The Hostage is a wonderful book for folks who like a romance to develop slowly. It’s the story of two people who not only fall in love, but grow and change from the experience of knowing each other. The American characters are the best I’ve read in ages, because they are complex and insightful individuals, not the countrified bumpkins who populate many homespun American historicals.
The story opens with a vivid description of the great Chicago fire that is sweeping the city. Deborah Sinclair, a spoiled and wealthy heiress, arrives at the Sinclair mansion to confront her father. Arthur Sinclair, a self-made millionaire, is determined to gain social acceptance through his daughter’s marriage to a man she despises. The two quarrel but, though nothing is resolved, the urgency of the fire requires that Deborah and her father leave the house. Just as they are about to go, a giant of a man bursts in on them, tries to kill Arthur, and takes Deborah hostage.
In no time Deborah is on a boat to Isle Royale, an isolated fishing village whose inhabitants have been irreparably harmed by her father’s ruthless business dealings. The man, whose name is Tom Silver, takes Deborah to his cabin and announces that she will remain there, until her father has paid her ransom.
Deborah soon discovers that none of the villagers, who seem to be of French Canadian and Indian extraction, are willing to help her to escape. For the first time in her life she is devoid of companions who fawn over her simply for who she is. In an effort to make friends, she begins to take part in the work of the Island. Bit by bit the residents of Isle Royale grow to respect her. In the meantime, Tom’s attempts to collect a ransom, to compensate the islanders who lost family in Arthur Sinclair’s copper mine, don’t go as planned. Deborah stays on and on. Finally it is time to evacuate the island for the winter. Through a series of mishaps Deborah and Tom end up trapped, alone, on the island for three months. When this happens The Hostage becomes a lovely cabin romance and the love story between Deborah and Tom finally unfolds.
Tom Silver, the huge “Paul Bunyan” of a hero, evolves as much as Deborah. When the book opens, Tom believes that killing Arthur Sinclair will extract some justice for the man’s terrible deeds. Later he believes that taking Sinclair’s daughter will do the job. But over time Tom grows to realize that killing a man solves nothing and that kidnapping Deborah was a great wrong.
When Tom falls for Deborah, he falls hard. It’s very romantic, because he seems like such a gruff man that his tenderness is a wonderful contrast. Deborah exhibits the kind of ignorance and innocence that one would expect in a nineteenth century virgin who had been raised without a mother. It’s unusually touching when Tom gently reassures Deborah about whether the lovemaking will hurt her, by saying “Honey, it is one of the things that I’m good at.”
Some readers may have a hard time with this book because the love story is very slow to play out. I found the first third rather slow, though the rest of the book made up for it. There are very few love scenes and those come near the end of the book. The strain of Deborah’s relationship with her father, Arthur Sinclair, is an important part of this book, and he is far more important than a third character usually is in a romance novel.
The Hostage is one of those stories where the sense of place is vivid, and that does make up for some of the slowness of the romance. When Deborah learns to clean fish with the women you feel the coldness of the wind and the sting every time she cuts herself on a fish scale. The weather including blizzards, ice storms and thaws determine the life and death of the island’s inhabitants.
This is the first time I’ve read a book by Susan Wiggs. I enjoyed the gruff hero, the heroine who matures and the rough people of the fishing village. For some reason, convincing American historicals are few and far between. This is one I recommend.