The Hope of Azure Springs
Rachel Fordham’s début novel, The Hope of Azure Springs, is a very tender story about an abused woman and the sheriff who becomes enamored of her.
Nineteen-year-old Em Cooper has had a difficult life. Ending up on the Orphan Train and sent west from New York with her sister, they were separated when they reached their destination in Iowa. All of the other children brought to Beckford were adopted, but plain Em was rejected by everyone except an indifferent but not unkind trapper named George, who took her to his claim on the edge of neighboring Azure Springs. His neglectful guardianship came with requirements like living in his barn in all types of weather and bathing in an ice-cold spring, and Em was forced to trap small animals for sustenance. Caught up in the middle of a robbery, she is shot by a group of bandits who murdered George; wounded and in desperation, she rides into town alone in search of help and is found passed-out in the mud. Alone in Azure Springs, she requires medical care and the kindness of strangers until she regains consciousness, and Sherriff Caleb Reynolds is determined to make sure justice is served in her name.
Caleb knows how fragile the trail back to Em’s attackers is – the men are long gone by the time she rides into Azure Springs. Researching the mystery while Em regains her strength, he discovers that the bandits who killed George have returned to hang his body a tree as a warning. Em eventually provides him with a few more physical clues, but much of that night remains a self-protected mystery for her.
Em doesn’t understand why the people of Azure Springs – especially Caleb and the Howell family, who have taken her in during her travail – are suddenly treating her so nicely. But she begins to make friends and become something of a sister to the Howell’s children, taking a job in a boarding house with an eye to tracking down her now-teenage sister Lucy in the neighboring town of Beckford. Caleb begins to broaden her horizons – teaching her how to shoot while she teaches herself how to read in the hope of understanding her mother’s personal papers, and in the process the couple grows closer. Meanwhile, Caleb is caught between the eldest Howell child, Eliza, whom he’d been loosely courting, and his new feelings for Em.
While Caleb chases the bad guys, Em keeps dreaming of Beckford; but will her developing feelings for Caleb change everything? And what will happen when those bandits come back?
The Hope of Azure Springs is quite a touching piece of work, though it does have some research and characterization failures that keep it from reaching a perfect grade.
Em will likely reach a reader’s soft spot, even though her obsession with her own plainness increases to a degree that’s quite neurotic and unhealthy; it’s understandable because of the scarring experience she went through at the orphan train, but sometimes she feels a bit too skittish to be an adult woman. It’s something she does shake off with time, and she grows into a woman with grit and toughness.
Caleb has his own scars; brothers that passed away while he was very young, leaving him an orphan and feeling rootless. He is roundly human, making mistakes while being properly dashing and wonderful. They have a romance built from understanding and kindness as well as shared principles and discussions. There are a lot of sometimes too-saccharine fairytale tropes bouncing between them, but they add to the sweet and mild nature of the novel.
In general, this is a cast haunted by the bittersweet memory of those who have died before, and while there is loss there is a delicate balance of hope under the story’s skin. I liked Margaret, the woman who employs Em, the most, but even the hard-to-like character in the story (the sometimes one-note Eliza, for instance) ends up developing layers.
The book uses religion as a means for the characters to both commune with the dead and hope for the best. Its Christian characters are not perfect saints; the book’s biggest villains – like the gossips who attend the church social and hurt Em’s feelings by gossiping about her – are held up as examples of the wrong way to practice faith.
I only have two problems with the story, besides Em’s intense focus on her own plainness. Some of them are the research failures sprinkled throughout the book, such as when Em calls an 1800s New York City “The City That Never Sleeps”, a term that didn’t come into common parlance until the 1920s. The other is the way the author chooses to end the Lucy storyline. As realistic as it is, it doesn’t really inform the plot – and almost feels unnecessarily cruel.
But even with that fact in mind, The Hope of Azure Springs is still a worthy way to spend your time.