Dear Piper Huguley:
I first learned about your new historical romances when several readers in my Twitter feed raved about your lovely covers. When you posted in DA’s author open thread I decided I wanted to read and review the full length novel. Jayne had independently decided to read and review the novella, so we thought reviews of both stories would be fun to do. I hadn’t read anything about the novella when I read the novel, so I think readers can pick up either installment without difficulty.
I didn’t know that these books were in the Inspirational genre when I bought The Preacher’s Promise, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal for me unless they were heavily tilted toward proselytizing, and since they aren’t, it wasn’t. I hadn’t read an Inspie before this, so I’m sure there are things I missed (and there were a couple of phrases that were unfamiliar to me), but I didn’t notice anything that made me feel as if I wasn’t part of the potential target readership.
The story opens in 1866 with Amanda Stewart mourning the recent death of her father, a lawyer dedicated to the abolitionist cause. She has just graduated from Oberlin College, but she has no job and very little money, and when her father’s white partner makes her feel as if he has designs on her, she decides to take the teaching position in a small Georgia town that was recently offered to her father. When she arrives in Milford, the mayor and town blacksmith, Virgil Smithson, is surprised and dismayed to meet a young, attractive lady rather than the older gentleman he was expecting. Virgil is determined to put her back on the next day’s train north, but Mrs. Milford, whose family owns the large plantation which gave the town its name, basically orders Virgil to keep Amanda on as teacher and marry her for the sake of convenience and respectability. Although each finds the other physically attractive, southern, small-town Virgil and northern, college-educated Amanda don’t see themselves as a match at all, but Mrs. Milford’s word is still law to Virgil in many ways, and Amanda has nowhere to go if she leaves Milford.
The rest of the novel tells the story of Amanda’s adjustment to life as a wife and schoolteacher in the south, Virgil’s growing acceptance and respect for his “Mandy,” white resistance to a school for blacks, and the revelations of Virgil’s (and his daughter March’s) personal histories, which wind up being enmeshed with Amanda’s. This is both an opposites-attract romance and a cross-class romance, since Amanda is free and highly educated for a woman (especially a black woman), and Virgil, although a respected preacher and blacksmith who appears bound for politics, is a former slave with little formal education.
I enjoyed many things about this story. The setting, the plot, and the supporting cast are all imaginative and the choice to set the book directly after the end of the Civil War gives us a community that is still grappling with making the transition from slavery to freedom. Mrs. Milford still rules the roost, however benevolent she may be, and the less powerful whites in the neighboring town (we only see the men) are deeply suspicious and always threatening, implicitly or explicitly, to put blacks back in their former place. The laws of the time (such as those covering the manumission of slaves) are woven effectively into the storyline. Mrs. Milford, March, and Pauline (who looked after March in Virgil’s absence) are depicted with sympathy and skill, and the overall life of Milford remained with me after I finished the book.
Virgil and Amanda are interesting and sympathetic characters, but I felt that the execution didn’t quite live up to the promise where they were concerned, especially as their relationship developed. Part of this was because the gulf between them seemed so wide, and the author’s decision to use dialect for Virgil in both his thoughts and his words meant that the gulf between him and Amanda (whose speech was quite formal in its grammatical and vocabulary choices) was even wider. There is a very good scene in which we see Virgil preaching and believe the way the congregation responds so positively to him, but for much of the time Virgil seemed tongue-tied not only in his conversations but in his interior thoughts. It would have worked better for me if he had been hesitant in his speech but more fluent in his thoughts.
As a result, while I was rooting for Virgil and Mandy, I didn’t feel as if I really saw them fall in love on the page. I don’t think this was because the book is an inspirational and therefore the physical passion aspect is more muted. The author effectively conveys their mutual physical attraction and their growing respect and affection, but I never got that “oh, there they go, they’re in love” feeling. That could entirely be me rather than the book, though.
The writing was serviceable, but at times it became rough and a bit clunky. Perhaps because Amanda and Virgil didn’t have an easy time communicating, a lot of the story unfolded in exposition or interior monologues, and these often interrupted the rhythm of the story. Sometimes points were repeated, which slowed down the pace even more. The first half of the book contains a lot of setup, while the second half has much more action as the several plot points are resolved. There are some glitches in the copyediting; I noted a couple of homophone errors and a supporting character’s name changed spelling partway through the book. Overall, while the cover was indeed lovely, the rest of the production values (including the formatting) could have been better. It wasn’t enough to stop me because I really wanted to see how everything turned out, but if you’re not committed to the story, I can imagine it being enough to cause some readers to put the book aside.
This is definitely an inspirational romance. Both characters invoke God regularly and Virgil is a real preacher, as opposed to a Regency vicar, for example. The characters read the Bible to each other and they talk about their relationship in terms of serving God. I didn’t find this emphasis to detract from the romance (although I did wonder why Virgil felt it would be wrong to consummate the marriage, since they were lawfully wedded, lots of people married for reasons other than romantic love, and they were planning to stay married). I felt as if the emphasis on not just religion but spirituality fit the community and the characters, but readers who want to keep their religion and their romance separate are probably going to have some trouble with this.
Despite the flaws, I’m glad I picked up this book. It wasn’t the smoothest read, but the historical setting and the characters made up for that. I look forward to seeing what happens next with these characters and the Milford community. Grade: B-/C+