The first few pages of A Promise Given didn't give me much hope that this would be a book I would enjoy. Set in the Wyoming Territory of 1889, we begin with a scene where the heroine, Jeanne O'Shea, and her little brother are in the clutches of their abusive stepfather. As someone who prefers her romances violence-free, I wondered what I was in for. But fear not, the book moves on from that point and doesn't overdo it.
Jeanne and her brother, Timmy, escape and they get a new start in life with the help of Leon Areggi, a sheepherder whose camps are in the desert outside the poverty-stricken mining town where Jeanne and Timmy live. Leon and his family have come to America from their Basque homeland to start a new life. They've been very successful and have built up a herd large enough to support them and provide a good home.
Sparks fly between Jeanne and Leon from their first meeting. Problem is, Leon is not free to pursue his attraction to Jeanne. He has promised to marry a Basque woman who has been sent for from the old country so that they can have good strong Basque children to carry on the traditions of their homeland.
Thus begins the central tension of Jeanne and Leon's relationship. There are other problems, of course, but this is the main impediment to their happiness. Leon is a man of his word and believes that a promise, once given, must be kept.
The setting of this Western is refreshing and unique, treading new territory: not a cattle drive or cowboy in sight. Anita Wall has obviously done a lot of research into this era in American history. She peppers her scenes with many realistic details of daily life in a sheep-herding camp.
Jeanne is a heroine we can admire. She takes responsibility for her livelihood, and that of her little brother. Life in the desert is lonely and tough, but she works hard and learns to protect herself in a man's world. Leon is a gentle, strong, capable hero, tender in his care of Jeanne and Timmy, but also tough enough to make difficult decisions when they're needed. Their love for each other unfolds gradually and we see the daily links that forge their relationship.
Although the setting and wealth of details are interesting, sometimes these details overwhelm the plot and pacing of the book. Unnecessary scenes that don't contribute anything to the story sometimes slow the action down. It takes a while before things really start to move along and parts of the book drag.
However, the biggest problem in a A Promise Given is the hero's stubbornness. When a book is hinged on a single major plot point as this book is, the motivation better be really strong. This time, it didn't quite work. Leon's refusal to acknowledge his relationship to Jeanne went on far too long. His blindness to Jeanne's suffering stretched my limits of tolerance and crossed the line from firm resolve to pure pigheadedness. Although Leon is characterized strongly enough to prevent the reader from completely losing faith in him, an earlier resolution to the story or stronger motivation on his part would have strengthened this book.
But these really aren't problems big enough to wreck the overall enjoyment of the story. Anita Wall has written some charming characters. Her supporting players are memorable, especially Pierre, Leon's rogue of a brother. A Promise Given is a lovely, absorbing love story that will give you hours of enjoyable reading.