Daughter of a prosperous Bostonian family, Ada Wentworth never thought she’d find herself travelling south with all of her worldly belongings packed into a single trunk. But when her family fell on hard times and she found herself orphaned and penniless, Ada was forced to take up a position as a companion to an elderly woman in the flourishing town of Hickory Ridge, Tennessee. Despite her reservations about residing in the South so soon after the end of the Civil War, Ada needs to escape Boston. She doesn’t plan to put down roots in Hickory Ridge, merely stay there long enough to acquire money to start her own millinery business and support herself through the talent that her dying mother taught her. But soon Ada finds herself swept up into the daily life of this small town, and even coming to care for Lillian, the aging woman who isn’t ready to let go of life just yet. As she and Lillian slowly come to live with each other’s faults and forge a friendship, Ada also opens up to Lillian’s nephew, Wyatt, who also plans to leave Tennessee as soon as possible, dreaming of starting a farm back in his native Texas once his lumber mill becomes prosperous enough. Both Ada and Wyatt know that it would be inconvenient to become too attached to each other, but events conspire to bring together. Particularly when someone appears to be targeting Ada and Lillian. Is it the Klan, concerned about Ada’s treatment of the local African-American community, and keen to make the Northerner leave their town? Or is someone jealous of Ada’s relationship with Wyatt, the most eligible bachelor in Hickory Ridge? Just when Ada starts to think about settling in the town she’s come to feel at home in, disturbing occurrences make her wonder if she’s really welcome there at all.
As soon as Ada stepped off the train in Hickory Ridge I knew that I was going to enjoy this book. Dorothy described the town so vividly that I could imagine every shop and house. Once the scene was set, the inhabitants of the town were added to the picture, creating a wonderful backdrop for the story. There aren’t a lot of books where I can really engage with the setting as I did in Beyond All Measure, and it’s definitely a sign of a good author to be able to evoke the feel of a place without detracting from the plot of the novel.
It took me a few chapters to warm up to Ada, whose background and reasons for moving to Hickory Ridge remained mysterious, but once the friendship between her and Lillian developed her story made for an engaging read. Ada’s ambitions to open a millinery shop and support herself made her a very unique character, in a period when women mainly desire marriage and families, and the descriptions of her hat-making were fascinating.
The relationship between Ada and Wyatt is slow to develop, and hindered by Wyatt’s scepticism over how much Ada truly cares for Lillian. Believing that Ada is prioritising her hat-making business over looking after his aunt, Wyatt initially has no desire to develop any sort of relationship with Ada. But despite this, the two end up bonding over their fondness for the aging Lillian and the fact that they’re both technically outsiders in Hickory Ridge, with neither of them planning to remain in the town once Lillian has passed away. Their relationship brought up interesting questions about compromise and what you would be willing to sacrifice for the one you love. While I initially felt that the growth of their relationship was a bit disjointed and perhaps got sidelined by other events in the novel, there was a conversation between the two of them at the end of the novel which injected a lot of realism into their romance and really evoked what I feel a loving relationship is about.
Alongside her developing romance with Wyatt, Ada encounters problems with the Klan, who are keen to evict the local black population and claim their land for themselves. Ada upsets them when she tutors a mulatto orphan and is seen fraternising with other people from the black settlement. Some of the locals already dislike her because she’s from the North, and she doesn’t improve her reputation by her attitude towards their African-American neighbours. I felt that Dorothy was able to paint a realistic picture of post-Civil War Tennessee without making it seem as if all Southerners were racist slave owners, but also without falling into the other trap of every character being a secret abolitionist and everyone embracing racial equality. Instead, she created a believable image of the occupants Hickory Ridge: some were members of the Klan, some merely wanted the land that the black community lived on, and others were apathetic. Ada herself, while wanting to help Sophie to get an education in spite of the difficulties her mixed-race parentage caused, did not express any other feelings about abolition or racial equality, which I felt was quite realistic.
I read this book well over a week ago, and in hindsight I’d have to say that what stuck in my memory most was the way that Dorothy painted a picture of the town and its inhabitants. She certainly has a way with describing locations and allowing them to interact with her characters. But I can’t help but realise that although I can clearly remember the setting, the characters and the subplot about Sophie, I’m struggling to recall the details of Ada and Wyatt’s romance. Even as I was reading the book, it felt disjointed in places and it didn’t seem to flow entirely naturally. I did thoroughly enjoy this novel, but I feel that it is strongest in its descriptions and characterisations, but perhaps a bit lacking in the romance department. However, this is Dorothy Love’s debut, and when that is taken into consideration, I think it’s an excellent into the historical fiction genre. I hope that her writing continues to improve as she creates more tales about Hickory Ridge. 8/10