A Child's Promise by Deborah Bedford
(Harper, $4.99, PG), ISBN 0-06-108323-2
*****
I was skeptical when I saw that this novel, originally published in 1995, was being reissued as a "Harper Classic." How could a two-year old novel be a classic? I snorted in derision. Well, for once the marketing department did their job. A Child's Promise is a great novel, a good old-fashioned tear-jerker of a love story.

Johnny Owen is an ex-marine who is disillusioned with the violence and ugliness he lived through during his tour of duty in the Gulf War and in Somalia. While he was overseas, he began a correspondence with a day-care teacher named Lisa Jo Jensen. Little by little, their letters became more intense and personal. Johnny saw Lisa Jo as everything good and pure that he had left behind in the States. So when he returned home to rural Wyoming, he decided that if Lisa Jo would marry him, he would have everything he needed to start a new life. The novel opens as he drops this bombshell on his close-knit family.

Lisa Jo, at first, is ready to refuse Johnny's offer of marriage. She has been less than honest with Johnny about her life, and doesn't want to tarnish the image he has of her. But she changes her mind, hoping to escape a desperate situation, and takes the bus from her home in Texas to meet Johnny in Wyoming.

When Johnny meets her, he is shocked to find out that she has an eighteen month-old daughter, Grace. He is furious with her and is convinced she used him while having an affair with another man. Lisa Jo will not say anything about Grace's father but admits that she did manipulate Johnny. She promises to be on her way as soon as she can, but Johnny has other ideas. He doesn't want to look like a fool in front of his family and the whole small town of Star Valley, so he insists that Lisa Jo follow through on her promise to marry him - at least for a little while, until the talk dies down. Lisa Jo is just planning to stay for a month, but then Johnny breaks his leg and needs someone to help him keep his fledgling dairy farm from failing, so Lisa Jo agrees to postpone her departure for a little longer.

Plotwise, Deborah Bedford isn't treading any revolutionary ground here, but her writing and characterization are so wonderful that I forgot I was reading another take-off on the "mail-order bride" story. This poignant love story is heart-wrenching without being sloppy or overly emotional. Bedford's writing is like a Wyoming winter - crisp and clear.

Both Johnny and Lisa Jo are amazingly realistic characters. Lisa Jo is afraid that if she tells Johnny the circumstances surrounding Grace's birth, he will be confronted with the ugliness he thought he had left behind in the Marines. By not telling him the truth, she seeks to protect him. Johnny needs to get beyond his pride to realize that even if Lisa Jo doesn't live up to the image he created from her letters, the real person with flaws and a past is still worthy of his love and respect. Little by little they build a relationship together that is much stronger than the fantasy one they had as correspondents.

The love story is set in the context of Johnny's earnest, somewhat humorous attempts to start a dairy farm. The recalcitrant Holsteins provide some welcome comic relief to the intensity of the romance.

His family, including his preacher father, are warm-hearted people who try to understand Johnny's impulsive action and accept Lisa into their fold. These are all decent people trying to make the best of a difficult situation. I wanted so badly for Lisa Jo and Johnny to find happiness and peace together, and the ending was just perfect -- happy of course, but not excessively sentimental. I've never heard of Deborah Bedford, but I noticed she has written several other contemporaries for Harper. It looks like she could be a candidate for a prominent spot on my bookshelf.

--Susan Scribner


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