Desert Isle Keeper
Her Hesitant Heart
When I read the synopsis of this story, I thought it looked simple and sweet, and although I don’t read a lot of Westerns in general, I wanted to read this one. While the romance between our two main characters could definitely be classified as sweet, I would never call this book simple. It is amazing how complex everyday lives become when seen from outside. And how satisfying that kind of story can be.
Susanna Hopkins, divorced and outcast, has made her way across the country from Pennsylvania to Wyoming Territory, is running out of money, and still has a bit farther to go to get to her new teaching position at Fort Laramie. Luckily, post surgeon Joseph Randolph has volunteered to fetch her from Cheyenne, bringing her the last little bit she has to travel. Unfortunately, Susanna’s trials are not yet over with, as she works to establish a place for herself among the military families.
Oh, this book! I started reading it, just intending to get through the first couple of chapters, and then couldn’t put it down until I finished it. It is quiet and sweet, with a plot that really moves both the reader and the story. Both Susanna and Joseph (Joe) have very troubled pasts, and they both have to work their way through the trauma before they can be together. Add that to the setting, at an army fort during a series of battles in Wyoming leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, there is plenty happening on both the personal level and the worldly one.
The romance in this story is there the whole time – you can see it building between Susanna and Joe, and between several other couples in the story – but there is so much going on that it is simply the piece that everything else builds on. Joe brings Susanna into the life at Fort Laramie, both physically bringing her from Cheyenne and introducing her to many of the supporting characters of the story. Susanna sits with injured soldiers in the hospital ward, reading to them in the evenings (starting with Little Women, not a dry eye in the house!), and with women in the fort after miscarriages. She’s a lovely person, trying to start a new life when all the odds are against her. I don’t know much about divorce proceedings in the 1870s, but I can’t imagine it was in favor of the wives, in terms of children and finances. Joe’s story with his wife is utterly tragic, and his actions haunt him. As their relationship as friends progresses, you can see the undercurrents that will turn into a lovely romance and a strong, enduring relationship.
The insular nature of the fort community ensures that everyone knows everything about those around them. Susanna enters the community with a strike against her already – her past. And although the fort’s residents don’t know the situation (at first, at least), keeping it a secret drains Susana to the point of almost giving up everything. She is a truly sympathetic character, and her continuing effort to forgive others makes her a lovely person, fictional or not. My only complaint is that she sometimes made me feel like a bad person – while she has trouble doing so, she is still able to both forgive and help someone who made her life miserable.
Sadly, while I know it is more a construct of the time period than of the character or the author, there is such a dichotomy between the sexes at the fort. Women deal with women matters and men deal with the war. That is pretty much all we get to see. At least Susanna recognizes it, and points it out at one point. A secondary character has a miscarriage, and her husband is expected at what is essentially roll call the next morning. Sadly, because of the time period, thoughts and moments like these really stood out as anachronisms, pulling me out of the story a bit. I don’t know if there is a way to address it, while still staying true to the time period, but I live in hope!
Overall, I really enjoyed this story. It was soft and sweet and made me smile the whole time. I may have said “Aww” out loud once or twice as well!