I have to admit that I am a sucker for any kind of story that takes place on the American frontier. As a child I read all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books, and just last month I eagerly watched PBS’s “Frontier House” series. So when I pulled out Marry Me by Susan Kay Law, I really hoped I would like it. I was in the mood for a good frontier tale. What I found was so much more - really involving characters, a well-developed romance, and even a bit of humor.
Emily Bright is desperate for some freedom and independence. Having lost her parents as a young girl, she has been raised primarily by her sisters Kate and Anthea. In order to support the family, Kate had married an older man, Dr. Goodale, who had plenty of money and a nice house in Philadelphia. Dr. Goodale has just died, leaving Kate and Emily at somewhat of a loose end. Emily feels ready to strike out on her own. When she learns of the opportunity to get a free plot of land in Montana, she seizes the chance for freedom and heads west. In order to do this, she lies to Kate, telling her that she will be visiting Anthea, who lives on a ranch in Colorado.
When Emily arrives in Montana, she realizes just how wild the frontier really is. Her “claim” is nothing but acres of land and a small shack. In order to keep the land, she must clear it and plant crops. While Emily is optimistic and hard working, this would be difficult for her to do without help. However, Emily is not alone for long. On her first night at the claim, a stranger enters her shack, insisting that both the house and the land belong to him. When Emily stands her ground and says she is not leaving, he decides to pitch a tent and wait around until the difficulty of working the land makes Emily give up and leave.
The stranger is Jake Sullivan, who in fact built the claim shack and used to live there. He is somewhat bitter and tortured by events from his past, and has come back to Montana to deal with it all. Emily and Jake proceed to coexist uncomfortably, but peacefully, on the land until Emily receives word that her sister Kate is on her way to visit her. Kate is somewhat controlling and bossy, and Emily knows that she will try to make her return to Philadelphia.
In an effort to avoid this, Emily convinces Jake to pose as her husband. She promises him that if they can successfully persuade Kate to go back to Philadelphia alone, she will leave the claim to him and go find another for herself. Jake goes along with the plan. He finds himself drawn to Emily, and is fascinated by her optimistic cheerfulness, which is in contrast to his own inner turmoil. This marriage charade marks the beginning of a relationship that the author develops slowly and convincingly over time.
Emily is so optimistic and cheerful that I was sure she was going to turn into a total Pollyanna by the end of the book. Thankfully, I was wrong. Her independence and persistence worked well to balance out her somewhat naïve nature. Jake is truly tortured by his past, but experiences a lot of growth throughout the book. He is not your typical tortured hero who never cracks a smile. In fact, his happiness grows as he continues to build a new life for himself. This growth takes quite a bit of time, which made it seem real. In the end, while Emily and Jake are so different from one another, each is able to provide the other with something that had been missing. Emily is able to nurture someone and feel needed, while Jake finally experiences the nurturing and care that he has missed out on for so long. It is so satisfying to see them come together as a couple because you can’t help but really feel that they both deserve this happiness.
Emily probably wouldn’t have made it in the real frontier for more than a few days. Things are a little too easy for her - she doesn’t need to build her own house or even grow her own food. However, this is easily balanced out by the very believable emotions of the characters.
Marry Me is the second book in the “Marrying Miss Bright” series. I have not yet read the first, but you can bet I will be looking for it!