This month’s TBR theme was “Recommended Read.” Miss Bates chose to read a novel recommended by one of her rom-reading alter egos, Insta-Love Book Reviews. Insta-Love may not know this, but she’s never recced a rom Miss Bates hasn’t liked. (And Miss Bates isn’t easy to please.) Frankly, MissB’s an Insta-Love Reviews fan-girl and, yes, in her unstately ebullient spinster-fashion, squees when the occasional – sniff – review is posted. Miss Bates and Insta-Love share a love of, and acknowledgement of its problematic nature, inspie rom. Miss Bates read Jody Hedlund’s Colonial-America-set romance novel, Rebellious Heart (loosely based on John and Abigail Adams’s courtship). In 1763 Braintree, Massachusetts, defense lawyer Benjamin Ross saves accused murderer Hermit Joe Crab from the noose – to watch him lose his ears and be branded with an “M”. Hedlund’s Rebellious Heart is honest about the harsher aspects of 18th century Colonial America: slavery, corporal and capital punishment, indentured servitude, class differences, and social and economic strictures on women. In the midst of this world are two remarkable protagonists, lawyer Ben Ross and the young woman sitting in the court audience, his childhood nemesis, Miss Susanna Smith.
Why nemesis, MissB? Susanna and Ben share a “history” which still stings Ben’s amour-propre and makes Susanna squirm with embarrassment. When Susanna was a child and Ben found her stuck in a tree, tearful because her cousin, Eldridge, made a cruel comment about her “unmarriagability,” Ben comforted her by jokingly offering to marry her. Her retort pierced the poor farmer’s son to the quick, “I could never marry you … You’re a nobody … nothing but a farmer and a shoemaker’s son.” Ben Ross of the present-day courtroom is no longer just a farmer’s son, but he’s still poor. Susanna recalls her words and is ashamed. Ben notices how beautiful Susanna’s grown, but assumes she’s as haughty as ever. This “pride and prejudice” set-up serves Hedlund well and makes for excellent cross-class romance conflict. These assumptions about the other block Ben and Susanna from appreciating how the other has changed. Ben and Susanna, ever side-eying each other, nevertheless have learned to do good in the world. Ben wants to advance his career and prove his worth, “He’d show her – he’d show everyone – that he wasn’t a nobody,” but he also defends the widow and the fatherless, the poor and vulnerable. Susanna is aware of her exalted social status by virtue of birth and wealth, but she defends and teaches the poorest and most vulnerable girls and women in her community.
While Ben’s and Susanna’s moral cores were already entrenched, Hedlund beautifully portrayed further moral growth. She linked their moral growth with intellectual maturity. At the novel’s start, Ben and Susanna are trying to fulfill their community’s conventional expectations of a young man and woman of their status: Susanna must make a marriage in keeping with her mother’s vision of her place in the community and Ben must advance his career to make his self-sacrificing father proud and show the upper echelons of what he’s capable. While Ben and Susanna struggle to fulfill their community’s prescribed roles, their conscience carries them into different and dangerous waters. Ben is involved with the Caucus Club, defending the villagers’ smuggling against oppressive and unjust British impositions and taxation. Susanna rescues and hides a young woman, Dotty, an indentured servant violated by her master. For Ben and Susanna, their clandestine activities could bring the hand of the British law squarely and painfully on their backs, or worse.
Miss Bates loved Hedlund’s use of the metaphoric “rebellious heart” to talk about what motivates these two young, intelligent people to risk their lives for what they believe to be right. And what they believe right is bound up with how they experience God’s love, a love asking them to recognize the heart’s “rebellion” above and beyond human-made social convention and law. To start, we recognize the struggle between adherence to the community’s values and the heart’s realization of their wrongness in Susanna’s thoughts about marriage: “She detested when the local men pursued her with the hope of procuring a bride who could better their position … But even as her heart rebelled [emphases Miss Bates’s] against the status and wealthseeking mentality, the rational part of her knew marrying up was inevitable. She really had no choice in the matter.” Part of Susanna’s growth is recognizing that she does have a choice; her feeling that she “doesn’t” is the acknowledgement that she doesn’t want the consequences of making the difficult choice, thereby giving up comfort and status. Embroiled with Ben in defending Dotty, getting to know him for a good man, Susanna’s heart rebels against the conventional wisdom, embodied in her mother, of “marrying up.” She comes to think quite differently, ” … she was becoming more convinced with each passing day that she couldn’t marry someone unless she counted him as both a friend and admirer.”
The idea that individual conscience and personal choice, the “rebellious heart”‘s choice, transcend social convention is embodied in Ben and Susanna. The idea of marrying for love and friendship extends to acting for the community against unjust laws. Susanna recognizes in slavery a perversion of God’s love for, and expectations of, His Creation. She listens carefully to Ben when he says: ” … man must look at whose laws he is obeying and determine whether they are just and right and merciful.” Susanna, in thinking about Ben’s words, considers the immorality of slavery and indentured servitude, and moves towards the “rebellious heart” of civil disobedience: “Perhaps the system regarding indentured servants was one of those tyrannical practices that needed changing the same as slavery. If a man-made law was in opposition to God’s ultimate law of loving Him and loving their neighbours, did He require His children to obey those laws?” Ah, that IS the question, isn’t it? Susanna finds the answer in a great yea: ” … there were times when one had to choose God’s greater edicts of kindness and love”. Ben’s and Susanna’s “rebellious” hearts lead them to choose conscience and love over safety, advancement, and familial and social approval.
Well Miss Bates, you would rightly say, this is all fine and noble, but what of the romance? Miss Bates thought Ben and Susanna share a glorious romance. Their love is forged in political debate, disagreement, friendship, and physical desire. It’s real and believable. It’s fun and entertaining. It’s slow-burning sexy (there’s a great scene involving Ben measuring Susanna’s foot for new shoes and quite a few ooo-la-la kisses). As they get to know each other, work together to bring justice to the disenfranchised, Ben and Susanna fall in love. Their “rebellious hearts” beat as one (and hint at the great role they’ll play in the heart of a yet-unborn rebellious nation). Lest you think, dear reader, that Hedlund’s novel is dry, Miss Bates will share one of her favourite rom-building passages:
“I can only imagine the damage to my reputation henceforth when word regarding our indecent behavior spreads throughout the countryside.”
“We certainly wouldn’t want your precious reputation being damaged on account of me.”
“Not on account of you,” she said quickly. “Rather because of our … well, when I sat on your lap, when you – “
“When we kissed?” He quirked a brow. “I suppose you don’t want anyone to know you kissed a poor nobody of a lawyer like me?”
“Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself.” She squirmed at the boldness of his words but tried to hide her discomfort. “You’re not a nobody. You know I don’t think that anymore now that I’ve grown up. Maybe it’s time you grow up as well.”
His lips curved into the beginning of a smile.
“You’re a saucebucket.”
“And you’re a wet handkerchief.”
Isn’t it marvelous and funny? That, dear readers, is the beginning of a glorious HEA. Jody Hedlund’s Rebellious Heart isn’t perfect, but then what is? A romantic suspense plot runs throughout involving the girl that Hermit Joe Crab purportedly killed. Hedlund’s villain is caricature-ish; his motivation, psychologically implausible. The plot sags and drags about two-thirds of the way through. Miss Bates makes niggling points. With her romance-reading sidekick, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Hedlund’s Rebellious Heart, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Jody Hedlund’s Rebellious Heart is published by Bethany House (Baker Publishing Group). It was released on September 15th, 2013 and is still available in e-format, or paper at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Bethany House, via Netgalley.