Hearts Unbound is not your typical Eastern-lady-meets-frontier-doctor Western, unless you’re willing to all the way across the Atlantic to get your Easterner: the heroine is Basque. Despite historical details which sometimes interfere with the narrative, and a romance that is fine at best, I still recommend the book for its interesting perspective on a relatively unexplored corner of US history.
Pia Carranza, a young Basque woman from Guernica, Spain, emigrates to the United States with her mother and sister to join her father in Idaho. Dr. Bart Wilson is a wealthy young doctor who finds himself drawn to the immigrant community in general, and Pia in particular. This brings them into conflict with both Pia’s Basque tradition, which says that Basque women marry Basque men, and some frontier Americans, who hate that Basques accept low wage for hard jobs, and who also cannot distinguish Basques from America’s foes in the Spanish-American War.
This book was clearly meticulously researched, as the immigrant experience, Basque culture, Idaho setting, and Spanish-American War backdrop are presented in great detail. Basque phrases are used frequently but not obtrusively. One of the story’s strongest points is the exploration of racist stereotyping by some of the Americans, whose conflation of the Basques with America’s Spanish enemies is unfortunately reminiscent of modern hate crimes against American Muslims and Sikhs. Pia’s traditional sister Elixabete serves as an interesting foil for Pia, and I appreciated that their conflict felt authentically sisterly.
Sometimes, however, the detail is excessive, coming at the expense of greater character development. The author provides, for instance, five paragraphs describing the history of Bart’s house through multiple previous owners, roughly the same word count that is spent on Pia and Bart’s first meeting. In another scene, the immigrant women are forced to strip and bathe in front of male immigration authorities. We get minimal exploration of the humiliation and emotional aspects of this experience, but meticulous play-by-play of the bath process, down to the name of the disinfectant (sodium hypochlorite, if you care).
Overall, that is my primary complaint about the book: I connected with the setting and I connected with the plot, but I never really connected with the characters. I don’t know why Bart first falls in love with Pia. Bart’s conflicted views about his medical career are underexplored and hastily resolved in the epilogue. Pia sporadically decides that Boise is so terrible that she must save money to return to Guernica. Pia, who comes from what we’re told is a profoundly conservative culture (she could be ruined just for being seen with Bart), at one point thanks him by kissing him, and later sneaks into his room at the boarding house while her friends and relatives sleep mere doors away.
Additionally, the writing is not great. Pia and Bart participate in a traditional Basque poetry contest, trading lines which are supposed to be secretly symbolic of their attraction, but which are not only blatantly obvious but downright painfully bad (“We have come to the end, will our hearts be broken?/ No, we will find a way. On this I have spoken.”) It also frustrated me that not a single Basque character speaks imperfect English, but both Chinese characters do.
Still, if you’re looking to be transported somewhere unusual, and if you enjoy family/culture conflicts, then Hearts Unbound will be a solid read for you. Despite its shortcomings, I’m glad I read it. Not only was it a perfectly acceptable read, but now I’m off to Google to learn more about Basque culture!