After two lemons, Miss Bates finally scored a peach in Elizabeth Camden’s Into The Whirlwind. It’s not sweet, but it’s refreshing and substantial. Miss Bates sought to read Camden’s effort after the recommendation that Against The Tide received from Dear Author. There is much to love about this story, says Miss Bates, but there are caveats and warnings for the unsuspecting reader. The narrative is sweeping, interesting, and well-written. The hero and heroine are admirable, likeable, and real. This novel is designated as “inspirational” and “romantic,” but exhibits a dearth of both, which is not to say that you shouldn’t read it. You should; pleasure awaits you. It is a novel that requires patience and understanding as character is revealed, internal worlds unfold, as we come to know and love our hero and heroine and all who surround them. We have to enter “into the whirlwind” with Zack and Mollie, the people they interact with, and the stalwart, hard-working, resilient, teeming city of Chicago at one of the most difficult and triumphant moments in its history; Chicago is as much a character as the fictive figures who make their lives in it.
We meet Mollie Knox and Zachariasz Kazmarek in the midst of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; except, they’re not fleeing, but running into the fire’s “whirlwind.” Mollie is head of the 57th Illinois Watch Company and insists on facing the fire’s onslaught to rescue what is precious to her: the tools-of-her-trade and employees’ livelihood and her company’s attorney and second father, the blind Frank Spencer. Zack, who’s carried a torch for Mollie for three years, is lead counsel to Chicago’s mercantile “emperor,” Louis Hartman. Mollie’s and Zack’s aspirations, work ethic, and loyalty throw them together, as Mollie’s watch company supplied Hartman’s with luxury, hand-crafted pocket watches. Throughout the narrative, Mollie’s and Zack’s ambitions and responsibilities serve to join, or sunder them.
Work, status, wealth, the American Dream, Protestant work ethic, and a dogged Midwestern determination for pride of craftsmanship and excellence are ideas woven into the complex web that is the relationship between the upstart Polish-American lawyer, Zack, and the independent, spirited entrepreneur, Mollie. Moreover, the past weighs heavily on them. Molly’s father’s legacy is the watch company and its employees, men with whom Silas Knox served during the American Civil War, the broken and damaged in mind and spirit of that sad conflagration. Zack is burdened by the blood-soaked defeats and losses that his mother and father, Polish immigrants, bring from the home country. His humble beginnings as a longshoremen leave him with the difficult knowledge of being a second-generation child of immigrant parents. Work is essential to regaining one’s self-respect, “Even humble work like cleaning … provided the seeds of dignity the human spirit craved.”
From the moment of Zack and Mollie’s meeting, three years before the fire that opens the novel, theirs is a story of pride and prejudice. Though as far from that genteel world as two characters can get, they are nevertheless conceived along the same lines. Mollie is unaware of Zack’s background; she assumes he’s a high-powered, privileged lawyer, born with a gold spoon in his mouth. She finds him proud, hard, aloof, arrogant, and cold. He is anything but, fighting his attraction to her, denying himself out of loyalty to his patron, Louis Hartman, who raised him up from the docks. Hartman recognized his initiative and potential and put him through Yale, thus ensuring Zack’s loyalty, gratitude, and constantly cashing in on his sense of obligation. Obligation creates a rift between hero and heroine that isn’t bridged until the final chapter.
Zack approaches Mollie with Hartman’s offer to buy her watch company. Behind that offer is the desire to control an unresolved deed to the property on which Hartman’s flagship store is located. When Mollie discovers the deed among her father’s papers, Zack’s declaration of love rings false. Her prejudice against Zack increases a hundred-fold, even though he saves her from the fire and spends the rest of the novel’s duration helping and rescuing her, easing her way in every knight-in-shining-armor manner a woman could desire. He does so without manhandling her, treating her like a helpless ninny-woman, or being macho and overprotective. He gives her space and love and encourages her to work for her company and employees as she sees fit. He makes the ultimate un-macho-like gesture and gives her time to explore a relationship with another man. Zack is one of the most loveable, original, and fully-fleshed heroes Miss Bates has read in a romance novel in ages. He gives her room to be herself and calls her only on her reticence to take a chance on love. Even then, he gives her choices, not ultimatums. Here’s just a snippet of him, as he declares his intentions: “No matter what it takes, I intend to earn your trust, and after that, you’d better put an armed guard around your heart, because I plan on winning you and folding you into my life.” Impressive, isn’t he?
Mollie is just as wonderful a character as Zack, though less flamboyant and harder to warm up to. She’s strong, determined, independent, and a thinker … she thinks about her work, company, the people who depend on her, about what’s right and wrong, how she may have erred, or misjudged someone. Mollie, like Zack, has a strong sense of obligation and duty; the conflict lies in their discordant loyalties. Sometimes, she is so hard and cruel to Zack that the reader wants to throttle her. But she’s real and interesting and her actions come from places of fear and insecurity that are endemic to her character and circumstances. There’s nothing lurking in her past that will explain her away. It’s her temperament and she knows herself. She is different from Zack, who has a certain joie-de-vivre that Mollie lacks. She’s ordered, organized, a business whiz, but not romantic, not given to indulging her feelings, or impulses. Even before the fire’s trauma, Mollie was a woman who sought safety; she wanted her world regulated, calm, made of routine and habit. Zack is the turbulence to her discipline, the chaos to her regimen. Zack is everything that will set her world in turmoil. She characterizes him as, ” … a wild, unpredictable force of nature, while she lived in an orderly world of ticking watches and production schedules … Her life had been swept up into a whirlwind, [italics are Miss Bates's] smashed into pieces, and then reassembled into a wild and exciting world with which she had no experience.” Mollie is a methodical realist and Zack’s brash, risky approach to life is alien to her.
Mollie, angry with Zack over the Hartman deception, acknowledges that she owes him her life on the night of the fire, but still pushes him away in a cruel and unseemly manner. Her words, so daring and interesting in the ersatz world of romantic banter that passes for genuine exchange, haunt the reader and Mollie throughout the novel’s second half. This is Into the Whirlwind at its lowest: when two obviously-in-love opposites seem destined never to forgive each other. The key to understanding and appreciating Mollie is to grasp how deeply she fears her emotions, how out-of-control they feel to her. Zack, charming, handsome, a giant of a man with a huge heart and a drive that moves mountains, is more frightening than the fire, more terrifying than holding the fate of her company and its employees in her hands. Mollie’s greatest risk is not for life, limb, or livelihood; she has to learn to imperil her heart. She has to re-define her idea of safety.
The central metaphor at work in this novel is the “whirlwind,” which takes on so much significance in its varied and interesting incarnations. The whirlwind is the fire, the “great leveler” as Mollie calls it, as the poorest of the poor and the jewel-clad wealthy mingle in its aftermath; more importantly, it is change, change that comes with history, circumstance, and the passage of time. It is no wonder that Mollie is a watch-maker: if it was up to her, she’d contain the world within the precise mechanism of a finely-wrought watch. Furthermore, the whirlwind is the demand of the heart: the call to join oneself with the fate of the other in a profound way, to bind one’s soul in such a way that the other is essential. Mollie can’t handle how out of control she feels with Zack and how necessary he is to her. Mollie is many things, but Zack would agree, she is no coward. How Mollie rises to the occasion is one of the pleasures of this perceptive, well-told tale.
Miss Bates had two problems, one minor, one major, with Into the Whirlwind. There is so much going on in the narrative that the romance is short-changed. This is a minor quibble because the scenes between Mollie and Zack are so intense, so interesting, that one forgives the time they spend apart. The second problem is more serious and lies in the notion that the novel is “inspirational”. References to the characters’ faith can be counted on one hand. Two particular incidents stand out, but neither of them involve the hero or heroine. It is disconcerting to read a faith-based text wherein neither hero nor heroine have an intense relationship with God. Part of what makes inspirational romance “inspirational” is that the relationship of the hero and heroine parallels their faith journey and equals it in intensity. They fall in love, yes, but they also, depending on where they are on that journey, fall in love with God. Mollie, who is maybe Protestant, doesn’t go to church, prays twice in the entire novel, and mentions God once. Equally problematic are Zack and his Polish parents. In Europe at the time, national identity is connected to religious identity and it is peculiar that the Kazmareks’ Catholicism is never mentioned, though Zack walks into a church and lights a candle once. Even if it is part of Zack’s character arc that he deny and then embrace his heritage, that heritage cannot be devoid of the church that is intertwined so indelibly with Polish history and identity.
If you read Into the Whirlwind, and Miss Bates hopes that you do, be aware that you’ll be reading historical fiction with a strong romantic element and nominal “inspirational” one. If you relinquish these two threads from your expectations, as Miss Bates did, you are sure to enjoy it. Here is “a mind lively and at ease.” Emma (There is a fun epilogue, with nary a baby in sight, just a couple’s life of purpose, usefulness, and joy.)
Camden’s Into the Whirlwind is available as of August 1st, in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Bethany House Publishers for an ARE (via Netgalley) in exchange for this honest review.