I grew up watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and reading Janette Oke books. Gentle “prairie romance” was, as now, considered a usually safe, family-friendly option. It’s not that my parents didn’t allow other things, but rather that they shielded me from things I didn’t need to be exposed to at the time. These unspoken lessons regarding entertainment have stuck with me, though I confess to not always heeding them.
My tastes have, of course, changed. I haven’t picked up a Janette Oke novel in more than a decade and I didn’t keep up with the many adaptions and spin-offs of her earlier works, such as the Love Comes Softly series of movies. I continue to enjoy historical books and shows (and always will), but I prefer plots with more grit and realism. I don’t want things to be tied up in neat, candy-colored bows all the time. I don’t want the obvious guy to always end up with the obvious girl. I don’t like that the characters are often interchangeable and the themes unchanging. But that’s the jam for some people. If I learned anything in working for a library district for 17 years, it’s that there’s a book for every reader – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So, dear reader, if gentle prairie romance is your thing, keep reading.
Amazing Grace, the first novel written by Amanda Longpre, unfolds within the context of a real event – the Panic of 1873. A lesser-known economic depression that began in Europe,
[t]he signal event on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, the country’s preeminent investment banking concern. The firm was the principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad and had handled most of the government’s wartime loans, using a widespread sales campaign backed by advertising to sell bonds to people who had never before owned securities.
Colorado City banker Henry Bennett finds himself wiped out by this failure, which has widespread repercussions. Already disliked by the town’s residents, he becomes an outright enemy when he is forced to call in their loans. The reader is allowed to see that he doesn’t revel in doing so, but his neighbors and fellow businessmen are not privy to this inner struggle. Bennett is not, on the whole, an upstanding man, but Longpre steers clear of the “irredeemably evil rich guy” trope, which I appreciated.
The figurative noose tightens and soon Bennett is brought into confrontation with Marie Larson, a widow struggling to hold onto her farm. The grief is fresh and it is a matter of pride for her to keep what she and her husband worked for. Larson reacts badly to Bennett’s announcement, which makes him angry and you can imagine where that goes. This scene stands as a comment on pride, bad communication and the ways in which both move us to defensively lash out instead of listen.
Bennett and Larson are thrown together, which sets the rest of the story in motion. The action moves from the town to Larson’s farm, where Bennett has no choice but to lay low (with a cow named Ophelia for company). There’s a sort of riff on Beauty and the Beast as the two characters slowly but surely learn to trust each other.
It was at this point in the story that I began to find it difficult to relate to Marie. (That’s one of the oddest sentences I’ve ever written. Very meta). There seems to be nothing that she can’t do, except plow (though she does try). She is not entirely without flaws, but she is clearly one of the smartest, if not the smartest, women that Bennett has ever encountered. This didn’t feel right to me. Of course it’s not wrong for this character to be smart and skilled, but homegirl needed to be really bad at something to keep her grounded in reality. Nobody does everything that well.
Bennett finds a measure of healing out on the farm, away from the pressures of the economic collapse, but he can only hide for so long. Though he had no hand in the nation-wide failure, his investment choices were all his own. He has to, as they say, face the music. And that music, played by people whose money he lost, is about as pleasant as screamo combined with reggae accompanied by nails on a chalkboard.
Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to predict the ending. Longpre stays firmly within the established Christian/historical fiction/romance formula. There was very little chance that Bennett and Larson would not end up together. To her credit, however, she threw in a few twists and turns, providing a little bit of freshness. For fans of this genre, Amazing Grace is the broadly good endeavor of a first-time novelist.