|I don’t do “marriage in trouble” books. They’ve never been a particular favorite of mine, because they a little too close to reality. In most romances, the couple rides off into the sunset, blissful, forever frozen in the first stages of love. The reader isn’t around long enough for them to start fighting about the kids, money problems and the fact that the hero doesn’t help around the house.
However, this is a “marriage in trouble” book written by Cheryl St. John – a very talented author who has worked in the Harlequin stables for a good number of years. Having enjoyed her books in the past, and Prairie Wife being a western, I threw caution to the wind. And boy am I glad I did! This book is the first true keeper I have read in a long, long time.
Jesse and Amy Shelby had a happy marriage. A love match from the first, they run a local way station that serves traveling passengers that come through on the stagecoach. Jesse also raises horses and has made a tidy profit selling them to the Army. Then their 3-year-old son, Tim, dies tragically and everything changes.
Amy closes herself off emotionally. She fools herself by saying that she’s “moved on” while Jesse continues to dwell on the past. The truth of the matter is that she’s shut herself down so she won’t have to feel any pain. She puts one foot in front of the other, stays busy with work, but she has become a loner. No one can get close to her thanks to the barriers she has erected – including her grieving husband.
Jesse is adrift and lost. The girl he fell in love with and married is gone, his precious son is dead and there is no one to comfort him in his hour of grief. He wants to share that grief with his wife, hold her, make love to her, and talk with her. Instead his wife pushes him away and Jesse begins to find his solace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
St. John doesn’t use a flashy writing style or voice, instead employing a technique that is discreetly subtle and emotionally wrenching. Amy and Jesse’s grief is so palpable that it literally bleeds from the pages. I dare anyone to read the prologue and not feel as if their heart has been ripped out. The author also doesn’t make the mistake of beating the reader over the head with the conflict. She shows her characters living with it, trying to cope, and not being terribly successful at it.
One of the appeals of westerns is that so many of them focus on internal conflict – characters struggling to find themselves, move on, and start fresh somewhere new. Jesse and Amy are firmly entrenched to the land and their business, but they too need to find a way to move on, deal with their grief, and find their way back to each other.
The author does throw in some external conflict and plenty of secondary players that keep the story moving along. While Amy and Jesse are stuck in the moment, these external issues illustrate that life is passing them by and gives them added conflict to deal with. It also serves to show them that they cannot continue to live the way they have been, and that if their marriage is to survive that something has got to give.
Simply put, St. John has written a heartbreakingly real and emotional story. Grab the Kleenex, find a comfortable spot and dive right in. It’s been a long time since I have read a story that affected me this deeply, and kudos to St. John for writing it. For readers despairing that true depth and emotion had gone the way of cartoon covers – run to the bookstore. Don’t miss out on what will surely be one of 2005’s best.