I’ve never been to a World’s Fair. I do have an idea of their pageantry and romance gleaned from movies like Meet Me at St. Louis though, and this book does an excellent job of using the glitz and glamour of a World’s Fair as a backdrop for a heartfelt romance.
Billy Jack Tate’s parents didn’t let the little fact that she was a girl keep them from naming her after her grandfather. And Billy Jack has never let the fact that she is a woman keep her from going after what she wants. Determined to practice medicine and help others heal, she puts herself through medical school and takes on a “man’s” profession. As a speaker at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair International Convention of Woman’s Progress she plans to inspire other women to pursue their dreams no matter what the obstacles. Well, that’s her plan. If she can just get past the guard and into the building where she’s supposed to give her speech.
As a Texas Ranger and World’s Fair guard Hunter Scott has heard some interesting tall tales over the years but the woman trying to enter a packed Columbus Hall by claiming to be a doctor has to beat all. Called the “toughest man west of any place east”, he is not about to let some pretty lady in a lime green skirt bluster, bully or cajole her way past him. His job is to guard the hall and he does just that by insisting she get off the steps and away from the building – pronto.
Seeing no other option and determined to get past the determined guard, Billy Jack sneaks in through a basement window, throwing propriety to the wind. She’s just glad no one is down there to witness the complete revealing of her modest but still wildly exhibitionist (by the day’s standards) pantalets. So imagine her surprise when she finds the bully who kept her from entering the building via conventional means has fully enjoyed the fiasco of her drop through the window! Fortunately, her determination pays off and she is able to give her speech. As an added bit of luck, the women’s building at the fair is in need of a lady doctor and Billy Jack gets the chance to fill that position. And who should one of her first patients be but the guard so determined to keep her from the fair, suffering from a severe case of constipation?
Hunter never thought he’d be grateful for woman doctors – heck, he still has trouble believing such a thing actually exists – but Billy Jack Tate restores his faith in the medical profession. She does a good job of helping him through a tough time and in the coming days, proves to be a pleasure to be around. When the two find an abandoned baby they unite in the efforts first to find the child’s parents and then to find it a place until that happens. Hull House on Chicago’s West Side comes highly recommended. When they see the appalling conditions of the children in the slums of that area they unite once more in an effort to help the community. Hunter can see himself and Billy Jack walking in step for the rest of their lives if it wasn’t for just one little problem – he doesn’t want a wife who works. And Billy Jack has no intention of giving up her profession.
There’s a lot to love about this novel that makes us take a hard look at the fact that the world was – and still can be – a very unfair place. The author does an excellent job of juxtaposing the opulence of the world’s fair with the extreme poverty in the slums just a short train ride away. She also does a great job of highlighting the unfairness in the treatment of professional women during this time period. What I especially admired is that she does this without a hint of malice – she shows us what was happening and lets the reader determine the fairness or unfairness of what was occurring.
Billy Jack is the perfect protagonist for such a tale. She is driven but is also practical and intelligent. She doesn’t bludgeon her way through problems but instead uses reason and determination to achieve her goals. When the baby was found I had the awful fear that she would drop everything to become a wife and mother. She doesn’t. Throughout the book she remains firm in her conviction that she will practice medicine. This presents an excellent source of conflict between hero and heroine since this is a time when women didn’t work and Hunter very much wants a traditional wife.
It would have been the easy way out for Hunter to bluster and bully but he is also practical and fair. His big concern is for any children they might have. Who will raise them? He makes it clear that he too loves his job and that that job requires him to be away from home for long periods of time. Someone needs to be able to devote themselves to the family given that he won’t be able to. I appreciate the resolution the author comes to. I feel it is an excellent compromise that allows both characters to have some of what they want without there being a power struggle in which one person is the clear loser. This gave their HEA a more realistic feel to me.
I appreciate also that their courtship wasn’t one long battle of wills. There are a lot of sweet moments to savor as Billy Jack and Hunter get to know each other.
I’ve labeled this an Inspirational Romance because that is what Gist traditionally writes but the religious factor of this book would be a three or four on a scale of 1 to 10 (with one being almost no talk of God and ten being a sermon.) God is mentioned, prayer is talked about, scripture receives a comment or two but faith is not as central to the story as it is in many of Gist’s works. The novel still worked for me as a depiction of the behavior of actual Christians and I thought the account of their faith would have been accurate for most people of that time.
I should also add that the book is a bit more passionate than many Inspirationals. It depicts desire between an engaged couple, as well as temptation and while not inviting us into the marriage bed it does allow us to spend several moments in the honeymoon suite prior to the main event.
If the book had a flaw – and this would be small one – it was that the humorous touches sometimes didn’t flow easily into the tale. Since humor is so subjective it is hard to say if this was an actual discordant note or if it just didn’t work for me.
This romantic historical novel is a great read for romance fans, especially those who enjoy a subtle or kisses sensuality rating. I am happy to recommend it to our readers.