Life is brutal for the young women who work the mills in mid nineteenth century Boston. The owners treat them like slaves, the conditions are killing them and the poverty is weighing them down. Rika tries to care for her friend Jo, but the harsh hours and poor living standards are clearly taking their toll. Jo has the dreadful cough that signifies brown lung, but she only has a week to go before she will be off West to marry a man who is a stranger.
Fate has other plans and when Jo succumbs, Rika, who uses her savings to pay for her friend’s funeral, and who has lost her job and her home, has very little choice but to use Jo’s ticket west and take her place as a mail order bride.
Luke Hamilton and his wife Nora have built a successful horse ranch and raised two independent and strong daughters, Amy and Nattie. As Luke sets out to deliver horses to Fort Boise he leaves Amy in charge to test her management of the ranch and her desire to take the reigns. Amy’s first task is to collect ranch foreman Phin’s bride to be.
As Rika takes Jo’s name and place in the Hamilton extended family she will spark a series of revelations which show that every one of them has a secret. From fear of exposure or rejection Luke and Nora, Amy and Nattie and even Phin have hidden something that could change their lives and how the people they love feel about them.
Will the family survive the disclosures or will the dramatic realignment of who they are tear them apart?
You know you are reading a good book when you can’t put it down, but don’t want to rush, and cannot bare the thought of finishing. This is a decent sized novel at 525 pages and half way through at 1am I had to force myself to stop and not read through the night.
This is the second installment in the lives of Luke and Nora and while I wouldn’t put anybody off reading it if they haven’t yet read ‘Backwards to Oregon’ I think it is fair to say that the two novels build a life and a history which is better read together. Certainly the whole history of the Hamilton marriage and of Tess’s part in it is better understood after reading the first novel of the series.
Jae is a master at creating a scene and an atmosphere. The early chapters construct for us the harsh reality of life for the poor in 1860’s Boston. Violence, hunger, fear and desperation surround the young women whose lives are threatened by husbands, fathers, employers and the very mills they work in. No spark of light seems to penetrate their desperate struggles to survive. From this Jo has agreed to escape into the unknown world of a ranch in Oregon and the unknown arms of an arranged marriage.
When Rika takes her place we are transported to another world, equally hard work, but filled with sunshine and hope, friendship and love. The ranch has been built from nothing by Luke and Nora, and they break the normal mold by having a real partnership, obvious love, and a life founded on respect that extends to their ranch hands and their stock.
Jae has created a wonderful tableau of a family that on the surface seems to be solid and open, trustworthy and reliable. But underneath the surface swirls secrets large and small, spanning their personal histories, their relationships, who they are and most of all, who they love.
As a reader we can see each persons secrets building in intensity long before they erupt, often long before the character is even fully aware of themselves. We can anticipate the effects and feel the tension build. As Nora says “With every day, with every lie, the fear becomes stronger”. And this is, more than anything else, a story about how secrets and lies can start out as the best of intensions but build to become potentially destructive to all we hold most dear.
Jae’s books feel immaculately researched and authentic. The world she creates has an integrity that draws you in. Her characters are real, their actions and dialogue feel genuine. Their desire to live an honest life in an era where that was not possible, their soul searching, their compromises and their love, resonates with us now despite the vast changes to our world in the years between.
These are women I respect and would like to meet. In that age old game. ‘if you could go back in time..’ I would be more than happy to be transported back to the Hamilton Horse Ranch to live and work alongside these powerful yet loving women.
(Publishers review copy received)
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To buy the Paperback edition – click here.