Desert Isle Keeper
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Thank God for digital publishing, and authors willing to make the transition. For years this 1996 RITA winner has been out of print, but last year Ms. Guhrke released this tale of an Irish boxer and a Southern lady electronically, and I finally read it a few nights ago after hearing amazing things. Well, for once you can believe the hyperbole and buzz. This is the standard for American historicals.
It is 1871 in Callersville, Louisiana, and Conor is about ignore some good advice. His boxing manager tells him that the man running the prizefight, Vernon Tyler, owns pretty much the whole town, and would take it very badly if the home boy lost to an Irish immigrant, and lost Vernon a whole heap of money. But Conor has a streak of defiance and stubbornness a mile wide, and he has nothing to lose. So he beats the local fighter and walks away with twenty-five dollars. Thirty seconds later, Tyler’s men beat Conor to a pulp and leave him on the road.
Olivia Maitland is now the only Maitland left at Peachtree – illness, war, alcoholism, and depression took her two brothers and parents over the years, and emancipation took the slaves. What was a thriving plantation has dwindled to a grove of peach trees, Olivia’s sole source of income, and which she managed to harvest each year with the help of an old farmhand and her three adopted daughters. But when her farmhand died last year, the chores became an increasing burden, and she won’t be able to harvest the peaches unless God sends her some help. Which he does, when Olivia spies Conor on the road, and takes him home to mend his ribs.
The course of love runs rather roughly for these two. There’s Vernon Tyler, who not only needs Peachtree so he can run a railway through the area, but also wants comeuppance on the town (who scorned the poor “white trash” boy) and Olivia (whose father refused his suit many years ago). I actually rather liked Vernon Tyler, not because he’s hero material (he’s not), but because his sins are well within the realm of reality, rather than cartoonish. There is nothing one-dimensional or false about his behaviour.
More problematic for our couple are Conor’s demons, of which there are many. Ms. Guhrke has said that she put Conor through the wringer; she is not joking. He has suffered immensely at the hands of the Irish Famine, the English aristocracy, the English military, and Vernon’s hired hands (to mention only a few). We see brief but tragic glimpses of Conor’s past in Ireland interspersed with the present story, beginning with his childhood and progressing to his involvement with the Fenians. His story is heartbreaking; he boxes because that is the only way he can stave off nightmares. He drinks, he swears, he gambles, he’s Catholic, and he can’t read – all things that make him Olivia’s polar opposite, and are real sources of problems for Olivia, to various extents – but by God he’s wonderful. He deserves every bit of goodness he can get.
Olivia’s life has not been easy either, although perhaps less spectacularly so than Conor’s. As I said, her courage is the slow-burning, rock-solid kind, and she has held steadfast against Vernon’s bullying for years because that’s who she is. Mind you, she isn’t perfect – she is as prone to judgment as anyone else, a fact borne home when her daughter points out the hypocrisy in being a “good Christian” and yet automatically judging Conor’s surface behaviour. But she learns and adapts; she is as much a survivor as Connor, and she loves her daughters very much. They are 5, 9, and 14 years of age, and the two younger ones toe a fine line between genuinely good girls and overly cute. There are times when it comes close (the “Daddy” moment comes to mind), but ultimately Miranda, Carrie, and Becky are welcome additions to the story.
Undoubtedly, the third highlight of the book is the historical immersion, which in my humble opinion is the best kind. Not long expositions on doings of the day, which anyone can grab from Wikipedia, but the little details that make your reading experience exponentially richer. The sprinkling of Gaelic and trace of Irish in Conor’s speech. His mother’s keening as their house is torn down by the English. The effect of the Civil War on everyday lives in the South. I was drowning in pleasure.
If I had one wee criticism, it’s pretty much the same one I have with most of Ms. Guhrke’s books: The hero’s declaration of love at the end is thankfully short but unfortunately qualifies as mushy. But let’s look at the big picture, shall we? Other than that, the plotting is gradual and lovely, the setting a marvel, the characters fantastic, and the writing sublime. I should have been writing a 15-page paper; instead, I read Conor’s Way. If that’s not an A, I don’t know what is.