The Edge of Town is a sweet romance set in Middle America at the beginning of the Jazz Age. World War I is over, flappers are all the rage, and young Julie Jones longs for more than the satisfaction of caring for her widowed father and many siblings. She’s about to get her wish.
Julie and her family live on a hardscrabble farm at the edge of Fertile, Missouri. The oldest child at nineteen, she has cared for her father, Jethro, and her siblings Joe, Jack, Jill, Jason, and four-year-old Joy since the death of their mother four years earlier. It’s a satisfying life, but Julie dreams of a home and family of her own, and a loving husband to stand by her. Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of available young men in Fertile.
Then one day while returning from town, Julie is stopped by their neighbor, Walter Johnson, a mean, crude, lewd old man. He makes several vulgar references to Julie’s figure and threatens to rape her. As Julie turns to run, a man arrives on horseback. It’s Evan Johnson, Walter’s son, recently returned from Paris where he’d gone to live after fighting in the Great War. Evan rescues Julie and walks her home. By the time they reach the Jones farm, Evan is bowled over by this pretty, gentle young lady.
Julie finds Evan attractive, but worries that he may be like his father underneath his gallant exterior. She soon finds nothing could be further from the truth. Evan loathes Walter; his sole purpose in returning to Fertile is to handle the farm until Walter drinks himself to death. Shouldn’t take long, he reasons. Then he can head for St. Louis, where his maternal grandparents left him a fine house. Now he’s found the woman he wants to share it with.
But the road to romance won’t be smooth in Fertile, Missouri. There have been a series of rapes of young girls, and the rapist is still at large. If this weren’t bad enough, Jethro becomes besotted with a visiting woman, Birdie Stuart. Before Julie knows it, Birdie is insinuating herself into the Jones family in unpleasant ways, and it’s soon clear that Birdie wants to drive the children - and especially Julie - away from their father and off the farm.
The townspeople are loosely joined by their common interest in the local baseball team, of which Jack, Joe, and Evan are a part. The games and practices allow for the characters to interact in an informal setting, and it’s here that the reader finds out much about these people.
The relationship between Julie and Evan is a gentle unfolding of two needy hearts. Evan falls first; Julie, who can hardly believe this man is interested in her, takes some time. Besides, Julie has a secret, one that may drive Evan away when he finds out. When she finally decides to tell him the truth, it’s honest and forthright, as two mature people might handle it. Plot cliché’s of “she lied to me and I can never trust her” are avoided, thankfully.
The Birdie element is less satisfactory, in that Jethro comes across as a lunkhead in his refusal to defend his family from her machinations and insults. It might have worked if there were only one or two incidents, but the entire second half of the book features Birdie and her obnoxious daughter moving right in with the Jones family. When Evan is accused of a heinous crime, it's Birdie who steps in to throw fuel on the flames, and Jethro never questions her. The resolution of this mess is a great example of deus ex machina. It annoyed me no end that Jethro doesn’t have to do a thing or take a stand - the problem is neatly solved for him. One gets the feeling if Birdie had hung around a bit longer, he would have thrown Julie and her siblings out the door.
And the rape element is uncomfortable, to say the least. This isn’t the first time Garlock has used sexual assault as a subplot in her story, and the graphic crudeness of it is a sharp counterpoint to a sweet romance. This juxtaposition won’t work for some readers.
The Edge of Town is a mixed bag. While I can recommend the romance, its sinister undertones and somewhat weak resolution make it a less than completely satisfying read. But Dorothy Garlock’s many fans will no doubt be pleased by her return to the bookstore shelves.