by Carla Kelly, historical (2003)
TCU Press, $17.50, ISBN 0-87565-270-0
Firstly, a big thank you to all of you kind souls who offer to purchase this book on my behalf from USA, and an especially a big thank you to the person who finally steps me to get this book delivered to me. I must confess that I am pretty much a Carla Kelly novice, so this book allows me to enjoy this author outside the more limiting formulas of a traditional Regency novel. Here's To The Ladies is a collection of short stories (fiction) set during the Indian Wars. Meticulously researched, each story hopes to bring to life to readers different aspects of life in the army during those times, not just the soldiers but also the women in their lives.
There are nine stories in here, and six of them are told from a male point of view. Allow me to do some armchair analysis here: Ms Kelly is definitely stronger in writing male characters than females. Most of her heroines are suffering from the Lana Lang syndrome: they are often almost one-dimensionally noble, virtuous, and perfect, they cannot exist outside the imagination of a besotted male (the Clark Kent syndrome working with the Lana Lang syndrome in perfect synchrony). Until today, I don't recall actually knowing any of the Carla Kelly's heroines in those (admittedly not many enough) books of hers that I've read. Her heroes are amazing men, beta superheroes of wit, courage, and nobility while coming off as down to earth at the same time, and these men have human quirks that charm me. And these men always seem to see their women that they love in an unrealistically idealized light, and through their eyes is how I end up seeing Ms Kelly's heroines. Am I making sense? I'm trying to say that Ms Kelly's heroines often come off like unrealistic idealized perfections - creations of a besotted male imagination. Sometimes I fear what will happen to these women if they happen to fall off the pedestals the men put them on.
But strange thing is, my favorite story of the bunch, A Season For Heroes, is narrated from a young girl's perspective. Maybe Carla Kelly is just being very good at writing stories that focus predominantly from one point of view. Her stories' greatest strength is that she gives her narrators a voice that are so distinguished that it is easy to believe that these characters may just be real.
One thing though: Here's To The Ladies really suffer by being released so closely on the heels of The Wedding Journey. As I shall soon point out, several stories here seem to be The Wedding Journey chopped apart and watered down.
The anthology kicks off with Such Brave Men, an amusing story that sees our heroine Emma Sanders being kicked out of her already barely livable soldier's quarters when families of officers that outrank her husband (who is away on duty) arrive in Quarters B. To her dismay and eventual bemusement, she moves from house to hovel to finally a tent in a matter of days. This one is amusing and it's a nice start to the anthology.
Next is We Shall Meet, But We Shall Miss Him. Soldier Sgt John Cole is going home after thirty years of serving the army. As he confronts the possibility of leaving behind a life he has come to accept and even hold dear, he reminisces about the circumstances that brought him to Camp C in the first place. This is a tale of lost love, in a sense, but the story suffers from the hero doing some rather uncharacteristically stupid acts of non-communication that finally cost him several precious things in his life. While John is nicely written as a somewhat idealized man whose cynicism seems to only make him a little more weary, he is also too willing to accept his fate that he finally misses out on too many things. Worse, his loved ones also end up suffering for his lackadaisal willingness to bend over and accept destiny's shafting him. It's a depressing story despite everything in the end.
Fille De Joie is the closest thing to a Carla Kelly farce. A horny soldier just has to dash off to town to meet his wife, only to have the law break in at the most inopportune moment during a raid on enterprising ladies of the night. He forgets his wallet, she has lost her purse, so there is no way to prove that they are really married. Oh dear.
Kathleen Flaherty's Long Winter sees our heroine Kathleen being forced to marry a quiet soldier who has secretly loved her for so long when her husband died and left her penniless and helpless to a lecherous officer's advances. I've read this before in The Wedding Journey. While different in the sense that in the end these two find love without having to traverse the entire European continent, the characters are a bit too similar (especially the heroine) to those in The Wedding Journey. If I haven't read the book, this novella will be better received by me.
The Gift has a very well-written hero Captain Starbuck whose shy crush on Miss Moorcroft leads him to sending for some mistletoe to their base for Christmas. But tormented by nightmares of Gettysburg, his social awkwardness seems to doom his chance of capturing the attention of the popular Miss Moorcroft... right? I love the hero, but the heroine is a bewildering mess. Why would she abruptly marry the hero like that, and just after hearing him sob his heart out about Gettysburg? Nowhere is the Lana Lang syndrome more evident than in this story: Miss Moorcroft is perfect, Miss Moorcroft is comforting, Miss Moorcroft is perfect, but it's all what she is to him. What does she see in him, and why would she love him, however, ah, that's something I don't know at all. Nice hero, very underwritten heroine, and all in all a romantic novella that doesn't work as well as it should.
I love Casually At Post. I love this one so much, I laugh out loud and reread it twice before moving on, and I'm not a fan of very obvious anvils. And this story is loaded with blatant anvils. When a supposedly crazy man named Augutus Gustavus God wanders into Fort Buford, he changes the lives of the inhabitants who are trying so hard to remain cheerful in a time like the Indian wars. The hero Fred Pierce, alas, is a surgeon who could be the hero of The Wedding Journey several years down the road, right down to his fondness of using "Hippocrates" as a curse. His wife and he have found an orphaned Sioux baby boy and they are nursing him for only a few weeks until the baby can find a new home at the orphanage. God here will show Fred in the end that sometimes happiness can be found right under the nose if one look a little closer at oneself.
Yes, God is an anvil. There is enough Touched By An Angel moment in this story to make me cringe were the hero again not so wonderfully written. Fred is a gentle and sensitive man who, alas, sometimes follow the rules too much. His wife is of course another Lana Lang, described only through positive Mommy/Lover vibes that makes her come off as rather flat.
But I like this one. I love God. (Hey, did I actually say that?) I love the shameless sentimentality in this one, because these people do deserve what little joy they can find.
Mary Murphy is depressing. A soldier reminisces about a laundress he encounters briefly on a wagon trail. This woman, Mary, is shunned because she is an unwed mother and nobody lifts a finger to help even when her baby died on the trail. But they expect her to clean for minimum wage and be unpaid mother for orphaned kids. Nice. This is a depressing story of how a strong woman is wrongly crucified by prejudice and bigotry of her time. I can only hope the good life the narrator speculated Mary might find eventually will come true.
Ah, then my favorite story, A Season For Heroes. Janey Stokes reminisces about a Black soldier who saved her father's life and how her family soon bond somewhat uncomfortably with the man. After all, we are talking about the 19th century, where racial segregation is the norm. I love Janey's voice which makes this story work very well, especially as she is often an impartial, sometimes bemused, sometimes touched narrator who allows me to make judgments on her story instead of her imposing the author's values on me. This one is also on the shamelessly sentimental side, but at the same time, the author doesn't shy away from the often unpleasant realities of the harsh lives her characters endure. In the end, I actually shed tears at the ending. It's like Boo Finch doing a Saving Private Ryan or something.
I'm not fond of the B-grade dime novel hee-haw Jesse MacGregor, mainly because while the roguish Jesse is fun, the heroine is flat!
One thing I love about Here's To The Ladies though is that it prefers to let the quiet strength of its characters to convey messages about hope and courage. There's no flag-waving or "North/South rules!" sloganeering in here, just authentic history and sympathetic and likeable characters telling their stories and telling them well. I do wish the author's female voice is as strong as her male voice to give this anthology some balancing. As it is, it is the boys who have the luxury to be human here, flawed yet courageous, while the women have the thankless roles of remaining symbols of home, mommy, hot sex, and hearth for these men.
Still, with the author's graceful prose, she manages to make me laugh through what are essentially stories of people trying their darndest to survive day by day. By bringing out gentle (sometimes bittersweet) humor and what little hope from these events, she manages to make Here's To The Ladies an actually very romantic book. After all, romance is a celebration of the human heart, isn't it? This book sure celebrates the best side of ordinary men and women through harsh times, and it does that well.
While not exactly a keeper thanks to the unbalanced portrayal of both sexes, Here's To The Ladies is worth at least a peek. Hey, it is more romantic than most of the romance novels I've read so far this year!
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