Review – Among the Fair Magnolias

amongfairmagnoliasBook InformationAmong the Fair Magnolias: Four Southern Love Stories

Authors – Dorothy Love, Tamera Alexander, Elizabeth Musser, and Shelley Gray

Publisher – Thomas Nelson (July 2015, $12.99 print, $7.99 digital)

As a native Virginian, I enjoy reading about Southern history as well as reading stories set in the South.  Even though none of the tales in this anthology features my home state, the authors cover a fascinating variety of settings and themes from pre-Civil War South Carolina, through Reconstruction.  While the quality of the stories did vary somewhat, I ended the anthology feeling glad I had read it.

A Love So True by Dorothy Love – Set in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina in 1860, this novella tells the story of Abigail Clayton, daughter of a successful planter with political aspirations. The tale opens as the Claytons prepare to welcome South Carolina society to their summer home for their annual barbeque. Abby anxiously awaits the arrival of Dr. Wade Bennett, the man she loves and longs to marry.

However, her father makes it clear that he intends for her to marry Charles Kittredge, a distant cousin and another successful planter. The marriage to Charles would unite two powerful land holdings and also has the potential to advance Mr. Clayton’s political aims. Abby has no wish to marry Charles, but she feels the call of duty to her father.

Abby can come off as immature on occasion, but it’s obvious throughout the story that her heart is in the right place. The story at its heart centers upon issues of obeying parental authority and doing one’s duty versus romantic love. Though short, the author does lay her message out clearly in this piece. Things get wrapped up a bit abruptly and the story does get off to a bit of a clunky start, but overall, I enjoyed it. Rating – 3.5 stars

To Mend a Dream by Tamera Alexander – The next story takes readers into the era of Reconstruction as we venture to 1870s Nashville. Not only did Savannah Darby lose her parents and beloved older brothers in the Civil War, but she and her younger siblings lost Darby Farm, the family home. Savannah now cares for her young brother and sister in a boarding house while making ends meet as a seamstress.

Savannah’s newest commission brings her face to face with a deep emotional challenge – she must redecorate Darby Farm for its new Northern owner and his fiancee. Attorney Aidan Bedford has fallen in love with Tennessee and has no desire to return to a law practice in Boston. When he meets Savannah, he has no idea that she once called Darby Farm her home; he knows only that he is quite drawn to this quietly intelligent lady even as his semi-arranged engagement seems to be coming apart.

On the positive side, I did enjoy this story and Alexander writes quite well. I didn’t find it entirely believable for the time that Aidan’s fiancee would be staying in his home with only minimal chaperonage, though. I also had been concerned to see how the romance between Savannah and an already-engaged man would be handled, but the author took pains to make it clear that the betrothal came apart for reasons that had nothing to do with Savannah or with any interest Aidan may have had in her. Overall, I enjoyed Tamera Alexander’s writing stylistically, but the page count is small for the amount of plot action, so I did wish that this story hadn’t felt quite so rushed. Rating – 4 stars

Love Beyond Limits by Elizabeth Musser – This story, set in Georgia during Reconstruction, was more problematic for me. The heroine, Emily, is firmly anti-slavery and earnestly believes that the freed blacks sharecropping on her family’s plantation are her equals.  However, many in her rural community do not share her convictions and the Ku Klux Klan is on the rise, killing blacks and trying to intimidate them into submission. Against this backdrop, Emily struggles with her emotions for Thomas McGinnis, son of a neighboring planter and the childhood friend her family assumes she will marry, and Leroy Eager, a freed black man who grew up at Emily’s home.

The author does a fabulous job of capturing the tense political climate of the time. There is a scene at the beginning of the novella involving a lynching which made my blood run cold. I could feel the fear and cruelty of the events, and it saddened me deeply.  I also appreciated how Musser worked the faith of her characters naturally into the story. I liked Thomas, Leroy and most of the other characters just fine, but I have to admit that Emily drove me crazy. She had good intentions, but she seemed immature in her blindness to the danger of her situation, as well as with regard to how she threw her emotions around between the two men in the story. Between the rushed nature of the plot action(likely due to the smallish page count) and my frustrations with the heroine, I have to say that this story did not affect me as strongly as it could have. Rating – 3 stars

An Outlaw’s Heart by Shelley Gray – This final tale takes place in Texas, in 1878. As the story opens, we can see a new era dawning. The characters in the story all remember the War, but it doesn’t dominate the story to the extent that it does others in the anthology. This tale is more hero-centric than the others, focusing on Russell Champion, a prodigal son of sorts who has returned to his small hometown. We quickly learn that a dark secret and terrible deeds drove Russell from home as a 15 year old boy and after years spent with an outlaw gang, he has come home. It’s not clear what drives him at the beginning aside from a desire to perhaps see his mother one last time, but readers will quickly see what just might hold Russell there.

Nora, the young woman Russell courted before being driven from home, now cares for his mother. Russell never forgot Nora, and when he learns that she didn’t marry and start a family with someone else as he had assumed she would, hope starts to blossom.  While a few of the events may seem far-fetched, this tale is one of redemption and second chances.  It’s probably the most emotionally beautiful of the stories in the entire anthology, and the changes wrought in Russell and Nora’s lives as they put the past behind them will make more than one reader a little teary-eyed. Rating –4.5 stars

Overall, I’d call this a 4 star read.  While the stories were a touch uneven, I enjoyed Among the Fair Magnolias far more than I had any reservations about it. If you enjoy American history, particularly Southern history, I’d recommend giving this anthology a try.

——————

Many thanks to Thomas Nelson, who provided a free copy of this book to me via Netgalley, in return for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

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