Saturday, 9 July 2011

Spring for Susannah - Catherine Richmond


Heading to the barren and sparsely inhabited Dakota Territory as a mail-order bride for her pastor’s brother may not have been the most appealing plan for Susannah Underhill, but it was her only option. Following her parents’ deaths and a mentally and physically scarring incident that she’d rather not think about, the offer of marriage from Jesse Mason was like an answer to a prayer – if Susannah still believed in God, that is. Homesteading is a far cry from the city-life Susannah is used to, but the skills learned from her veterinarian father help her to prove to her new husband that she is capable of surviving the harsh prairie life. But it’s going to take more than delivering calves to help Susannah open up to Jesse and let him see her true personality. Shy and previously resigned to being an old maid, Susannah is convinced that Jesse will never be satisfied with her, while Jesse himself just wishes that his new wife would talk to him and let him express his newfound love for her. Can their blossoming marriage survive grass-hopper plagues and snowstorms brought by the tough seasons of prairie life and bring them into a fuller and deeper love for each other?

I’m always a sucker for mail-order bride stories, so I was immediately drawn to this book when I first saw it being advertised, and it was made all the more appealing by the gorgeous cover. This novel had a few quirks that definitely made it stand out from the other historical romances dominating the Christian fiction market right now. I was particularly fond of the little prayers at the start of each chapter, expressing how Jesse was feeling about his marriage to Susannah. While I never felt that I completely got inside Jesse’s head the way that I did with Susannah, I really appreciated the little insights at the beginnings of the chapters. I also enjoyed the way that Susannah would talk to the family dog about her feelings and worries. To some this may seem like a plot device, designed purely to pass information on to the reader that hadn’t come up in normal conversation. But I found that it actually worked really well and illustrated how nervous Susannah was about talking about such matters with her husband, and how she yearned to have someone to discuss her problems with. Sadly, life on the lonely prairie yielded only a dog as a companion, at least until Susannah’s Swedish neighbour leant to speak English.

The secondary characters in this novel are wonderful and really come to life. I was reminded a lot of the cast of the Little House on the Prairie TV show, but not in a plagiarising way. The entire book struck me as a mixture between Little House on the Prairie and a Janette Oke novel. Far more than your conventional romance, Catherine Richmond has packed her debut full of essential details about homesteading and farming in Dakota Territory during this period. The harshness of Jesse and Susannah’s life really resonated throughout the story, with the seasons and elements truly controlling their day-to-day lives. Spring for Susannah was as much about Jesse and Susannah falling in love as it was about Susannah finding herself and coming to terms with her new life. It reminded me a lot of Janette Oke’s When Calls the Heart, in which the romance became secondary to the main character’s personal development due to their separation. When a grass-hopper plague causes Jesse to leave his home with Susannah and head off to find work to support them, the focus of Spring for Susannah shifts to how Susannah manages to look after the homestead on her own and how this helps her to grow as a person as she waits for Jesse to return.

While I did find the detail that Catherine put into her writing fascinating – a sure sign that she had put a lot of thought and research into her novel – I will admit that I missed the conventional plot structure. Generally when I’m reading a novel I can easily detect the beginning, middle and end of the book, but with Spring for SusannahI didn’t feel that it had this structure, and in places I felt that the plot needed reigning in or was a bit strained. Initially I really enjoyed the mixture of romance and every-day-life events, but during the section of the novel where Susannah is on her own it felt a bit unstructured, flitting from one event to another without any sort of explanation. This final section just felt a bit too strained, and while we did get to witness Jesse’s perspective occasionally, these parts didn’t seem as detailed and sometimes felt a bit flat. I’ve read other reviews which have commented that the ending felt a bit rushed, and I’ll have to agree with this – I would have loved to have read a little more about Jesse and Susannah together at the end, after waiting so long for him to return.

Spring for Susannah is an excellent debut effort from Catherine Richmond, and she brings a lot of promise to the genre with her attention to detail and commitment to presenting a realistic portrait of a historical place and period. Her characterisations also bear evidence of her desire to bring realism and completeness to her writing, although I would have liked to have heard more from Jesse’s perspective in places. While the structure of the novel and the continual jumping from one event to another did irritate me on occasion, it in no way deterred me from enjoying this book. I hope to read more from Catherine in the future, and would definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, particularly those who are looking for something new in terms of both contextualisation and structure.

Review title provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson.

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