"I joined the war believing in something,” Cole said. “But, at this moment, I could not tell you what it was.”
“You won,” she said.
“My father died at Bull Run, my brother and I enlisted with the Union, my younger brother went to the Rebels, and I have heard no word from him since the morning he left. My mother and sister, when the fighting grew too close, went south to Charleston to stay with her people there. I never saw them again. My family’s home was burned down, the fields are burial grounds. If that is winning, I can’t imagine what losing feels like.”
“Remarkably,” she said, “it feels the same.” Seduced,Loc. 942
Historical romances set around the Civil War are usually not my cup of tea for many reasons. I've read some clunkers that attempted to glorify and/or idealize plantation life and southern belles; I've read others in which all Southerners are painted broadly and stereotypically, as if we're all cut from the same cloth. And yes, I've read Gone With The Wind, and I fell in love with Rhett Butler and was at once fascinated/repulsed by Scarlett O'Hara. But the Civil War just isn't where I like to go to "escape" when I read. I've read a lot about the bloody battles like Gettysburg, Shiloh, Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Vicksburg as well as Reconstruction, and I just find historical romances set in and around times of slavery, the Civil War and the aftermath offer nothing up to be romanticized. This war was fought in backyards, in fields, at places people called "home", brother against brother, father against son, friend against friend, and is without a doubt one of the saddest times in United States history.
One little known fact is that there were some Southerners who fought on the Union side. In fact, my great something grandfather was one such man and has assumed heroic proportions for us, his family, since his death in 1865. I have a photo of a daguerreotype of him in his Union blues, I have a letter to his widow detailing her pension, and I have a record of his death and resting place in Illinois - a long way from Alabama. And I have stories handed down about him from one generation to the next. He's not a statistic to me and can never be just one of over 600,000 men who died during this awful war. All this blather is my convoluted way to lead up to my review of "Seduced" by Molly O'Keefe, and to say that once again, Ms. O'Keefe has proved me wrong. She has taken a time period that's not my favorite, a heroine who isn't sweet and cuddly, added a gritty story of the aftermath of war and made me eat my words. Again.
Whatever you think will happen in this historical romance needs to be discarded like yesterday's trash. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in Seduced follows expected avenues. Take for example, Cole "Smith" Baywood, a bounty hunter, who has survived the horrors of war only to continue a waking nightmare in trying to find his brothers. He's "the devil come to visit", a "stranger in black" who rides up and seems to be just the man to dispatch the villainous Jimmy Hurst.
For taking his brother’s letters, Cole meant to question Jimmy. For killing Steven and squatting on his land, should that be the case, Cole would kill the coward. (Loc. 395)
Except he doesn't. Cole, like all the characters in Seduced, has been through a trial by fire and emerged changed forever.
Cole didn’t know what that meant anymore. How like you. That boy he’d been was a stranger. A character in a story he’d heard once, a long time ago, and only dimly remembered. (Loc. 628)
Or take Melody Hurst, once a pampered Southern belle comfortable using her attractions to get who and what she wants:
"Before the war she’d craved attention and status. Reveled in her position of prestige, enjoyed the envy of other girls and the attention of all the men. She’d been selfish and conniving to serve her own goals." (Loc. 242)
She has retained her deeply ingrained facade of appearing to be just a bit of fluff who bats her eyelashes to have every whim fulfilled, a woman whose "dazzling smile was once her greatest accomplishment," but the war has changed her in ways she's just beginning to realize and acknowledge.
"But Melody.” Jimmy shook his head. “She lost it all. Parents, dead. Brother, dead. Fiancé, dead. Land ruined and sold off.”
“And yet, here I am,” she said, lifting her hands as if she stood in paradise. “Others are not so lucky.” (Loc. 457)
She still smiles charmingly to influence, to entice, to tempt, to cajole, to placate, and she curtseys just as her mother taught her to do, but now "wearing her charm and manners like a dress that no longer fit" she uses these charming mannerisms to ruthlessly ensure survival - hers and her sister's, Annie. To Cole she at first appears to be "a china doll" [a] beautiful, fragile doll" that would shatter if touched. But she's . . .more. Melody has managed to survive the war, care for and protect her sister, and to nurture a small remembrance of her home in the seeds she's carried with her from Georgia to the foothills of the Rockies. "And yet, here I am." There's something empowering in those five little words. Melody has learned a hard lesson: ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. Like Saul, the scales fell from her eyes, and she could see.
Melody had learned that averting her eyes, or even closing them, did not stop anything. It made no horror disappear, no atrocity—it only made the shock of opening her eyes worse. She'd hid her head under a pillow for the first part of the war, only to emerge blinking and useless to a changed world. She would not do that again. (Loc. 111)
Annie, too, is unexpected. She stammers when nervous, she's shy, and she limps due to a club foot. It would have been easy to make her an object of pity or a weak character. But she is neither weak nor to be pitied. When Jimmy introduces Annie to Cole he refers to her as a "mute gimp", but it's a mistake to underestimate her. In fact, in the very first chapter, I loved how Melody and Annie worked in tandem, and how the power kept shifting between the two women according to their strengths. She's just as strong as Melody. In fact, she's stronger in some ways. Melody knows Annie's "muteness" is a shield, a layer of protection against Jimmy's cruelty, a layer Melody doesn't have.
But Annie did not answer. Annie did not talk when Jimmy was near. It was as if she’d reverted back to the girl she’d been before the war. Shy and silent. But watching. Always watching. It was a trick she'd refined in ballrooms, much to Mama's dismay.
But in many ways it was Annie’s way of protecting herself, by not attracting Jimmy’s notice. The way Melody wore her charm and grace, Annie wore her silence. And both acts made Melody feel alone sometimes. Alone inside a cage. (Loc. 365-368)
Annie, ignored by her mother for her lack in social graces and "oddness", trailed after her father "into field hospitals during the war", gaining medical experience and earning her father's highest praise as "the best assistant he'd ever had." She's more at ease probing for bullets in a man's stomach than embroidering her initials on handkerchiefs. A woman of many parts, as they say. In her element, Annie is "in command of herself. Of her setting." A woman in charge of her destiny.
Ever since the war had required them to shed their ball gowns and get their hands dirty, Annie had thrived. The shy wallflower with a stammer had been trampled by a woman who seemed unaware of her limits. (Loc. 266)
Steven Baywood, Cole's brother, is also cut from different cloth. He escaped from the horrific Andersonville prisons and built a humble cabin with a magnificent view of snow-capped mountains. A view to be enjoyed from an "extensive covered porch complete with railing and a chair", a "ludicrous" porch for "such a plain building." Or, as Melody says of it upon first sight: "a bonnet on a donkey." Inside, he has a "daguerreotype of a family in their Sunday best. Three teenage boys and a younger girl, her hair still in braids, sat unsmiling at the feet of an older seated couple, whose clasped hands rested on the man's knee. The woman was trying not to smile." A glimpse of his family before the war. Even when confronted by the homicidal Jimmy, Steven is calm, not "scared, which was strange. Most people were scared of Jimmy, even if he wasn't lying in ambush and holding a gun on them." He, too, survived but not unscathed.
Ask anyone and they would say that Steven was the fun one. Always laughing. There was not much sign of laughter anymore. But his hand, familiar and rough, grabbed Cole’s and held on hard, as if Cole had come at just the right moment to save him from drowning. (Loc. 698)
One of the things I loved in Seduced besides the way Ms. O'Keefe subverted the tried and true tropes of "western" romance was the tender, genuine, heart-felt emotion and shared strength between both Melody and Annie and Steven and Cole. As Melody pats down Annie's "wild mess of dandelion fluff" the morning after Jimmy leaves, she reflects on the pact they formed after her nightmarish wedding to Jimmy, and that simple oath ("We'll be fine. As long as we're together./Yes, we will.") has been renewed each morning since Annie found Melody "bloody and battered on the floor beside the bed."
It was a luxury to touch someone with kindness, instead of in fear or desperation. She'd forgotten what that felt like. How it breathed air into her dark and fearful spirit. (Loc. 200)
Calm, she thought. Soft. We need not grab onto each other for life right now. With one last ineffective pat to her sister's hair, Melody took the bucket and stepped outside, hoping to find a well or stream in the clearing. (Loc. 203)
Likewise, the love between Steven and Cole is palpable, especially when Cole finds Steven recovering from gunshot wounds.
“...his eyes traveling over Steven’s prone body. The light was unreliable but she wondered if there weren’t tears in his eyes.
Cole was beside Steven in a blink, his hand going to his blond head, as if to be sure he was real. His fingers shook as they touched Steven’s hair and face. And those were tears in his eyes.
“Hello, brother,” Cole whispered.
“Took you long enough,” Steven whispered, and the two of them smiled.
Gently, carefully, Cole bent his head to rest his forehead against his brother’s. (Loc. 599)
The war changed them all, some for the better and some, like Jimmy, for the worst. Seduced is a love story between Melody and Cole, a burgeoning romance between Annie and Steven, but more than that it is a story of hope and faith, a story of learning how to thrive after scrabbling to survive for so long, how to pick up the pieces of a shattered dream and and make it into something else. Different. Perhaps something better. But as some dreams transform, others fall to the side. Melody's desire to stay with Cole means a painful break with Annie.
"This was going to happen eventually, wasn't it? The two of us finding our own way? I have always needed you, but maybe, maybe what you've needed is to be away from me.”
Annie blinked as if stunned, and Melody understood. She was stunned to be saying it. (Loc. 1890)
Annie, too, has changed, but her dream still lies in Denver. Despite having to leave Melody behind, she is determined. She knows herself better, I think, than any character in Seduced. She's had a long time for self-examination so what she wants and needs is crystal clear.
"Once mother washed her hands of me ever getting married, she left me alone. Everyone left me alone. All I had to do was dress for the parties and stay away from the punch. And I had this freedom because no one cared about me. I read what I wanted. Talked to whomever I wanted. About all manner of inappropriate topics. And I found out who I was when so little was expected of me. When I had no one to please but myself."
“When the war started I was left even more alone, and then Father needed me and that freedom was galvanized with a purpose. And I like my freedom. You can have that freedom now. It's not a bad thing, Melody. It's wonderful.” (Loc. 1468-1477)
Melody isn't the same woman at the end as she was in the beginning. Some might say she's not "herself", but she knew the truth", a truth she discovered "the day she found herself again; like a diamond, hard and unbroken beneath all the rubble." Neither is Cole the same, and though he's in love with Melody he refuses her proposal initially because he wants more, more than a marriage that merely solves problems, or provides safety and security, or keeps desperation at bay, or atones for his sins. More for him. More for her.
Free. Yes, he was. Though not in the way she thought. He was free from that cave. His chains destroyed by her laughter and seeds. The hope she'd returned to him. He would have her free in the same manner. (Loc. 1369)
Melody makes her difficult choice, and I loved how she explained to Cole that he "gave her the key to [her] own freedom", that he saw her as no one else ever had just as she saw him and "liked everything [she] saw." And Cole's declaration and acceptance at the end does nothing to curtail Melody's newly found freedom:
“I woke up this morning happy. For the first time in more than six years, I was happy. Because you were here. And I could see your face and make you smile. I thought I’d walk you over to the high meadow and we could pick out a place to build a house. Build a life. Start something new. Untouched by all the ugliness in our pasts. And I want that, Melody. I want that with you. But if you want to go to Denver, we can do it there." (Loc. 1915)
Molly O'Keefe is a wonderful writer. I've read only three of her books so far, and two of those were contemporary romances. All three are wonderful. It's plain to see that no matter what genre or sub genre she decides to venture into, she is a writer who consistently crafts beautiful prose, authentic characters, gripping stories, and complex conflicts. I'll read all her contemporary romances I can get my hands on as well as any future historical romances she might make available. In fact, should she decide to dip her writing toes into sci/fi fantasy or paranormal or young adult or any other waters, I'd follow right along. I just hope she keeps writing.