Romances set during and after the Civil War are scarce as can be these days, so I was really looking forward to Magnolia Creek, particularly as it is set in Kentucky, near where I live. While it has many qualities to recommend it, I found it sadly lacking in the main thing a romance novel simply must have – a strong relationship between the hero and heroine.
Dru Talbott is a young doctor in the small Kentucky town of Magnolia Creek. After a very short courtship, he marries Sara Collier, a backwoods girl whose family operates a ferry. After their wedding night, Dru leaves to join his neighbors in the Kentucky Brigade. Sara stays with Dru’s sister Louzanna, who suffers from hysteria and has not left the house since her fiancé was killed on the way to their wedding.
Sara, Louzanna, and Jamie, a former slave, now a servant, live a quiet life. They get along as well as can be expected, but their lives are changed when they get word that Dru has been killed. Lou refuses to believe he is dead, but after a year has passed, Sara resigns herself to widowhood. When a troop of Yankees comes to Magnolia Creek, one of them pays court to Sara. She, believing that Dru is dead, allows herself to be courted and when he promises marriage, she leaves for Ohio with him.
But Sara becomes pregnant, and she finds herself alone. The man has disappeared and given her a false address. Sara bears a daughter, and makes her way back to Magnolia Creek where she is persona non grata. Her father beats her, the townspeople shun her, but Louzanna takes her in.
Then Dru comes home alive.
Dru is bitterly hurt and betrayed by Sara’s infidelity, and to add insult to injury, the townspeople boycott him as long as he stays with the “traitor” Sara. It takes an epidemic for the town to forgive Dru and for him to forgive Sara.
Magnolia Creek had a lot to recommend it. I especially liked how Landis did not prettify her characters. Sara comes from an ignorant backwoods family. Her father rules with a Bible in one hand and a switch in the other. Her mother is old before her time, worn out with work and childbearing. The home Sara comes from, is cramped, dark, and it stinks. When characters take sick, some of them die. Sara’s daughter Elizabeth is a realistic baby, not an angel child at all. She throws tantrums, and acts her age. The town seems very lived-in, not just a prop for the story. The sole character who is too good to be true is Jamie, who is practically a saint.
Landis gives a good picture of how the war affected Magnolia Creek. Kentucky was not the site of bitter fighting like Georgia was, so there are no destroyed homes or ruined crops, but the war affects the area just the same. Commerce is disrupted – the new owner of the sorghum molasses mill, formerly owned by the Talbotts, is unable to get parts to repair it, so is unable to pay Dru what he owes. Magnolia Creek was a town sympathetic to the Confederacy, and many families have lost loved ones or see their men come back maimed and sick in heart and mind, and they blame the Union. So Sara, who has consorted with the “enemy” is the focus of their resentment.
The big problem I had with the book was the relationship between Sara and Dru. They never seemed to fit each other as a couple because the discrepancies between their situations are too extreme. Dru is a well educated doctor from a prominent family, who is especially interested in the germ theory of disease versus the contagion theory. Sara is an illiterate young woman from a backwoods family who live in squalor. She still holds to the old ways of her grandfather and believes in charms and spells (tie a flattened bullet around a baby’s neck to cure the croup). At one point, she admits that she spelled Dru to fall in love with her. They had a quickie marriage after they had known each other for only two weeks, and Dru’s memories of Sara and love for her are idealistic to the extreme. When Dru does comes back, he and Sara don’t communicate all that much. His reaction to her spells and charms is one of exasperation. I have read my share of Cinderella stories, stories that transcend the discrepancy between classes. This one did not.
If the relationship between Dru and Sara had been stronger, this would have been a much stronger book. If it had not been a romance, perhaps the unequal relationship would not have bothered me as much as it did. Other readers might not mind the discrepancy between Dru and Sara as much as I did. While it is a slightly better than average book, it’s not one I can really recommend.