Every spring, in Miss Bates’ cold, northern land, people visit the sugar shacks, where they use what-look-like-wooden-tongue-depressors to scoop warm maple syrup from snow. They take sleigh rides through grey-white woods and sit to a meal of eggs, ham, and baked beans … doused in maple syrup. Precious memories for Miss Bates from her early school years, even if present comforts don’t mind relinquishing maple syrup goodness to avoid muddy boots, bumpy rides, and artery-hardening fare.
When Miss Bates went to primary school in the early seventies, her teachers wore fringed leather skirts, peasant blouses, and sported long hair. They played guitar and had students sing along. One of the songs they sang was John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Miss Bates didn’t know where West Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, or Shenandoah River were and didn’t care. She sang her heart out and not terribly well to the accompaniment of teacher’s guitar: “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong … ” Her then sophisticated and risqué native city was as far from the Appalachians as bodies can get in North America, but the sentiments of home, nostalgia, and belonging are still with her.
What do Miss Bates’ happy reminiscences of sugar shack outings and Denver’s “Country Roads” have to do with her latest romance read? Everything. Because the running of the sap and a mountain mamma have everything to do with Inez Kelley’s latest, Take Me Home, the first in her “Country Roads” series, which Miss Bates really really liked, with caveats, but liked.
The story of Kelley’s hero and heroine is bound up with the mountains, streams, and life of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly, one of the strengths of Kelley’s romance novel is her real-as-life, beautiful descriptions of forested, mountainous landscape. But maple, spruce, and mountain serve only as background to what Kelley presents as the fraught relationship of Matthew Shaw and Kayla Edwards. While Kelley’s novel is great in many ways, her hero suffers from a wannabe internal conflict, which turns into a not-quite-believable external one. If conflict’s your thing in romance, then you might not get into this romance novel. But if you’re interested in character, raw love scenes, and atmosphere, and you want to know about a life lived on forestry and maple syrup production, this is the romance narrative for you. Miss B. forgives all for the latter … and makes do with moues of disappointment for the former.
Take Me Home does not have a promising start. Matthew Shaw, Hawkins Hardwoods’ logging manager, arrives at Kayla Edwards’ mountain home to appraise and manage the cutting of a parcel of forest. She needs money to keep her business, Mountain Specialty Spices specializing in organic spices and recipes, afloat. What Kayla doesn’t know is that her mountain retreat/home once belonged to Matthew’s family and was lost to them in an economic disaster 20 years ago, ” … they slept in the National Forest, dodging the game wardens by moving every night for nearly a month. How humiliating it was to listen to your friends talk about new cars while you were looking for a pair of sneakers at the Goodwill.” Matthew’s arrival is riddled with agonizing memories, guilt, nostalgia, and anger. When the place was for sale four years ago, Matthew was out-bid … by Kayla. When he meets Kayla’s sweet and sexy, he is conflicted: lust and resentment mix and settle. For Kayla, whom we don’t get to know in the first few chapters, attraction and a healthy, honest, and open come-on are a refreshing foil to Matt’s discord.
Circumstances throw these two together. Attraction and hungry, lonely, good hearts send them to bed, but also to forging a friendship. As we follow their relationship and nod when it blossoms into un-avowed love, their insecurities come to a head in a bad way. Matthew, ever re-living the humiliation of his poverty-ridden, homeless childhood, the loss of his beloved father and home, cannot bring himself to tell Kayla that her home was once his. Kayla, the child of an itinerant military family, wants a home, a settled existence, a family, but she fears being used, as she had been as a child by friends and boyfriends. It is inevitable, Matt’s reticence to open up and Kayla’s fears clash when she finds out what he’s been hiding …
One of the most powerful ideas in Kelley’s romance novel is the idea of home and belonging as a powerful attachment to the land. Matthew may have lost the actual land, but he remains connected through his satisfying work, which Kelley does a great job of redeeming by showing how culling and business can make a good marriage for conservation and re-forestation. Well done, Ms Kelley. However, until recognizing that Kayla means comfort and love and home, the past has a stranglehold on Matthew, “His mind tried to slam the square peg of now into the round hole of the past.” As Matthew and Kayla walk through her land and converse, they share this exchange, “The path held her attention and her voice grew softer. ‘I’m good at being alone. My parents are gone. Moving here really was like coming home.’ My home, his heart whispered.” The land means everything to Kayla, “She wanted to say ‘I come from here’ and feel a sense of connection. She knew no one would give it to her. She had to make it happen for herself. So she had. Her roots might still be fragile and tender, but they were growing. Digging deep in to the West Virginia mountains like veins of coal. Given time, she could make a diamond out of them. Getting rich wasn’t what she craved. It was earning a hometown pride, a sense of belonging.” Kayla has worked hard to achieve this. With her sale of the wood and discovery of the ancient maple syrup operation, one that belonged to Matt and his dad, her dream will come true. A dream that includes Matthew, “a sense of belonging and a partner to share it with.”
Miss Bates found this aspect of the novel most interesting. In Kayla and Matt, Kelley presents the possibility of redeeming the economic errors of the past through the love and marriage of her couple, both engaged in a life of “rugged individualism.” This ideal is re-asserted in the HEA, which remains singular for this couple and not that, as Miss Bates has quoted in the past from Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, “which the heroine and hero must confront [their flawed society] in their attempt to court and marry and which by their union, they symbolically remake.” Matt and Kayla’s vision of their future, at least before the snake of doubt and insecurity breaks them up, is of paradisical couplehood, “In this tree-shrouded place, she could easily envision Adam and Eve’s solitude, their paradise … The past few weeks had been as close to perfect as she could imagine, but it was too soon to ask him for that type of commitment.” When Kayla’s learns Matt’s secret, when betrayal and hurt enter their paradise, their relationship must be re-made through hard work. When it looks like Kayla’s dream of a maple syrup business may not be possible, Matt shrugs off the hurts of his past, his memories of working the sap with his father, and, even though Kayla has rejected him, he helps her save the operation, save her home … not to spoil the beauty of the HEA, but let Miss Bates say that he saves himself by cracking open the pain of the past and realizing that, “He wasn’t shale. He was slate. The land had broken his father but it hadn’t broken him, wouldn’t break him. He’d become a forester and protected the mountains as they hadn’t protected him.” And, as far as hero redemption is concerned, Kelley gives Matt one of the best Miss Bates has read this year: an inspired Christmas gift and a poetic avowal of love, not too corny … but lovingly humble and manly. As for Kayla, she gets the ultimate heroine vindication in, “The kingdom belonged to her, and she wanted to share it with him, as equals.” Shades of Miss Bates’ Jane Eyre?
In mundane reviewer’s diction, Miss Bates isn’t sure that the conflict in this romance novel was all that convincing: Matt should have manned up and told Kayla way before things reached the bad place. And, the way Kayla found out is a bit … snort … not quite believable considering Matt had been living and working in this area for years for the sole bread-winning operation. And, maybe the rawness of the love scenes didn’t quite match the delicacy of the story … and, maybe this is a flawed romance, but Miss Bates loved it and she thinks you will too. The writing is smooth and moving; the love scenes, unrestrained, uninhibited, and honest; Kayla and Matt, our Blue Ridge Mountain Adam and Eve, whose HEA we cheer, deserve their hard-won happiness and unity. And who wouldn’t want to learn how maple syrup, that earthy golden brown sweetness, is brought forth?
This may not be a perfect, or ground-breaking romance novel, but it moved Miss Bates; she cared about Matt and Kayla and their land and their mountain and the running of the sap. Herein is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. (Miss Bates has read Kelley before Take Me Home and also recommends Jinxed, Sweet As Sin, and Turn It Up.)
Inez Kelley’s Take Me Home, published by Carina Press, is available as of today, November 25th, in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Carina Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
What have you read lately, dear reader, where you acknowledged the flaws, but loved despite?