My review of Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne is hard to write, maybe the hardest. If this book were only about Low 'Louise' Down, it's a keeper for sure. But it isn't, and it wasn't ever meant to be a one-woman show. But my heart is torn because there is so much to love about Silver Lining and yet there's misguided whiny Max McCord, Low Down's love interest and Philadelphia Houser, one of the most stereotypical evil manipulative 'other woman' characters I've ever had the misfortune to meet between the pages of a book. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Louise Down will go down as one of my most favorite heroines ever. She's an orphan who was put on one of the orphan trains at age 4 heading west and adopted by a Missouri couple who made children and adopted others to serve as their 'labor force' in a leather tanning business. At age 13, Louise ran away and has been officially on her own for 15 years. The only legacy left to her from her adopted family besides scarred fingers and hands and nightmares about skinning cows is the name everyone knows her by: Low Down. How does Louise become known as 'Low Down'? Mama Olson of Missouri, of course:
'When I was little she used to shout at me. She'd say, come here you low-down, good for nothing piece of ...well, you can guess the rest. I got it in my head that Low Down was my name. Then, after I ran away, I heard a man from Washington talking about being low down on the totem pole. That seemed to fit, too. And so-' (p. 84)
Since 13 she has drifted around, working on a ranch, in a laundry, until she lands in Piney Creek, Colorado, panning for gold. She never attended school regularly but she can write and read. Some people read books, but Low Down loves to read songbooks because she 'enjoys the stories.' They're short and 'offer a lot to think about' (Grandfather's Clock - Louise imagines dozens of ways the old man dies and stops the clock), they're funny (Shoo, Fly, Don't Bother Me), or maybe they're philosophical (Silver Threads Among the Gold - growing older and wondering if she'd checked off everything on her bucket list). Louise has every reason to be bitter, hardened, and without hope, but she isn't any of those things. True, she's likely to sprinkle most of her sentences with 'ain't' and swearing is an art form for Louise, but she's learned to rely only on herself while still being unselfish and big-hearted. She's tenacious and determined. How else could she have survived for 28 years? She's clever, meeting challenges head on.
When I first met Louise she's nursing a schoolhouse full of men suffering from the 'pox' (small pox, I guess?) from the mining camp because she's the only one who's had it before. She's dirty, hungry tired, and bullying the men to keep fighting. Of course, she's successful and in gratitude the men offer her anything her heart desires as payment for her helping them make it through. A piano? A house instead of a tent? Furniture? An overnight stay in Denver's finest hotel? Oysters and champagne? What is the one thing she wants above all others? Name it and she can have it. All 64 men give their solemn oath to make it so. Low Down '...the guest of honor [who] wore an oversized men's shirt and denim trousers, neither of which was too clean, and mud-caked gum-rubber boots' standing there in an old hat, dirty hair, and grime encrusted face turned gray from the dust wants none of those things. She wants a baby, and not an orphan, 'not someone else's baby.'
I'm not sure why the baby had to be from her body, but I have to say this is the one thing I really didn't like nor understand. I would have thought she'd want to rescue a child like she used to be and give him/her all the love denied her. I think more than anything what she wanted was family, and perhaps she thought only a child of her body could possibly love her. Because Louise doesn't believe anyone can ever find anything about her to love. She argues with Max at one point and says that if she died no one would cry for her. She would not be missed and '[t]hat's how it's always been.'
The only way the preacher will allow Louise her heart's desire is through marriage. She wants a baby, not a husband, but sees the marriage as the only way to have her wish. When no one comes forward as a volunteer, one of the men puts 24 (the number of single men) marbles in a hat with one marked with an 'X.' Max McCord is one of the 64 men Louise nursed/threatened/badgered back to health, and though he's not married, he is engaged. Somehow he allows himself to be shamed/bullied into joining the others because he's not 'hitched' yet. The marble is as significant to Max as Louise's silver spoon, a gift from one of the men at camp. This is how Low Down and Max end up married, though neither one wanted the other.
I think I had more problems with Max than with Philadelphia. He is so bitter and resentful in just about every interaction with Louise that I wanted to smack him. By word, thought, and action he lays most of the the blame for the loss of his beautiful Philadelphia, the job at her father's bank, and the scandal to his family squarely at Louise's feet. He constantly compares Louise to Philadelphia, and Louise always comes up short. He wallows in self-pity for all that Louise cost him. For every two steps he takes to move forward with Louise, Max takes five steps back. Louise, proud of her real silver spoon, puts it on the mantel in the living room of their house, and Max is embarrassed by it. Worse, he wishes it were the candlesticks bequeathed to Philadelphia by her mother. Max and Louise's first night in their home is haunted by Philadelphia's ghost. The rose-colored bedroom, the paisley wallpaper, flowered carpets, all had been selected by Max with Philadelphia in mind, chosen to offer a suitable background for her blonde beauty. Louise is not dainty, nor beautiful. She doesn't need Max to dry her tears or make everything to suit her. I became so frustrated with Max's yearning for fool's gold when he had the real thing right in the palm of his hand. Louise isn't shy about stating her opinions and I cheered when she tells Max to stop feeling sorry for himself. But he just can't see Philadelphia for who she really is until much later. His realization comes so slowly and so late that I began to question his judgment. How could he not see through her lies? The manipulations? How dare he allow Philadelphia to insult Louise and never put a stop to It? How did he not her sheer unadulterated malice? Max's angst when his brother Wally marries Philadelphia and his torment when he knows they are sharing a wedding night just about made me pitch the book against the wall. Oh, please! Spare me! His mother lays it all out for him finally because, you know, his feelings are crystal clear to everyone.
'I've always known what you were thinking. You're squeezing that
marble in your pocket and you're thinking your cattle wouldn't be at risk if it
weren't for Louise. And maybe you're right. But take a hard look, son. When
you see that woman working up a sweat pitching hay like a hired hand …
you're looking at character.
And if we ever have another family dinner that goes like the last one did,
you pay attention. I have an idea that your Louise doesn't sit still for too
many insults, and I imagine she could cut someone down to size in about
three sentences if she wanted to. But she sat silent while Philadelphia
ridiculed and belittled her. Louise did this out of respect for you and this
family. That is also character.
Maybe you really believe Wally is living your life. If so, then you haven't
been honest with yourself. And you haven't taken a good hard look at the
life you have. Mark my words, Max. Someday you're going to hold that
marble, and it won't be a symbol of all you lost. That marble will be the gold
you went to Piney Creek to find. It will be the most precious thing you own.
I say this because I didn't raise any stupid sons.' (p. 249)
I honestly began to question Louise's judgment when she unfailingly and unflinchingly puts up with all of Max's handwringing over Philadelphia.
Ah, Philadelphia. I'm not going to waste a lot of time explaining the million reasons this character set my teeth on edge. She lives to manipulate the men around her - by batting her lashes, by pouting. She manipulates Max, her father, Wally by withholding her affection or granting a kiss as a reward for doing what she wants. She can cry on demand and knows she does so beautifully because she practices in front of a mirror. Every single emotion Philadelphia feels or exhibits is a calculated move on a chessboard. There wasn't one genuinely likable thing about her. Not. One. I lost count of how many times she refers to Louise as that 'creature', or an 'abomination.' She lies easily and often. She is the epitome of the stereotypical evil 'other woman', and I wondered why the author decided to make her so awful.
I liked Livvy, Max's mother, though she was off putting at first when she suggests a divorce for Louise and Max before Louise had even entered her house. I just felt so sorry for Wally, the brother who marries Philadelphia. I sincerely hope she decides not to follow him to California to work on their marriage. I can't see a happy life for him with her. Nor can I envision loving family reunions at the holidays. Gilly, Max's sister, was pretty much a shadowy character with a husband who was practically nonexistent. Sunshine, Gilly's daughter, was a bit of plot moppet, serving to highlight Louise's maternal instincts and Philadelphia's lack of the same. Then there's the totally expected plot twist toward the end that, even though I saw it coming, filled me with such disappointment and anger. I felt it was too convenient a way to wrap things up plus it added an extra layer to the 'bad seed' that was Philadelphia.
I'm not sure how to rate Silver Lining. Will I read it again? Probably. Maybe. I loved Louise, I grew to tolerate Max, and I respected Livvy for being a strong woman when women were not expected to be strong. Philadelphia and her father were repugnant and hateful. Every cloud has a silver lining, and Louise Down is definitely the silver lining in this book.