Sadly, I missed a month on the TBR Challenge. Covering for a co-worker out on maternity leave left me in survival mode, with not much time for extra reading outside of review books. However, life is settling back to normal and I’m back on the wagon again – and just in time to read a western! I’ve enjoyed several of Cheryl St. John’s books from the Harlequin Historicals line and I knew that she also wrote for the Love Inspired Historicals line. When I saw that this month’s theme, I decided to dig her 2011 inspirational Western, Marrying the Preacher’s Daughter out of the TBR pile and give it a whirl. As with all of her books, it was sweet and cozy, though this one was marred by some editing issues and strange pacing that would make it a B- read for me.
One thing I love about St. John’s writing is that she can write about families and children without making me feel manipulated. Her family stories manage to feel heartwarming rather than cheesy and I rarely find myself rolling my eyes at her child characters. And that held true in this book. The book is set in 1870s Colorado, and the story opens with a train robbery. The hero, Gabe Taggart, rescues the local pastor’s daughter, Elisabeth Hart, and her fellow passengers from robbers and gets injured in the process. Gabe has nowhere to go, so he ends up at the pastor’s home to recover.
Gabe has come to the small Colorado town of Jackson Springs to settle into a respectable life. He has earned his living doing a variety of things, including bounty hunting, that he is not entirely proud of though they did allow him to provide a good education for his younger sister. Now that his sister has finished school, he plans to settle down, start a ranch on a plot of land he had purchased years ago, and hopefully find his sister a husband. He hadn’t planned on an extended stay in the Hart family home and since he found Elisabeth annoying and opinionated from the moment he met her, he certainly didn’t think he’d fall for her. However, as he recuperates from his injuries, he finds himself enjoying the verbal battles with Elisabeth and also starts to see a more caring side of her as well. And not surprisingly, the not entirely reformed gunslinger starts to fall head over heels for the proper preacher’s daughter.
With Gabe’s past and the aftermath of the robbery, one might expect this to be an action-packed Western, but it’s actually a much quieter story for the most part. And that tone really works. The daily routines of life in the Hart household and Gabe’s recovery from his wounds sets a slower pace that gives the characters time to interact. The love story felt believable because Elisabeth and Gabe really did get to spend a lot of time together without it feeling forced or contrived.
Midway through the story, Gabe’s sister Irene arrives in Colorado and the secondary plots associated with her arrival ended up being fun as well. After her education out East, she has become independent and outspoken, particularly on her chosen cause of suffrage for women. This is a plot that could have easily ended up being a caricature, but instead the author gave Irene just enough depth to make her seem more human. And given how conservative characters in inspirationals can be, I enjoyed seeing a strong, non-traditional female character like Irene.
My biggest quibble with this story came from the editing. There were bloopers in the text (and I was reading a finished edition that I purchased myself) which a good copyeditor should have caught. For example, at one point the heroine uses a famous quote from Proverbs and then tells Gabe that it was said by King Solomon, the father of David. And I sometimes found myself wondering what Gabe had done to his poor sister since sometimes readers are told that she is in boarding school in Philadelphia but then later the school is supposedly located in Chicago.
Added into that were some moments where the pacing of the story just felt a little odd. For example, after Gabe’s arrival in Jackson Springs, much of the plot focuses on his recovery, the household ups and downs at Elisabeth’s home, and Gabe’s budding relationship with Elisabeth. Suddenly out of nowhere, bandits show up in town and there is a confrontation. While the outcome of this event did serve to advance Gabe and Elisabeth’s relationship, the event itself felt random and since it was so different in tone from the rest of the story, the transition in mood felt a little awkward. There are a few more events like this that make the plotting in the second half of the book feel a touch awkward, but overall I did enjoy reading this story.
Compared to St. John’s regular historicals, this novel definitely has more religious content. However, it comes in the form of a family integrating religion into their daily lives rather than characters talking down to the reader. After all, much of the action takes place in a pastor’s large and very busy family; it doesn’t feel at all contrived for there to be characters praying or mentioning God from time to time. Even if this wasn’t my favorite of Cheryl St. John’s novels, I’m still glad I read it and I’ll probably follow both her secular and inspirational books from now on.
– Lynn Spencer