Moonlight on Water
Moonlight on Water is set in a small town on the Ohio River – Haven, Indiana, home to River’s Haven, a utopian religious group. I have always been fascinated by experiments in religious utopias – there’s a Shaker colony about 15 miles from my home, so I started this book enthusiastically. But I ran into a lot of problems, and my enthusiasm was rapidly squelched.
Rachel Browning lives in River’s Haven where she is in charge of the finances. She is under a lot of pressure on several fronts. Rachel is a foster mother to a young girl, Katherine Mulligan (known as Kitty Cat), who came to the community on the orphan train. In accordance with the child-rearing practices of the community, when she turns seven, Kitty will be raised with the other children in a separate building. Until then, Rachel is in charge of Kitty and has come to love her. Rachel worries that Kitty will be hurt if she has to leave. Also, Rachel is being pushed to marry. The community’s marriage practice is to marry for one year, then divorce and marry another person, Rachel’s brother is on his third wife. Exclusive love is considered sinful, and there are those in the community who look with disfavor at Rachel for keeping Kitty with her. But Rachel is having doubts about marriage even though a handsome man on the council of elders wants her for his wife.
Kitty is a mischievous child. One day, she runs off in search of some of her friends from the orphan train. Down by the river, she meets Wyatt Colton, who owns the river boat, The Ohio Star. Wyatt is waiting for parts to repair a broken boiler. He and his partner befriend Kitty. When Rachel comes looking for Kitty, Wyatt is attracted to her.
The external conflict could have been much stronger than it was. Here we have a religious group that is practicing a type of marriage far outside the mainstream. Other religious groups who practiced non-traditional ways of marriage, the Latter Day Saints and the Oneida Colony, historically found themselves the object of persecution. In this book, the River’s Haven group is portrayed as a bit standoffish, but no one denounces them, not even the local minister. He is quite tolerant actually. Maybe in the 21st century that would be true (and then again, maybe not), but certainly not in this time period.
The other big problem was more basic and had to do with Wyatt and Rachel; I never warmed up to them at all. The relationship between Rachel and Kitty was warm and sweet, but Rachel and Wyatt? They never clicked as a couple. Wyatt was the quintissential rover who left home early and has roamed the river for years. At the end of the book he is making plans to settle down and live the contented life with Rachel. Had their attraction been stronger, this might have been realistic, but if I had to predict, I’d say he’ll be longing for the river before long.
Chalk this up as a book that failed to connect with me. Maybe someday a writer will use one of the American religious utopias as a setting for a satisfactory historical romance. Jane Yolen has written a very interesting Young Adult novel The Gifts of Sarah Barker, and Janice Holt Giles has written the historical novel, The Believers. Both of these are set in Shaker colonies and both have a romance in them. I can recommend both of them highly, which is something I cannot say about Moonlight on Water.
|Review Date:||August 20, 2002|