Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Heart's Frontier - Lori Copeland & Virgnia Smith


PROS: Unusual blend of Amish culture in a wild-west historical setting; unconventional ending; amusing secondary characters

CONS: Romance is fairly predictable; heroine constantly gets into trouble and needs rescuing

Emma Switzer never wanted to leave Apple Grove to live with her aunt, but she wouldn’t have wished having their wagon stolen by thieves partway into their journey in order to prevent her from leaving. Stranded in the prairie with her father, grandmother and younger sister, Emma struggles to have the faith to believe that they will find a way out of this situation. When her family stumbles across a trading settlement and finds a rugged cowboy thrown at their feet, her father is convinced that God has sent this man to help them. Emma can’t help but think, “The Lord might have cleaned him up first.” But first impressions can be deceiving, and as Emma and her family travel along side Luke Carson’s cattle drive to the nearest town she finds herself increasingly drawn to the young cowboy. Her father disapproves of their growing relationship and is keen to get her back to their Amish settlement, where there are no such temptations. Could an Amish woman and a trail boss ever set aside their differences for the sake of love? Or are there too many aspects of their disparate lifestyles keeping them apart?

Sometimes, you just need a book that puts a smile on your face and makes you feel relaxed and content. The Heart’s Frontier was such a book. The novel also had the added bonus of being a mixture of Amish and historical fiction, two of my favourite genres, and a blend that is slowly becoming more popular. Anna Schmidt has written about an Amish boy who runs away with the circus in the 1920s, while Murray Pura has tackled the treatment of the Amish as conscientious objectors during WWI. Joining this sub-genre of Amish fiction, The Heart’s Frontier features an Amish family who are robbed of all their belongings while travelling across Kansas to stay with relatives, and end up relying on the help of a cowboy leading a cattle drive across the country. I wasn’t so much sceptical of a wild-west Amish novel, but rather intrigued. I do enjoy western historicals, but the difficulty with writing about the Amish in the late nineteenth century is that they don’t have the barriers of electricity and technology to set them apart from those around them. It was interesting to see how the authors tackled the less overt differences that made them stand out; namely, the modesty of the women’s clothing, their temperance and non-violence, and obviously, their commitment to God in all things.

Unlike some romance novels, I didn’t feel that The Heart’s Frontier had a plot with a distinct start, middle and end. As Emma’s family travelled across Kansas with the cattle drive the characters and their relationships with each other also went on a journey, and the novel depicted how their attitudes towards each other changed over the course of the novel. While there were a few distinct incidents throughout the novel that moved the plot in one way or another, it felt more character-driven than plot-driven. The secondary characters provided a lot of amusement, particularly with the clash of Amish culture against the attitudes of the men on the cattle drive. There were plenty of moments that almost made me laugh out loud, from Emma’s grandmother’s constant stream of proverbs to Emma learning to lasso a cow. All in all, it was a gentle, relaxing read, and although Emma and Luke didn’t have a lot of personal hurdles to overcome, I enjoyed witnessing how their friendship developed. Because of the conditions under which their romance blossomed – chaperoned by Emma’s father, grandmother and the entire cattle drive, as well as Emma being Amish and used to strict courtship traditions – the focus was more on the two of them getting to know each other and included far more wistful glances and gentle touches than passion and chemistry.

I did feel that their romance bordered on being of the “love at first sight” sort, which is not a favourite of mine. However, considering the circumstances in which the story is set and the genre nature of the romance, it did suit the novel. There are many variations of Christian romance novels, and there are some that are definitely aimed at more mature, married women. This is not one of those, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Heart’s Frontier to a young teenage girl. It’s a very sweet romance and ridiculously squeaky clean; the hero and heroine don’t even kiss until the last chapter. And while I do prefer the edgier romances that dare to show the passion a couple can feel for each other, there are times when a sweet romance is entirely satisfying. Yes, The Heart’s Frontier was rather predictable, but the mesh of historical and Amish elements definitely made the well-used “forbidden love” storyline into something original. I didn’t mind the predictability of the romance so much as I did the fact that Emma was continually getting into trouble – being kidnapped or dragged away by a rampaging cow or trampled by a herd of cows – and needing to be rescued by Luke. Each time something happened to her, Luke would rescue her and they’d realise how much they cared about each other. I wouldn’t mind this so much, but it was used at least three times throughout the novel and I kind of wished the authors had used different ways of bringing Emma and Luke together. But the unexpected ending more than made up for the predictable elements in the story. Amish romances involving outsiders have a tendency to end the same way, so I was pleasantly surprised at the way Lori and Virginia chose to conclude The Heart’s Frontier.

The Heart’s Frontier takes a well-used romance of forbidden love and turns it into something new by having its Amish heroine fall for a rugged cowboy. The predictability of the plot is made up for in the unique period and setting of the story, as well as the amusing antics of various secondary characters. While I wouldn’t place the first book in the Amish of Apple Grove series among my favourite Amish or historical novels, it was a very enjoyable reading experience and I would definitely consider reading the next book in the series. I imagine that those who are fans of Amish fiction and western historicals would enjoy this mesh of the two genres.

Review title provided by Harvest House Publishers.

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