Now, THIS is a historical romance!
Although, at first, I wasn't sure I was in the right genre. The story opens with Ian Sutherland as he waits with his younger brother, Derek, to be hanged in the aftermath of the battle of Culloden. I have seldom read a more wrenching scene anywhere. After watching his brother ascend the scaffold with a cocky, "I'll see ye soon, brother. In heaven or in hell," Ian must watch him swing – remembering as well, his older brother's death on the battlefield. It is a tribute to the writer's skill that, when Ian finally realizes his own life is to be spared, the reader is as aghast as Ian. This man wanted to die with his brother, and we can't help but sympathize with him.
Instead of being hanged, Ian is transported to the colonies in America. The only thing that keeps him alive to endure the brutal conditions and soul-numbing humiliation is the thought of his six year-old sister, Katy, whose whereabouts are unknown to him, but who is the only member of his family whose death he has not witnessed. Worry about her safety and well-being nearly drive him mad.
Determined to survive in order to escape and find her, Ian is delivered to Chestertown, on the eastern shore of Maryland, where his indenture is sold to John Marsh, a small farmer and horse breeder. Marsh is seriously ill and desperate to find some help for his family before his heart condition kills him. He had hoped to find a redemptioner – someone who agreed to work for a time in order to pay for their passage to the new world – but is forced to take a chance on Ian when there are only indentured convicts to be had.
John Marsh's small family is threatened, not only by his ill-health, but by the vindictive greed of his brother, a major landholder who covets Marsh's small farm, the horses he is breeding, and his wife, Fancy. Fancy is very aware of the vulnerability of her family and of herself, as a woman. Illiterate as a result of her father's prejudice, she desperately wishes to learn to read and write for self-respect and in order to protect herself from the machinations of her brother-in-law. This seemingly small detail is typical of the author's gift for evoking the feeling of the time through the minutiae of everyday living conditions. We feel the helplessness and uneasiness of a person whose very survival is threatened by the lack of simple knowledge that we take for granted today.
The night he returns to the farm with the unwilling Scotsman, John Marsh dies, leaving Ian Sutherland with an eighteenth century version of Sophie's choice. Much as he wishes to flee – and Marsh's fine horses and vulnerable wife put him in a position to do so – Ian is caught by the web of obligation the Marsh family started to weave around him the minute John Marsh unlocked his shackles. Expecting to be treated with contempt and abuse, Ian is furious to find that the Marsh's are decent, fair-minded people whose only goal is to survive, themselves, while doing what they can to save him from a worse fate at the hands of another master. Fancy would also like him to teach her and her children to read. Ian is trapped between his desire to find his helpless sister and his debt of honor and gratitude to the now defenseless Marsh family.
As grim as it may sound so far, this book is truly a stirring romance. Ian Sutherland and Fancy Marsh are a couple who do not consummate their relationship until halfway through the book, and I was so caught up in their agonizing attempt to do the right thing for all the people involved, that I never even noticed how long it took to happen. Usually I get so tired of couples who persist in resisting each other for no discernible reason, I frequently mumble, "Get on with it," as I read. But these two people are truly torn by their conflicting obligations, as well as their respect and caring for each other.
Fancy does not want Ian to be tied to her instead of free to find his sister; only her responsibility for her own children induces her to try to keep Ian on the farm. She is appalled at her attraction to Ian on the heels of her husband's death, yet desperate to know a passionate love just once in a life of care and obligation. Ian does not want to raise hopes in Fancy's mind or her heart that he is not free to fulfill and he is tormented by thoughts of what might be happening to Katy while he struggles to save the Marsh's farm.
These people's feelings for each other occupy only part of the complex territory of their hearts; their relationship with each other is one facet of a larger involvement in a network of loyalties that determines and redeems their actions. Looming most heavily over their love is Ian's fatalistic acceptance of his own eventual death – a death that, to him, is overdue. Ian tells Fancy of his brothers' deaths and of Derek's last words, saying, "And he is still waiting. I'm on borrowed time, lass. Enough time to find Katy and see to it that she is safe...when I leave here I most likely willna be back."
Unfortunately, the author was unable to craft an ending worthy of this powerful beginning and middle. Historical accuracy and plot integrity are sacrificed to the need to tie everything up neatly in a happy ending. Nonetheless, I'm recommending the book because it's such a fine example of what a historical romance can be – as opposed to some of the fantasy being peddled with costume covers. The choices these characters wrestle with so honestly are brutal, and their dramatization requires that we be taken out of our comfortable, twentieth-century, suburban perspective. There are no long, flowing tresses in this one – just the difficult truth about survival, love, and loyalty in an uncomfortable time.