Desert Isle Keeper Review

A Century of American Romance
(This DIK review was written by a reader)

Margaret St. George, Dallas Schulze, Suzanne Guntrum, Rebecca Flanders, Anne Stuart, Barbara Bretton, Libby Hall, Tracy Hughes, Eileen Nauman and Judith Arnold
2004 reissue of 1991 release, Historical Romance
Harlequin, $4.50, 256 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373512929

Grade: A
Sensuality: Warm

These twelve books were reviewed as one. Eight of the books were reissued in early 2004. The ISBN and Amazon link are for Stranger in Paradise, the final reissue. Amazon links for each of the reissues can be found at the bottom of this review. Our database does not allow us to input more than ten authors in an anthology given that most romance anthologies usually feature fewer than six authors. And while this is not actually an anthology but twelve individual books, the DIK was written by this reader as one.

Whenever I hear someone lament the lack of historicals set in the twentieth century, I point them toward the Century of American Romance series published as part of Harlequin’s American Romance line in 1990 and 1991. This series of twelve books, each set in a different decade, takes the reader on an unforgettable tour of the United States in the twentieth century. It’s so rare to find a series this long without a weak link somewhere, but this one manages to do it admirably.

Turn of the Century (1890s New York)
The series begins with American Pie by Margaret St. George, a.k.a. Maggie Osborne. Lucie Kolska, a Polish immigrant in 1898 New York falls in love with Irish native Jamie Kelly. Together, they must work hard to succeed in this new land, and also must overcome their old ideas of the ways things were in their homelands to forge new identities as Americans. We see them deal with a life of poverty in the tenements, but also watch them triumph in unexpected ways that could only happen in America.

Turn of the Century (Early 1900s San Francisco and Wyoming)
Dallas Schulze takes us from the plains of Wyoming to the San Francisco’s Nob Hill on the brink of the 1906 earthquake in Saturday’s Child. A terrifying act drives Katie McBride from San Francisco to become Quentin Sterling’s wife. Isolated with him on their Wyoming ranch, Katie contends with the harshness of life there and the remoteness of a husband who was looking more for a helpmate than a wife. Ten years after the book was published, this may sound like a tried and true plotline but the rich characters and the way Schulze brings the world of San Francisco’s wealthy and elite to life make this a cut above the norm. The earthquake is especially vivid and dramatic.

American Historical Romance (World War I)
The Golden Raintree by Suzanne Simmons Guntrum tells of a young woman’s struggles during World War I. Christine Brick and her family are Quakers in Indiana. When the man she loves enters the war, Christine follows him into war torn France where she fights to hold on to her beliefs and her life.

American Historical Romance (1920s)
Flappers and bootleggers come to life in The Sensation by Rebecca Flanders. The heroine has come to the city to make a name for herself. She doesn’t expect to meet the man of her dreams in the form of a dashing playboy. Flanders’s story is the most purely fun of the series, appropriately enough for the decade. I know some readers who steer clear of books set in times when disaster is ahead. It would be a mistake to miss out on this one for that reason. The book is great fun, and there were enough serious moments to convince me that this couple is capable of weathering the rough times ahead.

American Historical Romance (1930s Chicago)
Anne Stuart offers a unique glimpse of a little-seen time period in her Depression-era tale. Instead of migrant workers or many of the usual images we have of people in the Depression, Angel's Wings concerns aviators in 1937 Chicago. Angela Hogan hires famous pilot Jack Clancy to attract business to her failing air freight company. Of course Jack turns out to be more than Angela can handle. Jack and Angela are another of Stuart’s hallmark bad boy heroes and feisty heroines. The subplot involving Angela’s sister is especially moving, a reminder of a time when families struggling to survive would separate with no guarantee they would ever see each other again.

American Historical Romance (1940s/50s)
The 1940s and 50s are portrayed in two books by Barbara Bretton. In Sentimental Journey, Catherine Wilson is faced with the responsibility of running her father’s factory when he and her fiancé go off to war. After her fiancé is killed, the letters of another GI, Johnny Danza, brings her comfort. They are reunited when he comes home. But after the war is over, they both have difficulty adjusting to post-war life. They both must come to terms with the shifting roles of men and women in the post-war period. The companion book, Stranger in Paradise, takes us into the world of suburbia and communist paranoia in 1950s Long Island. Mac, the brother of the dead fiancé from Sentimental Journey, falls for a young Englishwoman while covering the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. They marry soon afterward, but their suburban utopia is put to the test in the age of McCarthyism. Both books have interesting structures. Sentimental Journey has a long middle section consisting of letters that Catherine and Johnny write to each other. We can see them falling in love even though apart. Stranger in Paradise has a prologue, an epilogue and an interlude in the middle of the book featuring the couple’s grown daughter in the present day. It’s a neat way of bookending the story and offering a glimpse of the character's futures.

American Historical Romance (1960s)
Reflecting the large effect the sixties had on a generation and the nation, there are two books that cover that particular decade. Libby Hall’s Hearts at Risk takes on the counterculture movement and the race to put a man on the moon in 1969. Jennifer Wright is an undercover journalist. Lij Branigan is a military test pilot. They stand for completely different things, but find they have more in common than it appears on the surface.

Till The End of Time by Elise Title is a war epic. The heroine, Annie Magill, has always loved her brother’s best friend, David Nichols. She signs up as an army medic and finds herself stationed on the same army base as David. Together they face the horrors of Vietnam and struggle to come to terms with everything they’ve experienced before they can face the future.

American Historical Romance (1970s)
If I had to choose a favorite out of the series, right now I think I might settle on the title representing the 1970s, Honorbound by Tracy Hughes (a.k.a Terri Herrington). Hughes bypasses the days of disco for the darker days of 1973. The hero, Johnny Malone, is a Vietnam vet who returns to an America where most people would rather forget everything he spent the last few years of his life doing. War protesters greet him with disgust. Bitter and alone, he falls for idealistic schoolteacher Carrie Hunter, an activist herself. Their fragile love is put to the test when Carrie’s brother, who fled to Canada to escape the war, sneaks back into the country to visit their dying mother. Carrie needs Johnny’s help to get him safely back to Canada. Johnny must decide whether to help a man who avoided the experiences he himself had to endure. I admit that stories about veterans have a way of getting to me, but the lack of support Johnny receives and the moral dilemma the characters face made this an emotional and wrenching read.

American Historical Romance (1980s)
The 1980s is represented in My Only One by Eileen Nauman, who writes military romances for Silhouette as Lindsay McKenna. It’s not surprising that her contribution deals with the political situation between the United States and the USSR in the late 80s. The heroine is a member of a conservationist group is following whales in the Pacific when she encounters a Russian naval officer. In the era of glasnost, it is somewhat easier for them to be together but there are still many ideological differences for them to overcome.

American Historical Romance (1990s)
The only book that doesn’t hold up as well today is Judith Arnold’s Loverboy. Arnold gives her vision of what life would be like in 1997. Most of the events she describes didn’t happen, though the computer-centered society she describes may seem familiar. Now it’s mostly entertaining to see how reality lived up to this particular view of the future. The book takes place in the new Silicon Valley that has been set up in Kansas after an earthquake dumped California into the Pacific ocean in the mid-90s. The heroine falls for a famed computer hacker who sends messages directly to her machine. What she doesn’t realize is that she knows him in real life as well. An interesting subplot deals with the sperm bank babies that began to be born in the early eighties.

Each of the books stand on its own and can be read separately. Sentimental Journey and Stranger in Paradise are the only ones that share any characters and none of the events in any of them lead into or affect any of the rest. Nearly all of the books are keepers in their own right. Together though, they become something more. Reading them as a set is like being presented with a vast tapestry of American life over the course of the century. A common complaint about historicals is that the author fails to offer a convincing sense of place and the story lacks historical accuracy. This isn’t true here. The characters are all so different and so specific to the time and place in which they live that these stories couldn’t take place anywhere else. It’s fascinating to watch history unfold through their eyes, like the way Amelia Earhart’s disappearance affects the aviators in Angel's Wings, or the moon landing in Hearts at Risk. As someone who was only alive in a couple of these decades, I learned a lot without feeling like I was being given a history lesson.

These are all short books at 250 pages average, but they each have a scope befitting their stories and historical periods. Many of them feel like bigger stories than the usual series romance, charting the trials and triumphs of these times. Each author puts her personal stamp on her own book, so fans of Maggie Osborne or Anne Stuart, for instance, will find their particular stories up to their standards.

One little touch I especially like has nothing to do with the stories themselves. Instead of the usual excerpt from the text, the first page of each book gives a quick snapshot of the year that story is set in. There are a few paragraphs on the culture and politics of the time, then a few lines at the end that perfectly sets the tone for the story that follows.

Some books strike us as keepers at the time, but fade from memory over the years. This is one series that has just gotten better with age. They were among the first romances I ever read and are a large reason why I kept reading romances. I first read these books over ten years ago, and certain scenes in each of them stick in my mind after all this time. Among them: Quentin’s desperate search for his family after the earthquake in Saturday’s Child. Alice’s bathtub scene and the trouble that follows in The Sensation. Catherine finding Johnny on her doorstep on Christmas Eve in Sentimental Journey. Or the final scene in Loverboy, which brings the series to the brink of the year 2000 with as much hope and optimism as we found a century earlier in American Pie.

Together these books show there is a wealth of subject matter in the twentieth century waiting to be tapped by the romance market. Part of me hopes it doesn’t happen for a while. I can’t imagine 20th century being tackled better than this.

Order American Pie from Amazon
Order The Golden Raintree from Amazon
Order Saturday's Child from Amazon
Order The Sensation from Amazon
Order Angels Wings from Amazon
Order Hearts at Risk from Amazon
Order Sentimental Journey from Amazon
Order Stranger in Paradise from Amazon

-- S.L. Hardwick

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