Debbie Macomber's Dakota Home, the middle book in a trilogy set in Buffalo Valley, North Dakota, has a curiously old-fashioned feel to it. Although the book can be said to be about Maddy Washburn and Jeb McKenna and their difficult affair, its scope includes everybody working to bring the small town of Buffalo Valley back to prosperity. Besides the two principal characters, the focus shifted to tell some part of the story of seventeen other residents of this little farming community. As it did, I was reminded, in different ways, of both the "Miss Read" series and of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice.
Maddy Washburn made her second visit to Buffalo Valley for the wedding of her friend Lindsay Snyder to Gage Sinclair. At the wedding, she met the owners of the only grocery in town, an older couple who were more than ready for retirement. Maddy seized the opportunity, scraped together every penny she could raise, bought the business, and resigned from her job as a social worker in Savannah, Georgia. Now, a few months and lots of sweat equity later, Maddy's gamble seems to be paying off, in part because of her friendly, out-going personality.
Jeb McKenna as different from Maddy as it is possible to be. Since he lost his leg in an almost fatal farm accident, he has become a recluse on the farm where he raises buffalo. He relies on his sister, Sarah, to bring him everything he needs - he hasn't been into Buffalo Valley in ten months, let alone to a big city like Grand Forks. However, when Sarah 'accidentally' forgets to pick up coffee when she buys his groceries, Jeb is forced to make the trip into Buffalo Valley. As Sarah hoped, his trip to the store results in a meeting with Maddy.
Maddy is starting a weekly delivery service, and Jeb signs up right away. He foresees that having his groceries delivered will make him more independent of Sarah. What he doesn't realize is that Maddy will have an opportunity to see him regularly. For reasons that weren't apparent, Jeb intrigues Maddy right from that first, brief meeting. The combination of typical North Dakota winter weather and an inexperienced Southern driver insures that Maddy and Jeb will get to spend a significant amount of time in each other's company but does not insure that Jeb will overcome his feelings of inferiority.
Jeb's sister, Sarah, has problems of her own. She has been in love with Jeb's best…Jeb's only…friend, Dennis Urlacher, for four years. Dennis wants desperately to marry her, but she can't. She is legally separated from her first husband, but she never got the money together to get a divorce. Moreover, Sarah has let her father and Dennis believe that she is divorced because she is too proud to accept money from either of them to pay for her mistake.
Sarah's teenaged daughter, Calla, is another impediment to the marriage. Desperately unhappy, Calla believes that her wastrel father still loves her mother and that if Dennis were out of the picture, her parents would reunite. Not only does she rebuff Dennis' overtures, but she rejects her mother even more vigorously. As I read the bitter mother-daughter clashes, I wondered why Sarah never attempted to seek counseling for Calla.
Jeb and Maddy, Sarah and Dennis are but two of the sets of troubled lovers in this densely populated book. I counted three other pairs, each with their own set of problems. As is frequently the case, many - though not all - of their problems are self-inflicted and might have been resolved by a good airing out. In fact, in one case, an older woman does just that - talks to both people separately - and straightens them out. In other instances, I lost sympathy with key characters who refused to take the obvious steps needed to straighten out their problems themselves.
On the plus side, Macomber handles her large cast of characters remarkably well. Despite the number of people who take the stage in Dakota Home, I never found myself flipping through the pages, wondering "Who is that?" Her portrayal of the state of North Dakota was another strength - Dakota Home is a book where the location matters. Finally, I found Macomber's depiction of urban renewal on the smallest scale as interesting as I did Nevil Shute's recounting of the growth of a town in the Aussie outback.
One of the ways in which I judge a book in a series is whether, when I finish it, I want to go back and read the earlier books and whether I plan to buy subsequent books as they are published. In the case of Dakota Home, while I found reading about Buffalo Valley a pleasant experience, I wasn't enthralled enough to search out the other two books in the trilogy.
--Nancy J. Silberstein