April 11, 2013

2012 Whitney Award Nominees for Historical Fiction

Susan's ranking:
  1. My Loving Vigil Keeping
  2. Espionage
  3. Within the Dark Hills
  4. Tie: The Five Books of Jesus and Spinster's Folly
It's interesting that two of these books are set in mining communities in the 19th century. I certainly learned more about the occupation of my Welsh ancestors than I had before. Below are short summaries of the basic plots with my comments and personal thoughts. I know that different peoples' tastes and perspectives can result in widely varying opinions about the same book. With that disclaimer, I present my take on the 2013 Whitney nominees for historical fiction.

My Loving Vigil Keeping, by Carla Kelly: Della accepts a job as a teacher in a remote Utah mining town to escape the relatives who had taken her in after her father dies in a mining accident in Colorado. In Winter Quarters she gets drawn into the lives and community of the mostly Welsh and Finnish miners and their children and finds unexpected romance. Then disaster strikes the mine with unimaginable loss. This story is based on true events surrounding the Scofield mine disaster of 1900.
Susan's comments: I felt totally drawn into the story. The author did a good job of revealing layers of complexity of the characters as the story progressed. Even though I read the book dreading the ending as I knew that a mine disaster was coming, I couldn't help becoming invested in the romance and mining community depicted as well as the uplifting portrayal of dealing with some very significant challenges and tragedies through faith. This was the third of four books I've read by Carla Kelly, and she is becoming one of my favorite authors.

Espionage, by A. L. Sowards: Peter Eddy is an LDS soldier from Idaho who is sent into World War II France to identify a double-agent and spread disinformation about the timing and location of the Allied invasion. With the help of Jacques Olivier, his contact, and Jacque's sister Genevieve, he is investigating the suspects when betrayal results in capture. Loyalty and courage lead to escape and a thrilling and tense pursuit.
Susan's comments: Espionage had a strong story while exploring issues of trust, betrayal, loyalty and honor not to mention some romance. The violence of war was portrayed but not described in graphic detail. The suspense and action kept moving along, and the characters developed depth as we learn more about their history and motivations.

Within the Dark Hills, by Sian Ann Bessey: Set in a Welsh mining village during the mid-1800's, this story follows Annie, who is trying to escape the advances of her titled employer, and Evan, who is still mourning the loss of his beloved wife and who desperately needs someone to help take care of his little daughter Jane while he works in the mines. A kindly reverend arranges a marriage of convenience. They both work together to overcome the gossip and take care of Jane, Over time their feelings grow and ghosts from the past are confronted. Preaching by Mormon missionaries and a mine disaster change the course of their lives.
Susan's comments: I enjoyed this story more than I expected because I had been put off by the misleading cover. After my time in the book business, I certainly have come to appreciate how many people, including myself, judge a book by its cover. As I read was drawn to the characters and their struggles and triumphs. I liked the kindness portrayed by the Christ-like reverend who rescues Annie and counsels Evan. The Mormon missionaries that show up near the end seemed to be an afterthought which was rather skimmed over other than as a means of resolving some of the conflicts in the plot. The resolution in general seemed a little rushed, but overall this was an enjoyable book.

The Five Books of Jesus, by James Goldberg: The author combined the New Testament gospel accounts of Jesus's ministry into a novel form to try to tell the message of His life in a more accessible way to modern-day readers. More details and background are given to the disciples and well-known events to create a different perspective on the flow and context of this sacred story.
Susan's comments: There are some very interesting aspects to this version of the gospel story, including possible illuminating contexts to the Mary-Martha story and the betrayal by Judas as well as depictions of the apostles in the context of their lives. Unfortunately, I had a hard time with several other depictions which were so different from my beliefs that it distracted my efforts to stay involved in the story. I sympathize with the aims of the author to make the story of Christ more accessible to the casual reader, but I personally did not care for many of the liberties taken.

Spinster’s Folly, by Marsha Ward: This is the fourth book in a series about the Owen family after the Civil War. Marie Owen is approaching spinsterhood, and the limited choice of eligible men available in Colorado Territory are complicated by her father's prejudices. When her father attempts to make a match with a neighbor's son who turns out to be abusive, she is vulnerable to the attention of a deceitful, smooth-talking predator and soon finds herself in deep trouble. Fortunately for Marie, a ranch hand who has loved her from afar refuses to give up on her.
Susan's comments: The portrayal of the characters in Spinster's Folly seemed to be superficial, although perhaps reading the previous books in the series would have helped me to understand the back story better. The plot seemed a little stale and quite obvious. There was plenty of action, emotion, conflict and tension, but the depiction of all this seemed somewhat simplistic compared to the other books nominated with repetition appearing to substitute for complexity.

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