Miss Bates’ Canadian perspective of the American ante- and post- bellum periods is set, in most unscholarly fashion, by popular culture. She read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she was in grade six. She loathed it then; she loathes it now. (And no, she wouldn’t reread it to gauge her response years later.) In 1976, when Miss B. was a new teen, she, and millions of others, watched the TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, a novel with its own controversies and questions. Nevertheless, at the time, Miss Bates and her family, European immigrants to North America, loved it. In 1990, Miss Bates, again with so many others, was glued to Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Who can resist the images, soulful music, and epistolary eloquence? But, it too has its misrepresentations. She doesn’t purport any expertise on the topic other than what she refers to here and that is no expertise at all, really. Moreover, Miss Bates sees the American civil conflict through the lens of a tsk-tsk-ing outsider, her own country’s conflicts never having seen a battlefield other than the legislative (though Louis Riel, the rebellions, his trial, and execution in 1885 might have something to say about that. It is a time and place worthy of a romance). Not that Canada is immune to racism and conflict, au contraire, but our “quiet revolutions” have been linguistically decentralizing, while our neighbours’ claim to unity has always struck her as more mythic than actual. All of this to say that she, nevertheless, welcomes a romance set in the aftermath of the war, though she’s also leery of it, thanks to GWTW, given this period in American history remains a tender, if scabbed over, wound. She’s uncertain, nay ignorant, how well O’Keefe’s Seduced skirted historical and political landmines. From this outsider’s perspective, however, as a romance, Miss Bates loved it … with a few caveats for some weaknesses … but a highly recommended read nonetheless.
[The review is spoiler-ish, but it’s impossible to talk about Seduced, given its length, with depth without divulging a thing or two.] O’Keefe’s Seduced opens in 1867, a hundred miles south-west of Denver, on Steven Baywood’s oil-rich farm. Jimmy Hurst arrives with his wife, Melody, and sister-in-law, Anne Denoe. Jimmy is a vile character, thief, liar, drunkard, physically abusive to Melody, and verbally to Anne. There’s history between him and Steven, ugly history from the war. Jimmy shoots Steven, threatens Melody and Anne, and rides away with the threat to return. For a little while, Melody and Anne, fragile, hurt in so many ways they don’t bear thinking, enjoy a respite. They prepare a garden plot, one sole instance of joy and hope. They care for Steven, who recovers slowly but surely. They hide him in expectation of Jimmy’s return. Jimmy reappears with an oil prospector in tow, Cole “Smith”. Cole isn’t a prospector; he’s there to exact revenge on Jimmy for threatening/killing his brother, Steven. He realizes, however, that Melody and Anne, who saved his brother’s life, may be hurt in the process, but vengeance burns in him.
Each character in O’Keefe’s novella is damaged: Jimmy, a twisted, sadistic monster; Melody, victim of a domestic war as brutal and demoralizing as a military one and haunted by loss of family and home, as is Anne; Cole, ashamed, guilty, hollow with revenge and lonely from his family’s loss; and Steven, dark and embittered. Except for Jimmy, Miss Bates loved them, broken and flawed as they were and so closed off to love and hope. She loved the burgeoning attraction and affection between Melody and Cole, even the mild hint of it in Steven for Anne. Memory, loss, guilt, shame figure prominently in these characters’ lives; it’s difficult to believe that they’ll ever live wholly and well again. But O’Keefe, without white-washing who they became and what they did in the “fog of war,” domestic or otherwise, chips away at their hardened, saddened cores to reveal soft and tender vulnerabilities. Touch, of flesh on flesh, of hands in the earth that gives and absorbs life, salvation and hope for the future … it’s a mite of a book, but a mighty story.
Miss Bates will get the caveats out of the way first, to follow with the good stuff. Her dilemma with the novel is an uncertain start and abrupt finish. O’Keefe’s narrative felt hesitant to this reader: like someone who’s learning a skill, awkward, tentative. Maybe it was because she was throat-clearing her “historical voice,” maybe her usual metaphoric-rich prose was subdued; maybe she was trying to find her stride? Whatever the reason, Miss Bates was confused with the first few chapters: who was the heroine? Who the hero? And, most importantly, she couldn’t see how the characters, especially Melody, were going to be rid of Jimmy. Jimmy loomed large, a narrative challenge and potential failure. Suffice to say that O’Keefe provided an intriguing resolution and freedom for the romance to grow. It made sense, but it surprised Miss Bates (it shouldn’t have, but it did) and she applauded it because it gave the heroine choice and made the hero a true knight. Miss Bates’ criticism of the end as abrupt is a result of the modest length. She wanted to spend more time with these characters, a purely reader-selfish reason. Lastly, Melody’s choice vis-à-vis Jimmy is not an easy one to accept, maybe an understandable one, but Miss Bates wishes there could have been another way. At the same time, she cannot throw stones. She leaves it up to you, dear reader, to decide whether you can accept/understand the characters’ actions.
As Miss Bates has said in previous posts, she welcomes religious allusions/symbols/images in non-inspirational romance. She is interested in how a non-proselytizing romance writer uses them. She found a treasure-trove in O’Keefe’s narrative in these intimations to resurrection:
… the sight of Melody lying in those flowers, staring up at the sky as if she’d seen the face of God, that rolled the rock away from his cave and now there was too much light to run from.
… he picked up Steven’s saw and went to work, hoping that with enough effort he might be able to roll the stone back in front of his cave, eliminating the light that made it so hard to see.
O’Keefe builds a beautiful and potent metaphor in telling the story of two broken people returning to life, love, and hope. At first, they are like people in a pitch-dark cave who, suddenly exposed to light, suffer from pain to their eyes. Thus are Melody and Cole as their encounters, even their disagreements, resurrect them, help them rediscover, among the ashes of their former selves, something of themselves. They resist the resurrection because the cave’s darkness is all they’ve known of safety, but they are brave and honest, if flawed, and find their way to love and hope. Moreover, to tell this story of Melody and Cole’s resurrection, O’Keefe alludes to that beautiful moment in the Christian narrative when Mary Magdalene arrives at Christ’s tomb to receive the good news of the resurrection. Mary too is uncertain, grief-stricken, and afraid, as are Melody and Cole, but she’s sown the seeds in her soul for its reception. Seeds and earth, growth and possibility, are key to understanding how Melody and Cole make their way to faith and love. (And the reason for Miss Bates’ mangling of a quotation from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams for her post’s subtitle.)
In the end, though Miss Bates questioned certain aspects of O’Keefe’s Seduced, she’s glad she read it for all the good things in it. She looks forward to Anne and Steven’s story. Miss Bates loves O’Keefe’s contemporary romances; if Seduced is evidence of what she can do in the historical sub-genre, then Miss Bates follows her there gladly. She urges you to do so as well. In Seduced, MissB. found evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Molly O’Keefe’s Seduced is a self-published e-book available, at the usual vendors, since May 30th. Miss Bates is grateful to Ms O’Keefe for an e-ARC.
What romance authors have you read who changed course in their writing? (Julie Garwood comes to mind, of course, or Barbara Samuel.) Did you follow them to their new endeavours? Did/do you enjoy their new work? Or, do you long for a return to the original genre, or sub-genre? How did/do you respond to the change?