Love Held Captive
During the past year I’ve enjoyed reading and reviewing Ms. Gray’s contemporary Amish romances. So when I learned her next novel would be set in both a different time period and culture, I looked forward to trying it. Love Held Captive is part of an historical trilogy following the lives of four Confederate soldiers who served time together at an officers’ POW camp on Johnson’s Island, Ohio. After the war all four return to their home state of Texas to rebuild their lives and discover love in the process. I had not read either of the two previous books and did not miss them. Love Held Captive stands very nicely on its own.
The book intertwines the lives of two honorable friends, two women struggling to survive, and one villain. The friends, Devin Monroe and Ethan Kelly, both Confederate officers, spent many months in a POW camp and succeeded in creating a tolerable situation for those incarcerated with them. When Colonel Daniel Bushnell arrived, the other prisoners soon recognized Bushnell’s basic meanness and Devin and Ethan often stepped in to stop his bullying. Little did they know that protecting people from Bushnell would become an important pattern in their lives.
After his release and return to Texas, Ethan often re-lives a raid he commanded in his nightmares. Scouring for supplies, his troops came upon a young woman alone on her pillaged plantation, a fresh scar running down her cheek. She had little left that could help Ethan’s hungry men, but he ordered them to strip the place bare. Memories of his actions in the face of her despair and helplessness continue to haunt him.
In the years after this encounter, Lizbeth Barclay survives, moves to San Antonio, and accepts with gratitude a position as a maid in an hotel. It’s a job far beneath the station she previously held in life but she has learned to accept her changed station. While performing her duties, she unexpectedly comes face-to-face with Daniel Bushnell, a hotel guest and the man who scarred and raped her. Even though Bushnell does not recognize Lizbeth, he senses her vulnerability and accosts her. Lizbeth fights him off and flees into what she thinks is an empty room, only to encounter Ethan, who calls the hotel home whenever he is in town. He can scarcely believe the woman of his nightmares is standing before him, shaken and scared. Even though Lizbeth does not immediately connect him with the wartime raiding party, Ethan determines to help her. After learning that her flight and her war injuries were caused by Bushnell, Ethan vows revenge.
While traveling to San Antonio to visit Ethan, Devin Monroe stops to water his horse in Boerne, Texas, and encounters the lovely Julianne Van Fleet. Her quiet dignity draws Devin to introduce himself, and he arranges several more encounters before formally calling on her. Julianne is wary of the attractive man’s visit, since society shunned her years ago. Once Devin reveals that he has come courting, Julianne gathers her courage to explain that during the war she had been Daniel Bushnell’s mistress – because it was the only way she could save herself and her grandmother from starvation. Devin is shocked and repulsed by this insight into Julianne’s past and departs, re-opening the old wounds she has carried since her rejection by genteel society.
These two meetings develop into parallel romantic storylines, each with a similar arc – Devin and Ethan are both attracted to women living outside society’s norms, and each man must face his own prejudice, family concerns, and the evil of Bushnell before finding a happy ending. Within days of Devin’s initial reaction to Julianne’s choices, his own sense of fairness begins to soften his opinion, and a conversation with his friend Ethan leads him to realize he made a grave error with Julianne. As Devin used his gifts to lead his men into battle, so did Julianne use what the Lord had given her to enable her survival. He determines to ask for her forgiveness and make amends as soon as he can. As Devin and Ethan depend upon each other for counsel regarding the women they are beginning to love, they agree to work together to bring Bushnell to justice.
Both Julianne and Lizbeth stand in sharp contrast to feistier fictional heroines like Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind. Both women believe their post-war status has rendered them unworthy of any proper relationship, and they live in a mist of dejected acceptance. I kept hoping they would be more proactive, but their courage was of another sort – living understated lives and piecing themselves back together bit-by-bit.
The themes of the novel are forgiveness and justice, and Ms. Gray uses this tightly bound group of five people to deftly explore how humans deal with evil in the world. Ethan’s initial approach is not justice, but revenge. If he can kill Bushnell, Ethan hopes he will earn forgiveness for his own conduct against Lizbeth while Devin argues the true source of forgiveness is the grace of God.
I enjoyed the way the author portrays Julianne’s story arc. Her re-entry into society is not on Devin’s arm, but because of the friendship of a brother and sister who remember Julianne’s kindness to their family during the war. The siblings show true Christian character by disregarding Julianne’s infamous history and offering her friendship. I especially liked the Texas setting in which the themes were developed since I knew almost nothing about the role Texas played in the Civil War nor realized how war had affected the state.
The unusual setting of post-Civil War Texas, strong themes, and well-drawn characters kept me reading, but I felt the romance in the story falls short. The fact that both women were harmed by the same man seemed contrived, and the use of a similar romantic conflict for both couples stretched the bounds of credibility. In addition, the romance takes second place to each character’s struggle and the issues surrounding Ethan’s planned revenge. There are long stretches in the story during which the lovers are separated without communication.
Despite these shortcomings, Love Held Captive tells a good story, and I liked it. Fans of Ms. Gray and readers who enjoy subtle romances rich in history and narrative will surely enjoy it.