Dorothy Garlock first drew my attention when she moved from 19th century to 20th century American settings, mining a time period that I love, and that has so far been underused by romance authors. I’ve read and enjoyed several of her books, and Mother Road is another to add to the list.
Garlock specializes in tales of decent folks finding each other in rural and small town settings. In Mother Road she portrays the beginning of the enormous change that increased mobility, in the form of paved highways and widely available automobiles, wrought on that culture. Andy Connors owns a gas station and garage alongside Route 66 in Oklahoma, and in 1932 he deals honestly with everyone from desperate Dust Bowl refugees to bootleggers to Pretty Boy Floyd.
Unfortunately, life hasn’t treated Andy nearly as well. In his latest stroke of bad luck, he has been bitten by a rabid skunk and requires six weeks of treatment in a city hospital. Fortunately, the taciturn H.B. Yates arrived on the scene just as this happened, and, claiming that he has a debt to repay to Andy, takes over running the garage and watching out for the three women in Andy’s life.
While Andy’s two small daughters are charming, it’s the adult woman, Leona, who catches Yates’ eye. He is drawn to her good looks, decent and competent dealings with everyone from customers to neighbors, and her fiesty side that comes out when he arrives on the scene and takes over. Even as he tries to get to know her better, Yates wrestles with his guilt over his interest in Andy’s woman.
Leona has problems of her own. She has a terrible reputation in town because she has been “living in sin” with Andy and refusing to marry him while caring for his two orphaned daughters. Her brother Virgil, a mainstay of the local “roller” fundamentalist church, periodically shows up to threaten her and try to force her to marry someone of his choosing, who will control what he sees as her “whorish” ways. With Andy out of the picture, Virgil thinks he has a chance of succeeding in gaining control of both Leona and Andy’s two daughters.
Leona and Yates are both appealing but wounded people, and I enjoyed their interactions as they often clumsily feel their way toward a friendship, and then toward something more than that. Garlock’s story works best when focused on them and the routines of everyday life in the 1930’s. I loved the portrayals of minor details such as how the old-time gas pumps operated, the work of cooking, canning vegetables and gardening, and the deep enjoyment of simple pleasures like a a water tank for bathing and cooling off in the summer heat.
The plotline involving the fragility of a woman’s good reputation in a small town of the time was compelling as well. However, most of that theme is played out through interactions with the increasingly despicable Virgil, who is crudely drawn and one-note in his relations with everyone, especially the women in his life. It’s yet another book where religiosity and bigotry go hand in hand, although Garlock makes a point that other townspeople do not believe as Virgil does, including many members of his own church.
If that wasn’t annoying enough, in Garlock’s books there always seems to be a correlation between how likable a character is and how strong their phonetically-spelled regional dialect is. Virgil and his cronies are, of course, worst of all, and reading diatribes like “Get yore thin’s. Yo’re comin’ home. Abe’ll make ya a good man. Yo’re long past marryin’….Mind me now. I ain’t takin’ no sass from ya,” gets hard on the eyes in a hurry. Nor is it ever explained how Virgil and Leona can be brother and sister, yet one speaks like a reject from Deliverance while the other uses perfect grammar.
I liked Mother Road best in the first half of the book, when Leona and Yates are strangers to each other and Yates is new to the town, and we get to know the cast of characters as he does, from the outside in. As the book goes on and the plot featuring Virgil develops, other characters’ viewpoints keep popping in, everyone from the local doctor to Virgil’s son. Instead of adding to the story, they distract and diffuse the intensity. I would have prefered to stay more tightly focused on the goings-on at Andy’s garage and house and find out what the bad guys were up to as Yates and Leona do. Nevertheless, this is a fast-paced story that goes down easy. If you are like me and seek out books featuring pre-1950’s American settings, give Mother Road a try. It’s an enjoyable, if not particularly deep, read.