I read Elizabeth Camden’s debut novel, The Lady of Bolton Hill, and remember vaguely enjoying it but I hadn’t read any of her books since. I picked up Beyond All Dreams simply because it’s set in Washington DC, and that historical setting appealed to me. Random way of choosing a book, I know, but often it works for me.
The book centers on Anna O’Brien, a map librarian at the Library of Congress, and US Representative Luke Callahan. Orphaned at a young age, Anna grew up with her aunt and uncle, with whom she had a difficult relationship – to put it mildly. Now in her 20s, she lives in an all-women’s boardinghouse and works at the Library of Congress. In the course of her works, she comes across an error that convinces her that the story she had always heard about her father having been lost at sea could not possibly be true.
However, when she approaches the Navy about a correction to the record, the response she receives is unusually vehement. In fact, her attempts to get at the truth of the story get shut down at every turn and she has encounters with officials that leave her fearing for her job.
At the same time, she has attracted the attention of Luke Callahan. Initially intrigued by Anna’s forthrightness and devotion to duty, he has her working on research projects for him. This time together starts to turn into earnest romantic admiration on Luke’s part, and their growing friendship and trust for one another also draws him into Anna’s quest to discover what became of her father’s ship.
One thing I love about this story is how clearly the author shows God working in the lives of both characters. Anna and Luke, at the end of the story, have grown and changed quite a bit over the course of the six months or so covered in the book. When we meet Luke, he is more than a touch worldly but beneath this he hides all of his unresolved anger and worry from his troubled youth. He is determined not to be ruled by his passions as his volatile father was, but it is not until later in the book that he starts to understand his own need to forgive his father and to lean on God’s strength with regard to governing his own emotions. It’s truly a powerful transformation.
I’ll admit I found Anna a little more difficult. On the one hand, she is at her best when she is helping Luke and discussing issues of life, forgiveness and the like with him. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. After all, God often works in relationships to bring out the best in people.
However, Anna’s obsession with the historical record just didn’t quite ring true for me. I can understand a librarian wanting to see historical documents preserved correctly. Anna takes it further, though. Throughout the story, she keeps insisting that her quest to correct the record on the sinking of the Culpeper has to do with the accuracy of the record when it’s clear that much of this is driven by her understandable need to learn what happened to her father. In light of this, I have to admit that I found her crusading about “the record” a bit tiresome.
Also worth noting is that running through the background of this novel is fascinating historical backdrop that Camden works in beautifully. The book is set in 1897-98, during the months running up to the Spanish-American War. I learned so much about the workings of Congress at that time, and I also found fascinating the history of the Library of Congress itself. I felt as if I had been transported to 1890s Washington, and it was a heady place indeed.