REVIEW: The Bargain (Finding Home Book 1) by Catherine Stang
Dear Ms. Stang,
Me loves a good American Civil War novel but unfortunately, most publishers today don’t agree with me so pickin’s have been slim lately. So when I was perusing the new ebooks at Fictionwise a few months ago, I decided to buy your book and give it a try.
With her three older brothers gone for soldiers, Cassandra Beaumont has taken charge of the family plantation. She, her younger sister Rachel and her sister-in-law Ellie are the only adults there. Things are grim and looking to get worse when a troop of Union soldiers arrives with orders to commandeer the place for use as a hospital. Cassie makes a bold but thwarted stand against Major Joel Bradshaw before realizing she needs his medical expertise to help deliver Ellie’s breech baby. Needs must and the two work out an agreement: his help with the delivery for her help as a nurse once the hospital is set up.
Baby Joel James Beaumont is delivered, everyone settles into the arrangement and the wounded begin to arrive. A Colonel who dislikes the fact that the Beaumont women are still there arrives too and Joel makes a hasty offer of marriage to Cassie which will allow the ladies to stay. Facing eviction and having no brothers on hand to help her, Cassie agrees. But as their feelings for each other develop, is there hope for this marriage bargain made in the final days of the war?
Let’s see – what I liked. I liked the characters and the fact that no one is a villain. No foaming at the mouth, scenery chewing bad guys to arrive in the last act. No one does a 180 character change and for the most part, everyone acts honorably.
But I felt that a lot of issues were skated over with little depth. This is supposed to be the site of a wartime hospital but precious little time is spent on page dealing with the wounded and I never got the feeling that this aspect of the novel was anything but peripheral. The extent of Cassie’s nursing is described – in past tense – as wrapping bandages and handing Joel surgical instruments. Joel’s activity is described – also in past tense – as a few operations and making his morning rounds. I didn’t see the blood, hear the cries of the wounded or get wound up in any emotional life or death scenes because there weren’t any.
Now for my main problem with the story. There’s lots of potential external conflict: We’ve got North vs South, Cassie and Joel working out their marriage, the Colonel poking his nose into whatever is going on, Cassie’s Confederate doctor brother who sneaks back to the plantation to see his family, his problems with his wife Ellie, sister Rachel and Joel’s second in command who clash but…little of this is carried through into internal conflict.
Everyone is so darned nice and polite and accommodating that whatever conflicts arise in the story are quickly dealt with in a matter of a page or two. To me, it made the characters seem flat. Oh, Cassie does something that Joel doesn’t want her to. No worries because he won’t stay mad or really do anything about it. Rachel defies Joel or Scott’s demands that she stay inside. Not a problem because a short discussion with her will turn her contrite. Ellie is mad that Jamie never answered her letters. Wait, here the letters miraculously are and all is forgiven. Usually my complaints are that conflict is dragged out past believability but with this book I was longing for a good show down. I needed something to build the tension and get me to madly flip pages to see what would happen next. Instead, after a little while, I could easily predict how these people would neatly resolve everything.
The next book in the series also promises an era little used in recent years, that of Reconstruction. I’m interested enough in that time frame to give it a shot and will cross my fingers that I find it more emotionally engaging than I did this book. C+
This book can be purchased at Whiskey Creek Press in ebook form.
I’m curious as to how the issue of slavery is addressed (can’t have a plantation without slaves; lots and lots of slaves)? I think one of the reasons that many publishers (and readers) avoid Civil War settings is that the slavery issue is kind of hard to avoid (and ignoring it just means its the giant, invisible elephant in the room), even though the war itself was about a lot more (slavery being one of the minor issues that set the whole thing off; even though we think of it as THE issue today).
Oops, here’s a case where I meant to go back and edit my review a little before it hit the airways. Stang handled the issue by not mentioning it at all. And after the discussion we had on multiculturalism, it was really jarring to me. When the Union troops arrive, it’s basically just the family still there. No mention is made of any slaves they owned or what happened to them.
Hi, Kalen. I’m sorry to differ with you, but the average slaveowner did not own “lots and lots of slaves.” Of course, that depends on how one defines “lots and lots.” In a moral environment we could argue that ownership of a single slave was one slave too many.
It’s been a while since I’ve done that homework, but if I remember correctly the average slaveowner owned 1-5 slaves. Most “plantations” were large farms and the planter and his family worked alongside their slaves to run them profitably.
I think part of the problem with including mention of slavery and institutionalized racism in Civil War stories — or any pre-Emancipation American story — is the issue is something no author can hope to tackle without offending somebody. If slaveowners are presented as basically good people, it’s offensive because present conventions hold slavery as an immoral, evil practice. If slaveowners are portrayed as Simon LeGree stereotypes, there goes the romance. If slavery is mentionned in any way suggesting positive rapport between the free and the enslaved, the book/author is “neglecting the evils of slavery.” If slaves are portrayed as liking and respecting their owners this is “wrong” and slaves portrayed as loathing their owners spurs conflict of interest because, if a hero/ine is despised by his/her slaves, s/he must be a horrible person who does not deserve to discover true love and a HEA. And yet, who wants to bother reading a romance — escapist reading — with predominant mention of the evils of slavery?
Finally, unless the romance includes a slave as the hero or heroine…I think people often overlook that, for better or worse, slaves were slaves. A servant underclass How much mentionning can you do in a book before it becomes repetitive? If a Middle Ages romance focussed too much on the sufferings of the peasant/serf class, social injustice and inequality at the expense of the love story it’d be harder to enjoy the love story. Slavery’s no different.
I would love to see more novels written portraying a balanced view of antebellum society and its realities. That includes enslaved people, the poor underclasses and the wealthier upper classes. I’d like to see more free black characters, including slaveowners. I’d like to see slaveowners more realistically portrayed as opposed to Simon LeGree stereotypes or Saintly Secret Abolitionist stereotypes.
“Me loves a good American Civil War novel but unfortunately, most publishers today don't agree with me so pickin's have been slim lately.”
I know a lot of romance readers miss Civil War romances and I freely admit I don’t share the feeling. For you Civil War romance lovers, what is the appeal? I’ve read a few and being the great-granddaughter of slaves makes me extraordinarily biased; I’m revolted by the very concept of Am. Civil War romances. I’m not a reader who has to identify with or relate to the characters, but for me I can’t even see the humanity of any of the southern characters. To me they’re all abominations and parasites and so not the stuff of romance. That’s not to say that the Union soldiers felt any differently about the slaves but I particularly despise the Confederacy.
I feel the same way about the Am. Revolutionary War. You’ve got these people passionately orating about freedom and genuinely feeling used and abused by the British Empire. These same people had the gall to express THEIR right to freedom, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet at the same time trying to annihilate the people indigenous to the continent and importing Africans as beasts of burden. The hypocrisy is astounding but in the colonials defense, they didn’t see Africans in particular as human.
So, you lovers of romances set during the Civil War and the War for Independence, how do you separate the reality of people who were undeniably monstrous and find the romance in the situations?
Another question. Does anybody know if there are romances that romanticize the Nazis?
Barbara, for me the appeal of them (and for Am. Revolutionary War stories as well) is the inherent conflict. I find that many historical novels end up washing out for me because the conflicts seem stupid, unrealistic or, by the end of the book, merely silly.
And the only book I’ve heard of that is set during WWII which has a Nazi in it is “The Kommandant’s Girl” by Pam Jenoff. It’s more a historical fiction than romance (according to the AAR review).
Maybe it’s the use of the term “plantation”, which implies a large holding to me. Anyone wealthy enough to own a “plantation” wasn’t “working alongside their slaves” to run it anymore than the CEO of GM is working alongside the people building cars on the line to run GM.
I'm with Barbara B on this one. It doesn’t matter if the family worked “alongside” their slaves or not. It's not a freaken co-op, no matter how you slice it. They’re still slave owners and were still fighting to defend their right to own other people. No moral high ground (or hero/heroine) possible.
I thought last week that I should try to find a Civil War romance, Jayne! Thanks for filling my brain niggle — though I won’t be buying this one based on your review.
I blame Gone With the Wind for my love of the Civil War. (I’m also going to blame John Jakes and Elswyth Thane.) Read GWTW and watched the film when I was 15 almost 16. Major, major life changes soon followed, so I kept “Tomorrow is another day” as my motto and decided that if Scarlett could survive, I could too. Perhaps not the most sound thinking for a modern-day 16-year-old.
Regardless, I set out to learn as much as I could about the Civil War and while I like the American Revolution also, the Civil War (and, to an extent, Reconstruction) really makes my brain hum. The bases for conflict, the true factors leading up to Secession, the battles, the players — there really has been no other American war quite like it, in my opinion. And just the outright devastation in its aftermath. What great drama
Again, I am sorry to differ with you, but this is not correct to my understanding. The “Southern aristocracy” (which came in all races) fulfills the romantic notion that southerners were all wealthy, lived in palatial homes, were waited on hand and foot by slaves, and never lifted a finger to do anything. While I don’t claim such circumstances existed, those circumstances were the exception, not the norm.
Wealth wasn’t required to own a large plantation. The colonies were “land rich and cash poor.” In the Colonial era, anyone who wanted a land grant — usually a sumptious one — only had to apply to the proper authorities to get it. Various colonies and regions had different qualifiers to receive land grants, but…the land was granted. Not sold.
British West Florida includes coastal land of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana) offered land grants to British soldiers. The amounts of property they received were based upon their service and their families (i.e., for each child in the family, additional acreages were allotted.)
Please understand, in the Colonial era, availability of land wasn’t the issue. Colonists were the scarcity, and colonists were needed to invest in the land and produce raw goods to benefit the mother countriy. So, yes, anyone who was willing to fulfill the parameters (usually the grants were conditional upon the petitioner inhabiting and developing the property) could acquire land, often lots of land. And yet, many of these people were not wealthy (military pay was miserly at best.) The idea was that cultivating the land would generate income and over time planters would acquire wealth. Sometimes it worked out that way, other times not.
For every Thomas Jefferson, there were dozens of poor farmers living in cabins on large tracts of land. And yes, since developing the land and producing products was their “business,” the landowner did indeed work alongside his slaves IF he was lucky enough to afford some. It was in his best interest to do this. Maybe a generation or three down the road, with lucky, his grandchildren didn’t have to do it, but he did it.
Check out some slave sale records. Cash deals weren’t the norm. More often than not, a planter offered a mortgage on his property with notes to be paid from his crops to buy a slave or slaves to help with the labor.
It has nothing to do with moral high ground. It has to do with how things were and what moral — or amoral — sentiments existed at the time.
Slavery is still rampant in various nations. I’m sure there are slaveowners who treat their slaves “fairly,” but slaves are still slaves. Not a good condition.
That said, I’m not going to let that get in the way of enjoying a good story. I don’t freak out over romances depicting serfdom, indentured servitude, and slavery in other countries (i.e., the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, etc.)
Quoted for truth, Barbara B. I 100% agree. I’ve never seen the appeal of the Civil War romance novel, because mainly, from what I’ve seen, either the hero or the heroine tend to live on a plantation in the midst of the Deep South and, therefore, see nothing wrong with owning slaves. And some of the romances I’ve read often have the characters actively defending the “glorious” South and their way of life… Squick. Incredibly gross, and off-putting to me.
I can see why publishers don’t publish many Civil War-era romances, though. It’s a time period in history that is incredibly fraught with racial tension and horrific abuse towards People of Color. Knowing the reality of what slavery did to people, both black and white, doesn’t make for very good romantic reading.
@Jana J. Hanson:
I think one has to have this background knowledge — along with a good dose of objectivity — to enjoy any historicals featuring practices our more enlightened present-day society abhors.
I’m a little turned off by the popularity of historical “sheikh romances,” usually featuring a white, Christian heroine abducted into slavery and seduced by a handsome “master.” I mean, honestly, we’re talking about sexual slavery, yet the scenarios been a hot fantasy for generations. Look what it did for Rudolph Valentino.
“Summer of My German Soldier,” while not a “true” romance, is a very romantic tale.
“It has nothing to do with moral high ground. It has to do with how things were and what moral -‘ or amoral -‘ sentiments existed at the time. ”
“That said, I'm not going to let that get in the way of enjoying a good story. I don't freak out over romances depicting serfdom, indentured servitude, and slavery in other countries (i.e., the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, etc.)”
Would you be as able to enjoy a well written romance with a Dr. Joseph Mengele type as the dedicated, hardworking hero amid the backdrop of Auschwitz-Birkenau? Does your lack of judgement of historical events extend this far? The hero conducting his sick experiements on humans during the day and courting an Aryan beauty during his free time.
I honestly don’t know, Barbara. I admit your above scenario would not garner my interest, but I believe many factors hinge upon a book’s entertainment factor. In the hands of a skilled, compelling writer with the craft and objectivity to look past the “bad,” perhaps the “good” can be brought to light. If the author achieves that balance, perhaps such a book would find an appreciative audience.
I have no right to deprive that appreciative audience of their enjoyment.
Sorry, I misspelled experiments in the last comment. Not to mention the terrible punctuation which is common to every one of my comments.
Didn’t Elspeth McKendrick (Morag McKendrick Pippin) write a romance called Perfidia, which was set in World War II Germany and had a Nazi sympathizing heroine and a German hero?
I didn’t want to read the book so please correct me if my description is off.
@Barbara B.: I tend to agree with you. Although Susan Wiggs wrote a moving book called The Charm School in which the secondary romance involved a freed slave struggling to free his wife from slavery, most of the time, when it comes to the Civil War era and Antebellum south, I would rather read a book like Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The heroine was from the British upperclasses and echoed some of the then current beliefs about Hitler and the Nazi party. Until she gets a first hand view of the reality. I’m trying to avoid spoilers but the information about the hero isn’t quite right.
Returning to the original discussion, a plausible reason for slaves not being present at the plantation upon the Union troops arrival is that the slaves may have fled the plantation OR may have been ordered to leave. As the war grew more ornerous and limited resources, some slaveowners did manumit their slaves because they literally did not have the resources to provide for them. The Union army was notorious for its abuse of black Americans (slave or not — in Northern Louisiana invading Federals desecrated a church and stole its holy regalia — the church was built and sponsored by Augustin Metoyer, a wealthy Franco-African planter) and it makes sense slaves might flee, fearing for their safety.
But this does not seem to be the type of family or “plantation” represented in the book, does it?
If you’re interested, Catherine Clinton’s “The Plantation Mistress, Woman’s World in the Old South” provides a comprehensive study of the mythical “Southern Aristocracy” versus the reality, specifically female roles and expectations.
As to whether the family in Ms. Stang’s novel is meant to represent a more realistic planter’s family over the other, I can’t tell you.
I CAN tell you some interesting information regarding the house featured on the book’s cover. Oak Alley (dubbed Bon Sejour by its original owner, the Romaine family, back in the 1830’s) is a popular “poster child” for what people consider “Southern royalty.” It’s used in lots of films and on book covers.
In truth, Oak Alley is a very small house by the period’s standards, created to suit the needs of an upper middle-class family. The house looks quite imposing from the outside but its rooms are very modest. The building itself is constructed of bousillage and plaster, and the walls are thirteen feet thick. The house is built on a site where the original owner built a log cabin and planted the famous, lush avenue of oak trees spreading over a quarter mile all the way to the Mississippi River. The cabin was torn down and Mrs. Romaine’s father built the new house as a wedding gift. The rooms are quite small and there is no ball room or guest accomodations or even a garconiere.
I realize, to modern eyes, Oak Alley appears quite imposing and grand, but it’s actually a modest property compared to, say, Nottoway Plantation.
Oak Alley is an example of what I mean when I refer to the legend of the Old South versus the more prosaic truths. Yes, slaves lived and worked on this plantation; a memorial is set up on the grounds listing their names. However, the number’s smaller than you might suspect.
So, if you asked me to judge the book by its cover, I’d assume the heroine’s family were middle class and that the ladies of the house contributed work to the household (and possibly to the grounds as well.)
@Jayne: Thanks for the scoop on Perfidia.
Janine, I don’t think the hero would stop you from enjoying “Perfidia” but there are other scenes and issues which, I think, would.
Bear with me because it’s been about 2-3 weeks since I read the book but from what I recall mentioned about the family and their home situation (which wasn’t much), the plantation grounds were extensive and I think mention was made that they had grown cotton. Mention is made about how Joel, the Union hero, thinks about how the grounds are in bad shape now but must have once been very productive – which is why I thought there must have been slaves there. Obviously something was grown there.
The plantation was outside of Petersburg and the family was prominent in local society. Cassie’s oldest brother is a doctor, something which apparently caused quite a fight between father and son as Cassie’s father wanted him to take over the plantation. Another brother fights for the Union – unbeknownst to the family.