Hard Times

It seems that everywhere you go, all anyone is talking about is the economy and how bleak the forecast is.  I can’t speak for other people, but it doesn’t help my anxiety level any to hear or read this stuff anymore.  Things are bad, yes, and they probably will get worse before they get better, but times have been tougher, much tougher, for the average Joe, than now.  Want an example?  Just go to the romance aisle in your local bookstore or library.  Browse the aisles a bit, and if you still need some direction, head for the K’s.

Carla Kelly frequently writes books with heroines who are in desperate straits, women who are about to slide off the bitter edge into starvation or death by exposure.  In good times her characters tend to live modestly – there is a definite theme of poverty as virtuosity running through her backlist – but in bad times, things are very bleak.  Susan, the heroine of The Lady’s Companion, has a wastrel father who gambles away everything he owns and condemns her to a life of hard work, one she certainly wasn’t raised to.  The beginning chapters of this book are hard ones for me to read, actually, I feel as out of control and anxious as Susan does herself and utterly frustrated with her father who should be horsewhipped but is not (parallels to the current bailouts situation certainly can be found here).

In Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, a young widow moves herself and her two daughters into a wreck of a house because it’s all she can afford without debasing herself.  The house is cold and falling apart, and winter looms ahead with no hope for reprieve.  Kathleen Flaherty, Liria Valencia, and Emma Costello have it even worse.  They own little more than the clothes on their backs and are entirely dependent on uncharitable strangers for their livelihood.  And the latter two have some serious baggage from the wars they have lived through.

On to the R’s.  Maria, the heroine of Cheryl Reavis’s The Bride Fair, is in a similar situation.  In the post-Civil War era she has a house, her father’s, to live in but has been forced to billet occupying Union soldiers in it, often for little to no recompense.  Her family is in debt, her friends and neighbors are really struggling, and she’s pregnant to boot. Everything in her life has fallen out of her control.

Katie Kendricks, the heroine of The Bad Baron’s Daughter by Laura London, works in a gin mill because it is owned by her half-brother and her father has gone off and left her penniless.  Her friends and brother all agree that she should turn to prostitution because it’s the only way she will make any money and survive.

In Lisa Cach’s short story, Puddings, Pastries, and Thou, the heroine, Vivian, is as transfixed by the hero, Richard’s, tendency to feed her as she is by his other attributes.  She has been denied good food for so long, that when it is finally available in quantity, she is thoroughly seduced by its sudden availability.

All the above stories have happy endings, and only two of them are rescue efforts.  There are countless romance novels, including nearly all of the Harlequin Presents line, where great social and financial abysses are breached by love (and a good set of ta-tas).  Many readers enjoy books in which a rock star/tycoon/sports giant’s heart is taken by a kind, sometimes sassy, but frequently physically unremarkable woman.  I will admit to being fond of this scenario too sometimes, especially when in the hands of Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Rachel Gibson.  But isn’t it nice when, instead of a rescue or a social elevation, the characters take their HEA into their own hands?  The books I mentioned before feature heroes and heroines who don’t mind the sweat and toil necessary to dig themselves out of situations which are frequently not their fault.  And what they’ve gone through, as well as what they are facing, are ten times tougher than anything (I pray) I will ever have to face.

Perhaps the ultimate “Things are rough, but you can do it!” romance novel is Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer.  The love story between Will Parker and Ellie Dinsmore is highly touching, but the underlying financial HEA is equally satisfying, not because the two of them become rich, but because before they connect their talents and resources are wasted, benefitting no one.  Will is an ex-con, an outcast who has nothing.  The clothes on his back, even, are stolen.  When the novel begins he is slowly starving to death and unable to keep a job for long because his past keeps catching up with him.  Ellie is a widow with a farm, but no one to run it for her, and tied down as she is by her young children and pregnancy, her future looks bleak.  When the two of them come together, they save each other; Ellie by giving love and sharing her resources and Will by his own hard work, good sense, and ability to see the gold glinting underneath the shabby surface of farm and woman.  By the end of the book all of the wasted things in their lives have been put to use – the house has been overhauled, the farm and orchard can now be worked, and two healed people can interact within their own society.  How satisfying is that?

The headlines out there are shouting, “Bad news!  Fear!  Despair!”  But theirs is not the only message readers have to hear.  There is plenty of hope even for the hopeless in the romance aisle.  Take the time to explore it during any discouraging days ahead.  Compared to the troubles of folks like these, our current woes don’t seem quite so bad.

–Rachel Potter

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