2008, Frontier/Western Hist Romance (1870s Montana)
Steeple Hill, $5.50, 320 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373827997 Part of a series
I love adventure, and I supplement my historicals with plenty of romantic suspense and urban fantasy. However, there's something about Christmas that makes me crave an old-fashioned emotional romance. I don't need spies, secret alliances, or things that go bump in the night; a dashing hero, a strong heroine, and a story filled with sweet romantic moments fit my mood so much better. Calico Christmas in Dry Creek, a tale of people finding home, family, and the lasting things that really matter in their lives, fits the bill quite well.
Elizabeth O'Brian has spent days camping out in a tent outside of an army fort in the wilderness waiting for death to claim her. She lost her husband and baby daughter to influenza and believes that she will soon succumb to the deadly disease herself. It is with some surprise that she receives guests at her tent one day. Apparently, the army doctor has declared her to be free of disease and so the soldiers come courting. Finding herself presented with marriage prospects so soon after losing her family shocks Elizabeth deeply, but she soon learns that on the rough frontier, widows do not stay widows for very long.
Among the men to visit Elizabeth is Jake Hargrove, a man who recently became the sole guardian of his two half-Sioux nieces. The younger of the two is an infant so young that she has not even been given a name. Jake does not wish to marry, but he desperately needs someone to nurse the infant and he believes that any woman coming to live in his remote cabin will face censure unless she marries him. Elizabeth first resists his offer of a marriage of convenience, but the plight of the children touches her heart and this, combined with her own desperate situation, causes her to agree to the plan.
Much of the book deals with Elizabeth and Jake's adjustment to their marriage, as well as their growing feelings for one another. Though the book is not explicit by any means, the subtle touches used by the author to convey the character's growing feelings for one another are very effective, and it is easy to believe in the growing romantic tension between them. The author also does a good job of addressing Elizabeth's feelings in particular. While she acknowledges that she is starting to have feelings for Jake, she also still grieves for her late husband and this causes her some very believable conflict. As for Jake, he comes across as a genuinely decent man. His patience for all that Elizabeth has suffered feels genuine and his growing respect and love for her make for some very touching moments in the story. When writing a story like this one, it is difficult to strike a good balance between genuine emotion and cheesy Christmas cliches. Here, the author manages quite well, though.
While not entirely action-packed, the story brims with emotion from many sources. The development of Elizabeth and Jake's relationship is very tender and so too is Elizabeth's growing attachment to Jake's nieces. As half-Sioux children, the girls do not face easy acceptance in town and Elizabeth must learn how to help them learn to deal with these problems. As I prepared to write this review, I realized just how much this author managed to pack into a relatively small book - dealing with grief, learning to deal with enemies, acceptance of others and so on. Though the story is primarily a quiet one, a lot happens internally with these characters and the emotional payoff at the end is rather effective.
At times, expecially in the first half of the book, the plot takes a few twists that are a little too pat in resolving themselves, and I also wish readers got to learn more about Elizabeth's past beyond the few hints given. Still, these are relatively minor quibbles and I enjoyed the book overall. If you're looking for a sweet, sentimental Christmas romance, Calico Christmas in Dry Creek is certainly one to check out. Though Janet Tronstad has written several contemporary romances, this is her first historical and I hope she writes more in the future.
-- Lynn Spencer
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