Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ashes in the Wind, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss [4]

****/***** (4/5)

"You honestly wanted to marry me?" [Alaina] questioned in amazement.

"Madam, I wanted you any way I could get you, and that's no lie."

There's romances... and then, there's romances. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' sweeping, 565-page civil war romance ASHES IN THE WIND warmly engages readers. It's incredible that a book published back in 1979 such as this one still reigns supreme compared to the spewing potboilers shedding from romance shelves these days. In ASHES IN THE WIND, the hero and heroine verbally spar on an equal level and there's a veritable seesawing in the game of wit rather than the common hoax of making the hero look like a moron in response to the heroine's "wit." Here, each of our leading pair give as good as they get, in terms of the sexual tension, games of wit, love, and caring. There's a connection and chemistry here that actually overshadows the common scientific ministrations of a libertine initiating a virgin (or near-virgin) to sexual passion, a initiation "plot" often dominating romance novels. Here, the heroic pining at the end isn't forced, it isn't egregious and it isn't so blatantly one-sided (from the hero)! Here, the intrigue/war plot parallels the passion skillfully! Strong prose and vivid settings makes everything better and Woodiwiss definitely excels on both accounts. I will have to read other KEW books in the future, and I wonder if there's other civil war love stories out there. I found the book's attempts to describe the civil war an anemic affair, and the focus firmly rests on Alaina and her struggle.

My problems with the novel: torpid pacing, a ridiculous ending and a fun yet debilitating second part which seems to handicap its protagonists. The first half of part two features some rather fun moments of strife (and tension) between the hero Cole Latimer and the heroine Alaina MacGaren based on a misconception. The second half of part two, meanwhile, actually spent time portraying their mutual love and caring for each other reminiscent of Julie Garwood's sweet h/h interaction. I thought Woodiwiss made the bickering from the first half of part two fun and balanced, a rare talent amongst romance novelists and yet she still spent time on their tenderness and caring for each other after they prevailed against the misconception which separated them intimately. Unfortunately, Woodiwiss intersperses clues which portends the return of villains at the end, and Cole and Alaina just seem to ignore all the clues and fail to proactively dig deeper and possibly prepare better against villains at the end who have them at a decided disadvantage. Essentially, the romance handicaps them from thinking and acting logically, especially Cole. I also felt the pacing meandered quite a bit in this 565-page epic with seemingly pointless passages.

ASHES IN THE WIND soundly belongs to its heroine Alaina MacGaren, a young seventeen year-old girl who loses everything to the war and the Yankees: her father, her mother, her brother and her home. She dons many guises including that of a ragged boy to escape persecution when she meets a Union Captain, the Doctor Cole Latimer. Alaina, of course, detests Yankees. Alaina is many things, but foremost among them: resilient beyond belief. The book follows Alaina, her adventures and her thoughts much more closely than Cole's, all in the context of the American Civil War.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Alaina MacGaren must flee her home Briar Hill on a plantation in Louisiana after some crooked Union soldiers brand her a spy for sheltering Confederate soldiers and carrying some things for one of them to a Confederate camp. Alaina's father and one of her brothers has already died serving the South in the war and her mother passes away shortly thereafter. When the crooked Union soldiers threaten her, she and her devoted huge slave Saul journey south to New Orleans, a city the North currently holds. Although she's separated from Saul, she meets Union Captain Doctor Cole Latimer in New Orleans who rescues her from three bullying Union soldiers. Dressed as a dirty, ragged boy to protect her identity and the price on her head, Cole has no idea who this is and escorts "Al" to her uncle's home in New Orleans, Angus Craighugh.

At the Craighugh home, Cole meets Alaina's cousin Roberta, a twenty-two year-old superficial beauty after money. Cole also offers Al work at the hospital he's stationed at and Al agrees to earn her keep at the Craighugh home. When Roberta discovers Cole hails from a wealthy family from Minnesota, Roberta makes a play for Cole while "Al" persists in her enmity for all Yankees though it's getting harder and harder to do in Cole's case. KEW's plots and settings again reign supreme crafting a circumstance which has "Al" inexplicably save a drunk and unconscious Cole from the river one night. Cole bears a rather large bump on his head, and Al takes him to the Craighugh home for rest late in the night when Roberta will be asleep and her parents out for the most of the night. Al dulls Cole's pain with more liquor once Cole is in the guest bedroom. In a drunk stupor, Cole awakes and mistakes Alaina for a prostitute in a brothel. Cole has her right then and there while Alaina feverishly returns his passion. When Alaina sees her virgin blood, she runs from the room as Cole sleeps away his injury and inebriation after taking Alaina's virginity. An incensed Roberta wakes to find Alaina's virgin blood on the bed Cole sleeps in and takes steps to trap him. Roberta's parents arrive on the scene and a befuddled Cole must marry Roberta considering the evidence in plain sight.

Part one ends with the conclusion of the war as a crippled and limping Cole takes his unhappy and acrimonious wife Roberta back to his home in Minnesota. Cole finally discovers "Al" 's true identity and grudgingly leaves Alaina. Alaina now must contend with the unsavory attentions of the book's villain, one Jacques DuBonne. By this time, more allegations against Alaina MacGaren mount as she's unjustly branded a spy, traitor and murderer by both the North and South. Alaina assumes the identity of her friend Mrs. Hawthorne's niece and finally Alaina can act like a lady for once. On the down side, this also attracts DuBonne's attentions. When DuBonne's advances become difficult to fend off, Cole offers Alaina marriage after Roberta passes away.

"...Major [Cole] Latimer has assured us by letter that he understands the entire situation, but he also assures" -- Mrs. Hawthorne's lips twitched beneath the spurs of a threatening smile -- "that he heartily doubts that you (Alaina) would have the wisdom to accept [the marriage proposal]. I believe he said -- ah, yes -- here it is. 'She has a penchant for foolishness and trouble that outweighs all the considerations of common sense. I extend the suggestion [for marriage] most willingly and wish you luck in your attempts to convince her, though I doubt much will come of it. Will be anxiously awaiting your reply.' "

Alaina's mind flogged itself in a confused melee.
Outweighs all common sense! That blithering bluebelly idiot! She could just see his gaping grin above his broad brass-buttoned chest. That miming jackanapes! He pities me and plays his savior's role most heartily, but he does not want me for a wife.

Her mind hardened, and her neck stiffened.
Well I don't want him as a husband!

After DuBonne abducts Alaina only to have Alaina burn him, a stubborn Alaina finally consents to marriage with Cole. Although Alaina fumes over Cole sending a proxy to say the marriage words, she does finally travels up to his estates in Minnesota as his wife.

Part two chronicles the stringent, combative tension between a married Alaina and Cole, both under a false misconception perpetuated by a very bitter Angus Craighugh, Roberta's father. The tension-filled, witty altercations were often fun mainly because there was a genuine back-and-forth. The tension then mellows out to a loving care and giving on both their parts as they finally succumb to their passions. Mystery and suspense coincide this burgeoning romance in part two up in Minnesota. Jacques reappears, and Cole's stepmother Tamara Latimer also makes an appearance to explain some of the intrigue from part one. It seemed like everything connected too neatly and the ending was a bit nonsensical. Cole and Alaina dismiss the clues too easily earlier.

Still the book was fun overall, epic in proportions, the love was equal parts fun and heartwarming by highlighting the connection between our leading pair, and the plotting was laced with engaging intrigue. The writing and settings were far superior than I'm used to from romance novelists. Olden is still golden...

Warily [Cole] asked, "Now that you have me up here, what are your intentions?"

"Hot and cold compresses to make the swelling go down. That much I know about home remedies." [Alaina] gestured casually. "That robe, please. I plan to see to the entire man. After we've tended your leg, I'll shave and bathe you."

"I'm not an invalid, madam," [Cole] assured her. "I can bathe myself."

"You'll have difficulty getting into the tub. It will be simpler if you're bathed here."

His brows crinkled thoughtfully. "All over?"

Alaina's eyes raised slowly to his. "I think you can manage a few places."

"You've crushed my hopes."

"Serves you right," she chided with a smile twinkling at the corner of her mouth...

Cole had second thoughts as to her charity when she slapped the frigid bulk of snow onto his leg, almost bringing him straight out of the bed. And if that was not enough, she nearly scalded him again, this time with a steaming towel still dripping wet from the kettle.
"Be careful with that thing!" [Cole] yelped. "You could end our hopes for a family altogether."

"I'll try to be more careful," Alaina apologized, sweetly contrite...

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