Courting Miss Hattie
Pamela Morsi’s Americana romances always give me a cozy feeling when I pick them up, as if I’m about to wrap a quilt around myself and sip hot chocolate. Courting Miss Hattie, set in Arkansas in the early 1900s, was no exception when it came to the warm fuzzies, but something in the execution proved lacking.
Hattie Colfax, a spinster aged twenty-nine who owns her own farm, discovers that the recently widowed Ancil Drayton has asked their preacher whether it would be appropriate to court her. Hattie has been single for so long that no one imagines she’s interested in a husband, and Ancil is prompted by his seven kids’ need for a mother rather than any desire for her. But Hattie fears she’ll never have a family of her own, so she agrees that he can court her.
She also decides that if she marries Ancil, she’ll sell the farm to Reed Tyler, her hired man who’s worked on it for all his life. Five years younger than she is, Reed thinks of Hattie as combination of older sister and boss. But when he hears she’s stepping out with Ancil Drayton, he starts to see her in a new light. Then Hattie, feeling her courtship isn’t what she hoped it would be, asks Reed to show her how to kiss.
This is a good setup. Reed can’t court Hattie himself because he’s engaged, but the two of them are pretty much made for each other. When he tells her he can’t buy the farm yet because he hasn’t saved up enough money, she suggests growing a second crop, and they work together with a struggling mechanic to develop the land for the cultivation of rice.
So far, so good. The scenes where a businesswoman, a farmer and a mechanic tackle the problems of growing rice are well written, making the story an easy read. Unfortunately, the romance wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. Ancil Drayton is obviously the wrong man for Hattie, but since there’s no reason she has to marry him, he’s easily disposed of. Likewise, it’s clear that Reed’s fiancée is the wrong woman for him, but it takes him a while to catch up with what readers already know.
In other words, there’s no real or insurmountable conflict. Spares are paired and a good time is had by all, except for me. By the two-thirds mark, Hattie and Reed are married, which made perfect sense since they like and respect each other, work well together, have great sex (lots of it) and share a vision for the farm. It’s all very smooth sailing, but the stakes became the outcome of the rice crop. I just couldn’t get worked up about rice.
Since something between them still needs to be in doubt, though, Hattie believes that Reed isn’t really in love with her. Because she was unattractive as a girl – her nickname was Horseface Hattie, which Ancil Drayton uses when she’s not around – she doesn’t think any man could marry her for love, Reed included.
This got immensely frustrating. Firstly, Reed treats her like a princess and makes it clear he’s really turned on by her. Secondly, I’m not keen on the belief that physical beauty is a requirement for love, so Hattie’s clinging to this notion irked me. She’s an intelligent businesswoman, a kind neighbor, and a competent housekeeper… but it’s all in vain because she isn’t pretty? Reed even tells her he loves her, but of course that’s not good enough.
“I love you, Hattie,” he whispered as he drifted off to sleep.
“Of course you do,” she replied, stroking his hair as tears stung the back of her eyes and she wished with all her heart that it was true.
Is he in the habit of murmuring lies just before he drifts off? “I love you, Hattie. Of course I don’t mind working overtime. That was a wonderful sermon.” I’m fine with the heroine realizing the hero loves her because of something dramatic he does at the end of the book, but then the rest of the story needs to build up to this. A romance that’s pleasant and low-key all along just doesn’t fit with the grand emotional climax.
Courting Miss Hattie was a good way to pass a few hours, and one scene—the mating of a sow, which goes a bit wrong at first—made me laugh. The setting was authentic and Ms. Morsi has clearly done her research. But it wasn’t up to the standard of her best Americana romances.