PUBLICATION DATE: OCTOBER 01, 2012
arsie Raines knows that her best friend, Mary Brubacher, is never going to recover from her illness if she continues to live in New York City. After a lot of encouragement, Mary and her husband agree to uproot their family and relocate to Drayton Valley, Kansas, where they hope the quality of life will be better. Mary begs Tarsie to travel with them, much to Joss’s annoyance. He can’t understand why Mary needs to bring her friend with them on the journey. But Mary knows that her illness is far worse than Tarsie and Joss realise, and that it’s unlikely that she’ll live to see Drayton Valley. Before they arrive in their new home, Mary makes Tarsie promise to care for her husband and children, should she die.
Burying her best friend along the trail was hard enough, but taking on the responsibility of a husband and children with barely a day’s notice only adds to Tarsie’s struggles. As much as she loves Mary’s children, she can’t imagine ever coming to care for the harsh, unfriendly Joss. But she decides to make an effort to Mary’s sake, and that of the children. As they settle in Drayton Valley and hunt for work and a home, Tarsie continues to struggle with her new role as Joss’s wife. Will their marriage ever become anything more than one of convenience? Or even worse: will their marriage even survive?
Although I’ve truly enjoyed some of Kim Vogel Sawyer’s older novels (Waiting for Summer’s Return and A Hopeful Heart), I’m finding that I don’t enjoy her newer works quite as much. I went into A Home in Drayton Valley hoping that it would hark back to Kim’s earlier novels, especially as marriage of convenience plots are among my favourite romantic storylines. While I initially felt that A Home in Drayton Valley was stepping out from the conventionality of some of Kim’s more recent novels, particularly in introducing the reader to the hero’s first wife rather than starting the story after he became a widower, I became frustrated with some details as the story moved along. Ultimately, I’d have to say that I was impressed with some of the aspects that the storyline explored, but the book still had its fair share of flaws.
What most surprised me about the start of A Home in Drayton Valley was that the relationship between Tarsie and Mary (Joss’s wife) is explored before the novel touches on the connection between Tarsie and Joss. Although it’s obvious that Mary is very sick and close to dying, Kim still managed to make me care about Mary and what would happen to her family once she was no longer living. But did this stop me from caring about Tarsie and wanting her relationship with Joss to develop after Mary’s death? Not at all. In fact, I think introducing Mary at the start of the story, rather than skipping ahead to the time after her death means that the reader wants Joss and Tarsie to fall in love and to raise Mary’s children because they know that this was what Mary wanted. Introducing Mary and keeping her present for almost a quarter of the novel was a brave move on Kim’s part, but I think she executed it well.
Although I’m a big fan of historical romance novels, particularly prairie romances, I’ve actually not read many books which feature wagon trains. I appreciated the depth of detail offered about life on a wagon train and the difficulties of relocating from a city to a distant prairie town. Even if I don’t always love every aspect of the plot or characterisation in Kim’s novels, I know that I can rely on her to provide realistic descriptions of life in a certain location and time period. I loved the details about Tarsie setting up her new home and Joss’s work at the vineyard. And although the novel also featured some details about race relations in this period, they never felt at all preachy, and never overshadowed the main storyline.
Joss is initially reticent about even conversing with a black man, and again, I think this was a brave move on the author’s part. It’s hard to sympathise with a racist character, even if you know that his attitudes weren’t unusual given the time period and his upbringing. Surprisingly, Joss’s initial attitude towards Ruth and Simon, a black couple who he and Tarsie eventually become friends with, didn’t make me dislike him, and it made his character seem all the more realistic.
There were times when Simon and Ruth felt a bit too perfect and thus seemed a little caricatured. Although it was encouraging to read about an older couple helping Joss and Tarsie through their marital difficulties, and with Joss’s parenting, they didn’t seem to have any flaws or problems of their own. By the end of the book, I found myself wishing that Ruth and Simon had a few faults in order to make them seem more believable.
One of my other frustrations with the story was the issue that kept Tarsie and Joss apart towards the end of the novel. I won’t go into too many details, but I’ll just say that I’m not a big fan of conflicts that can be resolved in a simple conversation, and I wish the conflict at the end of A Home in Drayton Valley had centred around something more solid than a misunderstanding and false assumptions. By the end of the book, the situation felt like it had been dragging on for quite a while and I felt like shouting at the characters, “Just talk to each other and get together already!”
Ultimately, my main problem with A Home in Drayton Valley is not the final conflict or the characterisation of the secondary characters, but the way that Joss’s problems with alcohol are dealt with. While there are some books that deal with the topic of alcoholism in a sensitive manner, the way alcohol in general is discussed in this book left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Not only because I’m a Christian who does drink alcohol and found the anti-alcohol message in the novel quite offensive and entirely misinformed, but because I felt that the solution to Joss’s problem wasn’t really a solution at all.
This part of the story basically goes as follows: Joss is an alcoholic yet works in a vineyard, and Tarsie is worried that this will pose more of a temptation for him. Simon knows that if he votes for prohibition, he and all the other men at the vineyard will lose their jobs. Then there’s an incident in which Joss gets drunk again, and Tarsie and Simon agree that they must vote for the prohibition of alcohol so that Joss can no longer buy alcohol to get drunk on. I’m sorry, but banning alcohol doesn’t solve the problem, it just takes away the object of temptation. What happens if Joss moves to a state where alcohol isn’t outlawed, or if alcohol is allowed back into the state of Kansas? Will he be able to control his urges, or just slip back into his old patterns? All they’re doing in banning alcohol is taking away the substance that people are abusing, rather than teaching them not to abuse it. This whole situation could have been dealt with a lot better, but instead, it just ends up giving the message that drinking alcohol leads to drunkenness and that it’s the alcohol that’s the source of the problem, not the people who abuse it.
Although A Home in Drayton Valley did have some original aspects that I enjoyed, I wished some parts of the story had been approached differently. I do think Kim Vogel Sawyer stepped away from some of her more conventional plots in this book, which made for an interesting change. But while A Home in Drayton Valley was mostly an enjoyable, easy ready, there were some flaws that I couldn’t ignore and a couple of them spoiled my reading experience a little.