Trust to Chance
There’s a special kind of disappointment in a book that starts out with promising characters but fails to deliver an interesting plot to sustain them. Trust to Chance has two of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen in awhile – and one of the worst, most un-romantic plots in recent memory. What a waste!
Rebecca Marston is the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, but she defies her family and travels west to become a nurse in an Arkansas military hospital where her cousin is a doctor. It doesn’t take her long to discover that, despite her ideals and commitment to the Union cause, she is ill suited for hospital work. She puts on a brave front, but she can barely stand the sight of blood, and most of the hospital’s officials wish she’d just go home. She is determined to stick it out, because she’s planned to live the life of a reformer, working to better the condition of women, slaves, and anyone who is repressed.
Jacob Fuller couldn’t be more different. He’s originally from a farming town in Indiana, and he works with horses. He’s been in the Union army for several years, and most recently suffered through incarceration in the notorious Andersonville prison. After seeing the destruction the war has wrought on the common soldier, he’s not at all sure it was worth the cause, or that the military leaders even care about the rank and file.
The paths of these individuals collide when they are both taken captive by a band of Confederate raiders during the waning days of the Civil War. Rebecca is kidnapped and held for ransom, and Jacob and three companions are pulled from the river when the steamboat they are traveling on, the Sultana, blows up. Confederate Colonel Hall and his band of ragtag warriors take Jacob and his comrades as prisoners, and stick them in a house with Rebecca. She nurses the wounded men while the colonel waits for the ransom money.
This would have been okay if it had been a small part of the story, but Jacob and Rebecca are held captive for three quarters of the book, in circumstances that are decidedly not conducive to romance. Their promising characters go completely unexplored, and the inherent conflict they would have faced as two very different people is replaced by an external conflict that is both distasteful and irritating. Ms. Atlee lets us into everyone’s head with frequent shifts in point of view. Everyone gets plenty of time, including the one-eyed soldier who is obsessed with raping Rebecca (well, all the raiders want to rape Rebecca, but he really wants to rape Rebecca).
To make matters worse, Rebecca eventually makes the leap from intriguing and flawed to TSTL. It happens when she is first accosted by the one-eyed would-be rapist, Asa. Asa decides that instead of raping her right away, he’ll give her a choice. For every night she refuses him, he’ll kill one of the wounded men downstairs. He then locks her in the attic and smothers a soldier to death. Rebecca eventually gets out, and you’d think she’d confide in Jacob, the handsome, not-so-wounded guy she is beginning to love. The guy who has found Asa’s gun and could probably save her from rape. But Rebecca refuses to tell him anything and decides she has no choice but to submit to Asa the next night. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would submit to rape without exhausting all of the available options. Jacob, who has considerably more brain power than Rebecca, eventually worms the truth out of her and asks her, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Frankly, I was as eager to hear the answer to this as Jacob was, but Rebecca changed the subject.
The plot only goes from bad to worse as Jacob and Rebecca are forced to perform a gruesome operation with crude implements. They have sex afterwards, not because they are really in love yet, but because Rebecca is planning on getting raped by Asa later that night and would rather have her first experience with Jacob. This is the only love scene in the book. Now, I am not one to insist that a book must be chock full of love scenes, but it is nice to have one after both of the characters really love each other – rather than a hurried coupling after a harrowing medical procedure.
What a book this could have been with a completely different plot. The ingredients were all there: promising characters, interesting setting (how many books have you seen set in the days after Lee surrendered but before the Civil War was truly over?), solid research. There are even fun quotes, mostly from early feminists, at the beginning of every chapter. Atlee even uses excerpts Abigail Adams’ famous “Remember the ladies” letter, one of my personal favorites. Too bad the plot was such a spectacular failure. In the end, the author seems to have forgotten what should be a romance writer’s credo. To paraphrase the old campaign reminder: “It’s the romance, stupid.” Events in a romance novel should complement the characters and work toward their eventual happy ending. A grisly almost-rape fest does not a romance make.