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The Widows of Wichita County
by Jodi Thomas
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-55166-715-0
****
Jodi Thomas has become the latest historical author to explore the possibilities of the booming contemporary market. Not only has she left the past; she has also written a book which is not really a romance at all. Although there are clear romantic threads, The Widows of Wichita County is really about the relationship of five very different women whose lives are linked by tragedy and who forge strong bonds of friendship as a result.

The tragedy is an explosion at an oil rig. Four men are killed immediately; the fifth is horribly burned and unrecognizable. Their wives must now reconstruct their lives. How they do this is shaped by who they are.

Randi Howard was about to walk out on her third marriage when the explosion occurred. Her life with Jimmy had become too mundane, too constricting. Her husband was too wrapped up in his uncle’s oil business. Randi wants to escape small town Clifton Creek and seek fame and fortune in the big city. But what if the gravely injured man is Jimmy?

Crystal Howard is Shelby Howard’s young trophy wife. Everyone thinks she just married Shelby for his money, but she loves the man who rescued her from her humble roots. She knows that Shelby mostly cares about her appearance. She also knows that his greedy family has no time for her. She desperately wants the burned man to be her husband.

The other three widows know from the start that their husbands are dead. Meredith Allen, a second grade teacher, had married her high school sweetheart. Maybe Kevin was a less than perfect husband; maybe he had trouble holding a job; maybe he was one of those men who hadn’t quite grown up; maybe she had to work two jobs to keep them afloat financially. But he had been part of Meredith’s life forever. How would she live without him?

Anna Montana had met her husband Davis when he came to buy horses from her father’s stud in Italy. He had wooed her and won her, but when she arrived in Texas, it became clear that her husband was more interested in her family connections than in her. Anna, a sophisticated European, had felt isolated in Clifton Creek. Now she owns the ranch, but her brother - Davis’ friend and foreman - wants to keep her as isolated as her husband had.

Helena Whitworth is the oldest widow at sixty-three. J.D. had been her third and best loved husband. Left with infant twin daughters when her first husband had died in Vietnam, Helena had become the town’s most successful business woman and leading civic figure. She had married J.D. when he came back to Clifton Creek after retiring from the Marine Corps. He was her rock and she had looked forward to many more years with him. Now she is alone.

The Widows of Wichita County is a complex book with many threads. Each of the women must come to terms with her new situation. Crystal cares for her desperately injured husband devotedly. She must also withstand the machinations of her nasty stepson who seeks to take over Shelby’s business. The other women, and especially Helena, come to her aid.

Meredith is in danger of falling into a deep depression until the sheriff, Granger Farrington, steps in and shocks her back into life. Randi heads off the Memphis to seek fame and fortune. Anna finds herself still imprisoned in her gilded cage, this time by her domineering brother. Only her neighbor provides her with the warmth and comfort she needs. Helena soldiers on, but only because, in her mind, J.D. isn’t really gone .

The Widows of Wichita County had clear and enjoyable romantic elements, but these are not at the center of the plot. Rather this is a story of five women brought together by tragedy who form unlikely friendships as they cope with their losses. Given the large number of central figures, Thomas does a fine job of creating fully formed characters for each of the women. All come across as real people, with flaws as well as strengths.

Helena is perhaps the strongest of the five. Hers was the happiest marriage and she had also been financially successful. She is at the center of the story. Crystal appears to be the neediest at the outset and is the character who grows the most in the face of the challenge of caring for the desperately injured Shelby. Both Anna and Meredith found their marriages less than satisfactory and at the outset appeared overly passive. Both become stronger as they face the new realities of their lives. Randi is perhaps the least attractive of the widows; she seems self-centered and shallow. Yet even she becomes more sympathetic as the story progresses. The key to the success of the book is that Thomas shows us why each woman was the way she was and how each grows.

The male characters are well drawn, but less fully developed. There is one exception. Thomas takes us into the mind of the terribly burned husband and we feel his pain and suffering. We also watch as he comes to understand how much stronger Crystal is than he knew and how he comes to truly love her.

There are some intriguing twists and turns in the plot which leave the reader guessing. However, the book is primarily about the friendship that develops among five very different women and how that friendship helps each one to face the future.

I rate Thomas’ move into contemporary women’s fiction a success. The story of these five women whose lives changed radically in one horrible moment is a moving depiction of the power of friendship and the strength of the human spirit.

--Jean Mason


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