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The Magnolia Tree
by Martha Kirkland
(Jove, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-515-12361-7
*****
Readers should be aware right from the start that The Magnolia Tree is not what I would call a romance. This is not a story about the development of a relationship between a hero and heroine. In fact, the ostensible hero only appears in about 90 of the 295 pages. So no, despite the label "Historical Romance" on the book's spine, this is not a romance novel. It is, however, one hell of a book a book that I think romance readers would enjoy.

Rather than a story of a man and woman falling in love and overcoming obstacles that stand in the way of that love, this is a story of a woman living a remarkable life. It's a story of a woman facing hardship, cruelty, and betrayal with courage, strength, and intelligence.

The book is such a saga that the plot is difficult to summarize. It begins when Loretta "Letty" Banks is about sixteen years old and follows her into her forties. For approximately the first thirty years of her life, Letty lives under the cruel hand and watchful eye of her father. To save the life of a baby she feels responsible for, she sacrifices her own freedom her father will spare the child (which happens to be his own sired on one of his young slaves) only if Letty promises never to set foot off the plantation.

As a side note, let me reassure you that this isn't one of those silly Civil War stories where a gently-bred plantation lady dotes upon her slaves. Letty has good reason to feel a bond with the slaves on her father's plantation they're the ones who've raised her and cared for her, and, under her father's rule, she's also a prisoner on the plantation.

In any case, Letty feels she has no choice but to agree to her father's twisted bargain, and so she remains on the plantation, continually caught up in his cruel manipulations, until his unexpected death sets her free. Or so she believes. Soon she comes to realize that her father isn't the only cruel man in the world. With the war coming on and dishonest men waiting to cheat her out of her father's estate, she must use all her resources of ingenuity and courage to make a new life for herself and yet another baby she's taken under her wing.

I realize I'm being pretty sketchy on these plot details, but honestly, this story is just too involved to encapsulate. In fact, as I think back, I'm amazed that Kirkland was able to fit so much into these 295 pages spanning so much time, so many important, life-changing events, and still finding room for a satisfying portrait of Letty's everyday life. And all of this is encompassed within a seamless, involving narrative.

Suffice it to say that Letty faces a lot of troubles in her life. She lies, she commits murder, and she (unwittingly) commits adultery. She raises three children, cultivates a small but prosperous farm through a tremendous amount of hard work, and finds a place in a community as an herbal healer and midwife a "granny woman" as the locals call her. She forms a deep and lifelong friendship with the one free slave who accompanies her from her father's plantation. And oh yeah, somewhere along the way, she falls in love with a guy named Thorn Bradley.

As I indicated earlier, Thorn is almost a nonentity is this story. His appearance in the book is rare, and scenes from his point of view are even rarer. Kirkland does (somehow) manage to convey the idea that he is a good-hearted, honest, kind, and sensitive man, but by the time the happy ending rolls around, it almost seems beside the point.

In fact, the real hero of the story is Caleb, the free slave who leaves the plantation with Letty. He's a wonderful, steadfast friend who stands by Letty in good times and bad. Their friendship is deep and true, filled with unspoken understanding and unending devotion.

But in any case, what little romance there is in this story certainly doesn't hurt the book. It's just not the focus. And to be honest, I didn't care one bit. Certainly I was puzzled as I read on, waiting for the romance part to happen, but I can't say I was disappointed. This is such an involving, emotional, gripping story that I wouldn't change one thing about it.

I'll also say that I've never read a Civil War story that felt so unbelievably real to me. The dialogue is brilliant, conveying accents and dialects without being in the least distracting or annoying. The settings are filled with detail, texture, sounds, and smells that effortlessly evoke vivid images of a time and place long gone. The plot continually brings unexpected twists, and while it's complicated, it's not at all confusing. The writing is powerful and yet completely unobtrusive, and finally and perhaps most importantly these are wonderful characters.

I've never admired a heroine like I admired Letty Banks. What a smart, levelheaded, independent, enduring woman. Caleb is also a deeply drawn character, and the few scenes from his point of view are heartbreakers. The villains (and there are several) are more horrifying than most because their merciless cruelty seems so horribly believable. And all of the secondary characters are fully fleshed-out entities with distinct personalities.

Romance or no, this one's a keeper for me. If you have any inclination to try something a little out of the ordinary, you can't go wrong with The Magnolia Tree.

-- Ellen Hestand


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