When is a Western romance not a Western romance? When it’s set in western Maryland, that’s when.
The hero of Jake Walker’s Wife is a Texan -- from Lubbock, in west Texas, to be exact. In 1840, when Jake is 19, he is wrongly convicted of murdering a man. On his way to the gallows, the wagon in which he is riding is over-turned, the two deputies accompanying him are knocked unconscious, and Jake makes his escape.
Ten years and nearly 2,000 miles later, Jake is still on the run. Micah Beckley, the owner of Foggy Bottom Farm*** in Freeland, Maryland, hires Jake to be his foreman for the summer. Micah has been a widower for twelve years; his 24-year-old daughter, Bess, runs his household with duties that include caring for her 15-year-old twin brothers and cooking for three hard-working men plus the farm hands her father hires every summer.
Jake and Bess are attracted to each other immediately. Jake is the first man…including her father and brothers…to realize how hard Bess works and how little emotional support she gets from her family. Bess is the strong one, the one who comforts everyone else. Jake likes Bess' honesty and lack of feminine guile, not to mention her good cooking.
A fairly straightforward romance develops. Bess falls in love with Jake, Jake falls in love with Bess, both are reasonably certain of the other's feelings. Jake cannot declare himself, however. With a $500 price on his head, he is still being actively hunted. He has come to love not only Bess but also her family and the farm, and he worries about endangering them all.
As characters, Bess intrigued me more than Jake. He struck me as a hero right off the assembly line, fitted out with stock parts. Bess, on the other hand, is a living catalog of virtues. Besides having the requisite tiny waist and eyes “big and round as a fawn’s,” she is hard-working, patient, nurturing, lusty, does not faint at the sight of blood, loves keeping the farm’s books, and can drive a hard bargain with a cattle-seller. The woman is a paragon. I liked her. Where does it say a woman cannot approach perfection?
Lough writes a polished, easy-to-read prose. I wish her story structure was equally satisfactory. Much of the story is told in flashback, for no reason I could ascertain, and Lough has a tendency to over-explain. For instance, early in Jake’s courtship he and Bess share a kiss. The kiss itself takes a little better than two pages to recount, some from Jake’s perspective, some from Bess’ point of view. In the next chapter, however, we get four pages of Bess thinking about the kiss and six more pages of Jake mulling it over. It was a nice kiss, it was even a crucial kiss, but it wasn’t a twelve-page kiss.
I had difficulty with Lough’s historical facts, too. In 1851 Lubbock, Texas, is described as having a bank, a feed store, a restaurant, a blacksmith, a livery stable, and a Sheriff’s office. It is further described as having changed little since 1840. It is hard to believe that Lubbock, 'way out in west Texas, had the population to support such establishments so soon after the fall of the Alamo in 1836. I find it even harder to believe that Micah Beckley would take his daughter on a cattle-buying trip to Texas and Colorado in the mid-1840’s, nor can I figure out why an eastern farmer would want to buy scrub cattle from western ranchers.
Despite the doubtful history and the wordy style, readers may still find enough entertaining elements in Jake Walker's Wife to warrant reading it. Lough's clear writing style makes it easy to skim the slow sections and allows readers to enjoy the story and the characters.
--Nancy J. Silberstein
***I wondered about the choice of name for Beckley's farm. Was the author and/or her editors, unaware that Foggy Bottom is a well-known nickname for CIA headquarters? Or did she use the name as some sort of a joke and I have missed the point?