Wishes on the Wind
Don’t be fooled by the ethereal title (or the redhead on the cover that looks nothing like the raven-haired heroine). Wishes on the Wind is for readers who like weight to their stories. Elaine Barbieri tackles the tough scene of the Pennsylvania coal fields of the 1870s, and does a creditable job of portraying the volatile and tragic circumstances of the miners of that era. Class distinction, social injustice, ethnic prejudice, and violence born of desperation form the backdrop to a romance doomed from the start, yet too true to die.
A tragic mine fire takes the life of Dennis O’Connor and five of his sons, leaving his wife Mary, fifteen-year old Sean, and fourteen-year old Megan to survive on their own. Mary’s health rapidly deteriorates following the tragedy, and after losing their home and most of their belongings, the remaining O’Connors move in with Mary’s sister and brother-in-law. Sean is forced to shoulder the responsibility of supporting his invalid mother and sister, but the wages of one man in the mines will never be enough to pay back their family’s debt, and bitter hatred toward the mine owners and management takes root in his soul.
The O’Connors’ circumstances are no worse than those of many of the mining families, and anger, hatred, and turmoil in the community is rising at an alarming rate. The Catholic Irish are openly discriminated against by the Protestant owners and managers, and desperation has finally brought the dreaded terrorist group, the Molly Maguires, back to life among the Irish miners. Although the vast majority of the Irish community deplore the violent Mollies, their numbers grow as the battle heats up.
Martin Lang is the owner of the Lang Colliery, and lives atop a hill in a lavish estate with his wife, daughter, and nephew, David. Frightened by the rising violence perpetrated against owners and managers, Martin’s wife attempts to bridge the gulf between the Langs and the Irish by hiring Megan. Megan is fourteen, tiny, and physically immature, but tragedy and hard work have matured her emotionally far beyond her years. Her situation is made more difficult by the presence of eighteen-year old David, the pampered young master of the house, whom Megan detests.
David Lang was orphaned at the age of eight, and adopted and raised by his aunt and uncle. Handsome, intelligent, charming, and spoiled rotten, David is used to getting his own way, and he doesn’t know what to make of the feisty little Irish girl who so openly despises him. When the Mollies strike and David is hurt in a fire, Megan nurses him back to health, and slowly their relationship grows into friendship. As the years pass, the friendship deepens into something more, despite the impossibility of any future for them. David loves Megan, but has never truly understood her, and when she must choose her loyalty to her family over her love for him, David leaves and all seems to be over. Years later, much has changed, and David returns to take over the colliery, but now any chance for resuming a relationship with Megan is all but impossible.
Ms. Barbieri has masterfully drawn three-dimensional characters who breathe life into this story. Rock-solid Megan and quicksilver David complement one another in their strengths and their weaknesses. Both have deep prejudices to overcome, and both are stubborn to a fault, yet Megan’s loyalty and David’s passion endear them to the reader. The secondary characters are nearly as complex and engaging. The contrasts and the similarities between the Langs and the miners, love, familial loyalty, pride, and passion are timeless, and add to the tragedy of good people bound by impossible circumstances.
The pace of this book is slow, however, and the relentless tension and foreshadowing of tragedy require a reader with nerves of steel. The plot seems to progress from tragic to desperate to hopeless, and it is difficult to see how these star-crossed lovers can ever find a way. The bittersweet ending is perhaps the more poignant for all the pain, though, and the characters and situations are compelling enough to keep a reader engaged to the end.
Readers who desire realism will find Wishes on the Wind a wonderful choice for those days when a good cry is better than a laugh.