Joe's Wife by Cheryl St. John
(Harlequin Hist. # 373 $ 4.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29051-9
****
You will love the front cover, the back cover AND the inside back cover of Joe's Wife, Cheryl St. John's new book. It is as though someone shook the editorial establishment and said: This is what our readers care about a meaty story if it's a man-sized-Kleenex-box, four-heart weeper, so much the better plus cover art which is neither misleading nor embarrassing and reflects accurately the text between those covers. Harlequin and Cheryl St. John win on all counts with Joe's Wife.

In Aspen Grove, Colorado, during the summer and fall of 1865, Joe's wife, Meg Telford, finds herself in a classic post-war situation. She is the young widow of her childhood sweetheart, Joe Telford, attempting to hang onto their dreams of owning a ranch, the Circle T.

Tye Hatcher survived a life-threatening, scarring leg wound and returned alive though Aspen Grove's elite would have prefer otherwise. The bastard son of a deceased prostitute, Tye was treated poorly by the town as a boy and is now shunned by them as he attempts to earn enough money to fulfill his dream of building a meat-packing plant. The only job he finds is playing the piano in the local saloon. Aside from the local minister and a friendly former prostitute, Meg Telford is the only person who acknowledges his presence, reminiscent of her kind treatment of him during their school years.

Meg is unwilling to let go of Joe's dream. She also enjoys her independent life on the ranch they bought and she now tries to keep going with a few old cowboys and some teenage boys who help on a group of neighboring ranches. Mortgage payments loom, furniture and items of value to be pawned dwindle and her choice is inescapable.

Meg chooses Tye. In a move that creates such a rift in town only the local minister will speak to her, Meg proposes a marriage Tye cannot refuse. In exchange for helping her keep the ranch going, she promises to help him with his dream of a packing plant if they accumulate sufficient funds. Her mother-in-law is shocked that Meg would choose such a marriage rather than sell the ranch and move back into town, the choice of a respectable woman.

Cheryl St. John conveys the pathos of a small western town to which few of the combatants return home. Those who do return are often disabled emotionally or physically. Parents grieve for lost sons, wives for lost husbands. Impoverished, young widows are forced to choose between living as charity cases in homes of relatives and finding another husband among a male population greatly reduced by the Civil War.

How Meg and Tye turn their arranged marriage into an honest, loving relationship is the heart of Cheryl St. John's story. How others in the town, especially Joe's family, learn to accept and value the choices made by this independent, feisty woman and tenderhearted, courageous man is as important to the impact of the tale. One should not have to risk life and limb to convince a town of one's worth, but as told by this author, the way in which Tye does so is credible.

The growing respect and admiration between Meg and Tye leads to some handwringing and repeated thoughts of I'm-not-good-enough-for-you. That may try the patience of the cynics out there, but it's perfect for the hankie crowd. Count me among the latter. Not only do I recommend Joe's Wife, I guarantee by page 299 you will be thinking of Meg as Tye's wife, calling the Circle T the Circle H, and wondering how it could ever have been otherwise.

--Sue Klock


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