Friday, January 1, 2016

Reminiscing with Historical Romance

My grandmother was an avid fan of the mystery author Jill Churchill, and when I was in high school, she got me and my cousin both hooked on her Jane Jeffries series. These were quirky, tongue in cheek cozy mysteries with pun filled titles like War and Peas and Silence of the Hams. Together we'd anticipate each release, which my grandmother would gift us for Christmas or for our birthdays.

Prior to her mysteries, the author wrote a number of historical romance novels under her real name, Janice Young Brooks. My grandmother had duplicate copies of a few of them - some even signed by Janice. All of these titles went out of print by the late 90's, and because my grandmother was such a fan, I tasked myself with tracking down each one.

There was this perfect used bookstore in Mission, Kansas - an hour's drive from where I lived. Hidden around the corner of a strip of shops, the store was a maze of book shelves with hardcovers and paperbacks stacked in lines along the aisles. Definitely not a fire marshal's ideal, but a bookworm's dream. One of those places you could get lost in.

Monthly, I would make the drive out there just to see if they had any of Janice's books. Each time, I'd ask at the front counter, and the owner - knowing they were out of print and rare - would pull them from a shelf behind the counter and gruffly hand them to me. With the rise of the Internet, I was able to discover the full list of Janice's titles, and even found ones that my grandmother didn't know existed. When she passed about 10 years ago, I inherited a number of her books, and I've held on to them since.

In memory of my grandmother, I chose to re-read one of my favorites of Janice's historical novels as my last read of 2016: Still the Mighty Waters. Set in the 1800's along the Mississippi river, the novel follows the daughters of a once respected lawyer as they relocate to the Midwest after his downfall and death. Honore and Lisette Legarde and their brother Paul set out on a not so pleasant boat ride down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers for St. Louis where, they were told, their cousins own and operate a hotel.

Now don't let the cover mislead you - there are only about three or four steamy scenes in the 492 pages. Though Honore's relationships are central to the plot, you learn a bit about the fur trade, a bit about the rise of steamboat technology, and a lot about what it took to survive and even succeed in the Midwest during the early 19th century.

On their trip to St. Louis, tragedy strikes when an earthquake - based on an actual event that caused the Mississippi to run backwards - leaves Honore and Lisette with no money and no way to travel further. On top of that, Lisette comes down with a debilitating fever. They are saved by the dashing fur trader, Bastille DuChamps, who delivers them to safety on a rickety raft. Bastille quickly falls for Honore, but after a brief moment of passion, remembers some emotional baggage from his past and escapes back to the wild.

Honore and Lisette eventually make it to St. Louis, where they find the situation not quite as they expected. Honore adapts to a different lifestyle, working hard at the tavern owned by their cousin by marriage, Hildy. Then Matthew Leigh, a businessman they met on the trip from New England, offers to house the three of them and hire Honore as his son's governess at the imposing manor he's built on an island in mighty waters of the Mississipi.

Honore eventually accepts a marriage proposal from Matthew after hearing the rumored death of Bastille, on whom she had her heart set. Thus begins the complications between Matthew and Honore, as she tries to get along with his son and becomes more and more involved in his riverboat business. Lies, drama, explosions and fires ensue - keeping this historical romance a definite page turning affair.

The last quarter of the book turns focus to Honore's daughter, Celeste, who inherits half of Matthew's business and finds herself in a battle with his son, Lewis. This was only the second time I've read the book, but as you can tell from the photo above, my copy - not new when I purchased it - has been well used. I gave it five out of five stars over on Goodreads.

I don't when or if I'll get to re-reading the rest of the historical novels or even the mysteries, but I'm really glad that my grandmother introduced me to Janice/Jill. I'll always think of her when I see them on my bookshelves and feel her with me when I do pick one up.