Widowed Caddie Marsh returns to her beloved Sabbath Hollow property after the Civil War to find her evil brother-in-law, Lon, ensconced there with his trashy wife, Lydene. This Lydene is the same woman Caddie once discovered in bed with her late husband, and sparks fly. Lon insists that the property is his, if not by legal right then by family right. Things are about to turn ugly when a stranger appears with a shotgun and defends Caddie and her two small children.
His name is Manning Forbes, and he’s come to Sabbath Hollow to honor the last request of a dying man - Caddie’s late husband. They met on the battlefield, on opposite sides, but Manning feels responsible for Caddie because of his involvement in her husband’s death. He can’t stay with Caddie and help her defend and rebuild her property unless they are chaperoned or married. So he proposes a marriage of convenience, and after some initial protest, Caddie agrees.
Manning soon bonds with the children, and Caddie finds she is falling in love with this kind, handsome man. But does he love her in return? Or is the property, and the future it offers, the real attraction for Manning? They reopen an abandoned sawmill at Sabbath Hollow, offering immediate work to the locals, who resent this Yankee in their midst. Caddie finds herself in the position of defending Manning against their prejudice in order to make a go of the mill. There are few supporters at first, but eventually many of the neighbors come around.
The neighbors form the secondary cast, for the most part, and they fill it nicely, for the most part. There was one unintentionally repugnant loss of continuity, involving a local man who had “lost both legs at Antietam”, yet fourteen pages later, was hobbling “with the aid of a single stout cane” which had “replaced his crutches”. Not a pretty mental picture. However, there is an enjoyable secondary romance between a blinded ex-soldier and a local lass. And the lascivious Lon is still around, determined to get what’s his.
Caddie starts out a bit on the annoyingly shrewish side, at least where Manning is concerned. She belittles his lack of knowledge about horses, though he reasonably points out that there’s nobody to buy blooded stock even if they could manage to raise some. In a way, I enjoyed seeing Caddie taken down a peg and forced to face economic reality. When she does accept that her previous life is gone for good, she tries to embrace the future’s possibilities, determined to make the best of things for her kids. It’s a nice showing of spine and spunk.
Manning is never anything but a good guy who is being driven slightly crazy by his increasing desire for his wife. Fortunately, the author doesn’t hang this tension over the reader’s head for the entire book. Manning and Caddie cast aside their doubts midway through, and it makes for a believable story of a marriage becoming a real one in every sense of the word.
There’s a lot to like in Carpetbagger’s Wife, but the climax was like hitting a brick wall. The bricks? Shrieking, immature, tiresome behavior on Caddie’s part. She jumps to conclusions in a heartbeat, and prefers to believe a known schemer over Manning, who has treated her like a queen for the entire book. When the Big Secret about Manning and her late husband is revealed (and readers will have guessed it from the start), she throws the predictable “he never really loved me” hissy-fit. It was a forced and tired denouement, and almost embarrassing to see a nicely-developed character descend into this kind of obnoxiousness. Surely there’s another way to finish a romance than making the heroine into a nitwit.
Carpetbagger’s Wife doesn’t quite make the leap to Recommended status, but most of it is a fun read. Those who like Reconstruction-era romances may want to check it out. Oh, and forget the "Western" label on the spine. Virginia is as far west as this romance gets.