachian, Ozark, or Smoky Mountain regions, the backwoods of Kentucky or the bayous of Louisiana. They primarily took place between the Civil War and World War II. They featured young, plucky heroines who wanted more from life than what was available to them at home. Some, like Ballad of Calamity Creek and Christy , focused on young women who came to the mountains to offer people education and discovered wisdom and love in the rural areas where they worked. Others, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Heidi , involved young women leaving rural communities to better their opportunities. And still others, like the Little House on the Prairie saga simply showed what life on a farm or homestead was like. Invariably these heroines were cheerful, hardworking young women who embraced the honest values and down-to-earth life style of country living.
These are farmer’s daughters, not necessarily pioneer women of the west, but girls who hunt, fish and gather around the woodland areas near their homes. The only cows they see are for milking, their horses (when they have them) are sturdy mountain ponies. They are often mocked as “country cousins” when forced to leave their familiar areas. They aren’t sophisticated women of the world and don’t pretend to be. To them, value is being able to put food on the table and survive under tough circumstances. They may envy other girls pretty clothes and fine things but in the end they place more worth in their strong arms and practical minds.
While she seemed to disappear from the literary world for many years, a variation on this practical heroine has had resurgence in the YA novels of recent years. Not so cheerful but every bit as strong, these girls are once more the embodiment of the value of self-sufficient, rural living. Foremost among them is young Katniss Everdeen. She utilizes the skills that helped her survive life in the harsh environs of District 12, which appears to be located in the Appalachians, to face the great challenges she meets in the arena of the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games books are an absolute delight on their own but one of the special joys for me was the similarity between Katniss and my adolescent heroines.
But where are these gals in my romance reading? Mostly non-existent is the answer. Pamela Morsi wrote about them in her early works such as Marrying Stone and The Love Charm but that was many years ago. While her books still may take place in small towns, the modern setting and current technology separates these books from the gritty, pioneer-style landscape that novels such as Simple Jess highlighted. Even the novels of Dorothy Garlock, one of the few romance writers still tackling Americana stories, take place primarily in small but more civilized towns. The living may be tough but it lacks the distinctive hardscrabble feel that the farm girls faced.
Inspirational romance, ever eager to tackle “lost” historical periods and places, has more than a few novels which meet the criteria of the time and location I am thinking of. Lately, authors have seemed to specialize in the rural areas of Kentucky. Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin has young Alice head to the hills bringing books to needy children. Loving Liza Jane by Sharlen MacLaren is also about a young woman, this time a teacher, moving to rural Kentucky, where the children are much in need of education, and finding love. Sarah My Beloved, another MacLaren novel, tells about a mail order bride from the city marrying a farmer in Kentucky and discovering whether she can survive life on a farm. And Troublesome Creek by Jan Watson is a gritty historical where young Laura Grace must choose between the life she has always known and the possibility of education (and change).
Occasionally we get the opportunity to meet a European country cousin. Mary Balogh’s novel Slightly Married had Eve, a country girl with a small estate who married Aidan, a soldier who loved working the land. In Mary Jo Putney’s charming story The Christmas Cuckoo, Meg, the owner of a working farm brings home Jack Howard, assuming he is the friend her brother wished her to meet at the inn. Jack Howard, Lord Winstoke, knows he is not the Jack Howard meant to be the family’s Christmas guest but with nowhere else available he jumps at the opportunity to stay with this charming family. Of course love follows! And of course there is our beloved Elizabeth Bennett. She might never have milked a cow but she was a girl from a small village in the country. While the country cousins of the English country side tend to be far more sophisticated than their American counterparts, they still share that wholesome, simple charm which makes them so easy to root for.
But books such as these are few and far between. What little variety from the Regency lords and ladies we receive appears to be reserved for either the nobility of other periods of European history or the occasional American Western involving ranchers. Farmers and their daughters and small town Americana seem to have all but disappeared from the romance reading landscape, seeming to be missed by only old timers like me. How about you – do you miss these types of heroines? How often do you see her in romance novels? Any good “country cousin” romances you would like to recommend?
– Maggie Boyd