Picture Romeo and Juliet living on the border of Kansas and Missouri during 1863 and you have the basic setup for By Any Other Name. Before and during the Civil War, the abolitionists in Kansas were the bitter enemies of the pro-slavery forces in Missouri. The fighting between the Kansas "Jayhawkers" and the Missouri "Bushwhackers" was fierce and merciless. Using this historical backdrop, Ms. Handeland creates a richly textured, engrossing tale of love and hate.
Ryan Murphy and Julia Colton know that they are supposed to hate one another; the Kansas Murphys are the sworn enemies of the Missouri Coltons – with reason. Obsessed with avenging the death of his mother by Rebel soldiers, Ryan, at the tender age of sixteen, joins the notorious Jayhawkers. The Jayhawkers attack the Colton farm and Julia's mother is injured, leaving her an invalid.
Torn between his guilt over what happened to Julia's mother and his obsession with vengeance against all Confederate sympathizers, Ryan leaves the Jayhawkers and joins the Kansas Border Patrol. Five years later, he returns home to help his father and younger brother with the farm. When Ryan happens across a group of Jayhawkers bent on raping a Bushwhacker woman, he doesn't hesitate to come to her rescue.
Julia Colton is stunned by the fact that her rescuer is a Murphy. She has been taught her whole life that any Murphy is the Devil incarnate. Still, Julia cannot deny that Ryan Murphy risked his life for her and she is drawn to him despite her fears that he may have been involved in the Jayhawker raid on her home five years ago. Ryan, too, is unwillingly attracted to Julia. They start meeting secretly even though they both know that there can be no future between a man whose last name is Murphy and a woman whose last name is Colton.
I certainly admire Ms. Handeland for not shirking the tough issues involved in writing a story about this time and place. The following are a few of the topics she covers in By Any Other Name: What is love? What is loyalty? What is right? What is wrong? Can the consequences of vengeance ever be justified? Why don't we grasp the true horror of war – how it turns men into vicious killers and turns lives upside down?
In addition, Ms. Handeland does a fine job of delivering her message concerning these difficult issues through the thoughts and actions of her characters. Ryan Murphy is a very complex hero. He's not a mindless killer. Although he believes that fighting and avenging his mother's death is the right thing to do, Ryan constantly questions himself concerning his actions. Julia, on the other hand, despises the fighting and what it has done to her family. Her younger brothers have turned into remorseless killers since joining the Missouri guerillas.
It's also admirable that the author handles the history of the time with a fairly even hand. It would be very easy, and historically inaccurate, to portray the abolitionist Jayhawkers as good and the pro-slavery Bushwhackers as evil. Both sides were equally notorious for their violent ways.
It may seem redundant, in a book that is set during the Civil War, to mention that there is a fair amount of violence in this story – then again, I have read numerous romance novels set during a war where no blood was ever spilled. Readers should know that while the brutality of this time is by no means the focus of this tale, it is a significant part of the story. I think it is to the author's credit that she did not attempt to sanitize history. Also, I believe she effectively uses the violence in this story to convey her message concerning the pointless destruction of war.
Actually, my only problem with this story is that the minor subplot concerning Ryan's sister and his best friend, a priest, is never resolved. I assumed that the author's next book would be about these characters, but the Author's Note indicates that this is not the case. Authors shouldn't lead romance readers to the trough and then take away the water. In other words, I want to know what happens to Kathleen and Connor!
By Any Other Name is a book you can sink your teeth into. It's rich in history; the author includes a fair number of real persons and real events that occurred during 1863. The emotional intensity of the time is equal to the emotional intensity of the relationship between Ryan and Julia. Ms. Handeland borrows heavily from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, and I don't think the Bard would be displeased with this variation on his theme. I also think readers will appreciate how Ms. Handeland turns tragedy into triumph.