A Texas Christmas Past
I enjoy westerns and I enjoy Julia Justiss’ work, so I was eager to pick this up, but sadly, it ended up disappointing me. Whereas her Regency historical voice is assured and nuanced, the writing here felt flat and as though she was trying too hard. I’m not sure if it is the novella-length of the book or the type of story she is trying to tell – a Christmas western – but there is a lot of telling instead of showing of emotions. There is also an omniscient ghost through which we learn the hero’s state of mind, and this device left me further disenchanted with the whole book.
Drew Harwood returns to his Texas homestead from war overseas just in time for Christmas. Inhaling the scent of cedar garlands and watching the tall Christmas tree glowing in the gaslight of the bow-front windows as he climbs up the porch steps heralds the joyous welcome his mother and fiancée shower on him. Drew is finally home, not completely whole, but safe and loved.
But before the night is over, his beloved fiancée is dead of the Spanish flu and his homecoming turns to ashes.
A year later, Drew continues to grieve. He cannot shake off the melancholy consuming him during the day or the nightmares that occupy his nights. He continues to fight the war in desperation, in fear, in despair, night after night. His mother worries over him and decides to convert Harwood House into a hotel with a dining room for guests and a tea room for visitors in an attempt to pull his attention away from his troubles. Drew reluctantly acquiesces to having his space invaded by strangers.
In the meantime, he’s taken up carpentry and hired his wartime friend, Brady Elliott, to manage his ranch. His bum leg means he is unable to wrestle Longhorn cattle down if needed, but he can still sit a horse, and that allows him to ride and oversee the ranch. He’s made a life for himself, albeit one devoid of joy or hopefulness.
Another Christmas and the anniversary of his former fiancée are looming in his consciousness just as their first guest arrives for a long stay of a month. Audra Donaldson is a widow and Brady’s sister; she was also a nurse in the European war theater.
Both Audra and Drew are instantly attracted to each other, but distrust that emotion just as quickly. Neither is prepared for a relationship of any sort, not while they both suffer from PTSD. While Drew wants nothing more to do with the war, Audra wants to help returning soldiers suffering from private turmoil.
Seeing Drew’s suffering, his fiancée has now become a ghost intent on helping him find happiness. Her darling Drew had seemed no closer to getting back the life she wanted for him. In Audra, she sees Drew’s salvation, and she engineers their relationship by compelling their thoughts and urging their movements.
The whole story from this point forwards feels contrived and artificial. The ghost is manipulative and the one pulling the strings, rather than the relationship growing organically between Audra and Drew. It also spies on the two of them making love. Though she was long done with bodily things, [she] felt a twinge of delicious memory at the physical force that had crackled between them. And it rejoices in the success of finding Drew the companionship that will heal his spirit and sustain him for life. Maybe she would be able to salvage his future.
The thing that pushed the book from the D-grade bracket into the C-grade one is the realistic description of PTSD, how Drew and Audra suffer from it and how they start dealing with it together. Despite the positives and the warm, hopeful Christmas atmosphere, A Texas Christmas Past is not a book I would recommend.