The Randolph Legacy by Eileen Charbonneau
(Forge, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-812-54467-6
*****
Eileen Charbonneau gets my undisputed vote for "Discovery of the Year." After thoroughly enjoying her first romance, Waltzing in Ragtime, I approached The Randolph Legacy with some trepidation, fearing it could not match its predecessor. I shouldn't have worried -- it was even better. The brilliant characterizations, primarily that of the book's hero, set this apart from the pack. As always, I hesitate to tell readers to part with one-fourth of a hundred dollar bill for a good reading experience, but I do urge you to find an economical way to get this novel into your hands.

It is 1805, aboard a British ship at sea. A young boy, impressed from an American frigate, is flogged nearly to death for refusing to swear allegiance to Britain. A French sailor, Henry Maupin, takes pity on him and hides him from the crew, telling everyone he has died of his injuries. In fact, whoever the boy was has figuratively died, for he when he recovers from the whipping he has no recollection of his name, family or home. Maupin christens him "Henry Washington."

Ten years later, Judith Mercer and her father Eli, Quaker missionaries, board the same ship after completing an assignment tending to American prisoners of war in England. While walking on the deck one night, Judith meets the elusive Henry Washington, lamed and scarred but still very much alive, thanks to Maupin. Both their lives are in jeopardy if the brutal British captain learns of Washington's existence. Judith is immediately drawn to Washington's gentleness and wit, and makes a pledge to find his true family when she returns to America.

Somehow she manages to trace the ghostly young man to a wealthy Virginia family, the Randolphs. But when she brings Washington home to claim his identity as the youngest son, Ethan, some of the Randolphs are less than willing to accept him. And Judith, staunch Quaker that she is, has to face the fact that she has quickly fallen in love with a young, crippled man -- 9 years younger than she! -- who is not of her faith. Worst of all, he is from a slaveholding family, an anathema to the Quakers.

As in her earlier novel, Charbonneau doesn't waste much time establishing the connection between her lovers. By page 54, Washington/Ethan is declaring his love for Judith. But it will be a long time before the two can overcome the external obstacles to claim their legacy together. This lack of internal conflict creates a poignant yet powerful romance devoid of any games or hidden emotions.

The characters in The Randolph Legacy come alive so vividly that they feel like familiar acquaintances and friends. The most memorable character is Ethan. He may be physically disabled for part of the book, but he never comes across as a tortured hero. A gentle soul with a sense of French fatalism and sensuality instilled in him by the honorable Maupin, he communes with spirits (another Charbonneau trademark, apparently) and struggles to find an identity as a strong individual after being little more than a spirit himself for ten years. I found myself comparing him to Jamie Fraser of the Outlander series, for although he has little of Jamie's love for fighting, he shares his humanity and protectiveness of those he cares for, especially Judith.

Judith almost takes a back seat to Ethan, although in her own quiet way she finds a way to leave her mark on the reader. Her character growth is more subtle than Ethan's but no less remarkable. Her inner Light, which made her such a strong figure in the religious Quaker community, must also find a new means of expression as she builds a life with Ethan.

The secondary characters, including Ethan's family, Judith's father, the Randolph family physician and the family's slaves, are all fully realized and give much richness to the novel. Charbonneau seems to make a habit of creating strong female characters, as well as smart male ones who value the women's experience.

Charbonneau's writing style is lyrical and occasionally slightly obscure to the reader. The implied is sometimes just as important as the overtly stated. But given the wonderful characters, I didn't mind having to work a little bit and in fact appreciated the chance to savor each word.

My only quibble with the book was some jarring plotting at its conclusion, with both Ethan and Judith behaving out of character in order to leave them temporarily separated. But other than that the book flowed seamlessly.

My only regret now is that I have to wait for the next release by this wonderful author. Apparently Charbonneau began her writing career as a Young Adult novelist - maybe I can sneak into the YA section and pretend I'm buying her books for my fifteen year old niece...

--Susan Scribner


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