A Promise Given
One of the reasons I seldom read American westerns is because the characters and situations are so consistent. The cowboys, ranchers, spinsters and schoolmarms, all seem to have been born and raised on the prairie or on the plains. I wonder where the immigrants are. Willa Cather or Laura Ingalls Wilder often wrote about the Scandinavians and Bohemians who helped to build the country and those books seemed far more interesting to me.
Anita Wall’s A Promise Given reminded of the Cather/Wilder version of American. Most of the characters are Basque sheepherders who speak broken English and exhibit a fierce family loyalty. By the time I finished it I felt I knew something about Basques and everything I learned made me want to learn more.
A Promise Given begins with the escape of Jeanne O’Shea and her brother Timmy, from their abusive stepfather Mean John. Jeanne’s mother is dead and Mean John has been mercilessly beating Jean and pressuring her for sex. The three live on a poor homestead outside of town. In their escape Jeanne and Timmy find an abandoned wagon. Leon Arregi, a shaggy haired Basque sheepherder, is surprised to find this small terrified woman and coughing little boy, in his wagon. Leon loves children. He has wanted a wife for years. Rather than being upset at the inconvenience, he is happy for the opportunity to take care of them.
Jeanne has been abused for so long that she cannot bear the slightest touch of a man, but Leon lets her know from the start that she has nothing to fear. He nurses her and the boy. Soon Leon’s witty, handsome brother Pierre joins them exhibiting the same trustworthiness as Leon. Slowly, very slowly, Jeanne grows to believe him.
Leon’s growing attraction to Jeanne is a problem for him. He knows enough about Jeanne’s past to understand why she shirks his touch. But as the two spend time together he falls in love with her. He has another problem as well. Before he met Jeanne, Leon had grown so lonely that he gave his mother money to pay for passage for a Basque woman to come to American and marry him. Leon is engaged and, though he has never met his future wife, he believes he must keep his promise.
As the story progresses Jeanne grows to love Leon. Ironically the same things that make her love him, his steadfastness, loyalty and integrity, are the things that keep them apart. Leon believes that he must remain engaged. But Leon needs help, and Jeanne needs work, so he trains her as a herder and hires her. Jeanne gets to know the other herders, the neighbors and Leon’s family. Eventually, things come to a head and the two become lovers in spite of the bride whom Jean knows will arrive in the autumn. Then begins the second part of the story. What does a good man do when whatever he does will result in betrayal?
Leon has got be one of the best heroes I’ve read this year. He is modest, inarticulate and heartbreakingly admirable. Leon can be awfully thickheaded though, which is why this book just misses DIK status. After Leon and Jeanne have become lovers, Leon doesn’t seem to understand that his responsibility is to her. Once he makes love to her, Jeanne’s fragile heart is more his responsibility than that of a woman whom he has never met.
Jeanne O’Shea broke my heart pure and simple. She’s an intelligent woman who has been abused both emotionally and physically but has always put herself after her brother Timmy. Jeanne shows her bravery and tenacity by never giving up. She works tirelessly, learns to become a herder, learns to shoot and how to nurse a man with a broken rib cage. Jeanne’s love for Leon never waivers. She cries a good deal. Who wouldn’t? You can’t help but understand what the author never states. Jeanne hoped against hope that Leon would change his mind and when he doesn’t she cannot help but believe that he never really wanted her at all.
In addition to Leon’s pigheadedness, A Promise Given suffers from a too convenient and too-easy wrap-up. Author Anita Wall takes us down to the wire before solving what had been a seemingly overwhelming problem in a single chapter. Yes, she laid the groundwork, but I thought it was too fast.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Try it, even if you don’t ordinarily read westerns. Leon’s Basque family especially his charming brother Pierre (who deserves a book of his own) make it very different. This seems to be Ms. Wall’s second book. I’m looking forward to reading the first. Anita Wall is a real find.