In Promised to a Stranger Linda O'Brien has created an imaginative tale of East meeting West and living happily ever after in the middle, Indiana. Two individuals intending to marry never meet. Instead, a twist of fate brings together the disinherited brother of one and a woman posing as the other in an interesting matching of survivors.
Running for her life after witnessing a brutal murder, Maddie Beecher, leaves Philadelphia on a train bound for Chicago. During long hours on the train Maddie becomes friendly with Amelia Baker, a young woman traveling from New York to Indiana. Maddie is reluctant to talk about herself, so Amelia passes the time telling her details of her life, about her fiancé and her hopes for their future.
Amelia, an orphan raised by nuns, became acquainted with Jeremy Knight, an artist living on a farm in Indiana, through her employer, a patron of the arts. Although they've never met, Amelia and Jeremy were able to overcome their shyness through a lengthy correspondence. Amelia wears a necklace with a locket from Jeremy which holds his self-portrait.
Not far from their destination, Maddie survives a train wreck. Regretfully, she leaves Amelia's trapped, lifeless body in the burning train. Before leaving, Maddie removes Jeremy's locket from Amelia's neck and takes her traveling bag, which contains Jeremy's letters. Then, abandoning her own identity, Maddie escapes the smoke-filled compartment.
After surviving the government's campaign to confine the Sioux on reservations, Blaine Knight is home helping preserve Jeremy's inheritance. While his government and his mother consider his army deeds heroic, Blaine was traumatized by an incident at Wounded Knee. He loves the farm but inherited nothing from his stepfather, aside from a surname through adoption. Though his future in the army would be limited to a "desk job," Blaine is anxious for the wedding to occur so he can leave and get on with his life.
At a nearby hospital recovering from smoke inhalation, Maddie, now Amelia, meets the Knight brothers – stammering, nervous and shy Jeremy and tall, dark and dangerous Blaine. Both men are struck by her beauty. Blaine must ignore his feelings to ensure Jeremy's happiness, apparently a pattern established by his mother to protect his younger half-brother. Arriving at the farm, Maddie thinks all her fantasies have come true. She hopes to succeed as Amelia, though she has difficulty imagining marriage to Jeremy.
The first page of Promised to a Stranger identifies the setting as "Indiana, 1880." The date is a decade or so off, which many reading the book will realize. Not only was the hero, who is definitely not a teenager, born several months after the Battle of Gettysburg, but also the Indian Wars had begun but had not progressed to Wounded Knee, the death of Sitting Bull, etc. in 1880. Blaine's honorable character is built around his reaction to events at Wounded Knee.
More importantly, inconsistencies in the development of the main characters undermined the flow of the story. Though touted as honorable, when loving Maddie makes remaining at home unbearable, Blaine heads into town seeking solace in the bed of Penny Tadwell, along with a good supply of whiskey. Maddie's disguise becomes tedious after a while, though it provides comic relief when a couple of visiting nuns vouch for her even when they know she is lying. Though ever remorseful, Maddie continues to lie even after Blaine has bared his soul.
In the end, Blaine and Maddie's behavior at crucial points weakened the story, making Promised to a Stranger an acceptable read for me but not a book I would recommend enthusiastically.