We’re reading our way across America...one romance at a time. And, to make it even more fun, we’re doing it in order of incorporation into the United States.
Louisiana: Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
I don’t think it has ever taken me so long to finish a book as it took me to at last arrive at the final sentence of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind. I’m talking Classic Russian Literature long. I’m talking James Joyce long. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell long. Long. And I don’t even really know why. I liked it well enough, for the most part, and it was actually pretty exciting, in that I had no idea where next this hectic narrative was going to take us. It just took me a long time to get there.
When I first broached the topic of reading this novel – in honor of Louisiana, the eighteenth state to join the Union, as you may or may not be aware — with my Perfect Unions cohort, the inimitable Kate Nagy, she said she looked forward to my thoughts on it, since it had been all the rage with her classmates in junior high and she wondered how it had held up over the intervening years.
All I can say is, I am mightily impressed with the teenage girls of Topeka, Kansas, back in the day; not only because the fashion among my peers at an equivalent age was Flowers in the Attic and the racier bits of assorted Judy Blume novels, but also because this is one perambulating, frustrating, word-heavy and really, I cannot emphasize this enough, long book, so I have to applaud their tenacity in getting through it at an age at which many—ahem—might have considered Tiger Beat to be of sufficient length.
On the other hand, this does feel like the kind of would-be sweeping historical epic that teenage girls would enjoy. It’s Gone with the Wind Lite (there’s even “wind” in the title—really?), with plenty of those racier bits to titillate the youngsters—but unlike the ones found in Blume’s Forever, there’s corsets and petticoats and more than a little “forcible seduction” involved.
Look, I am no Gone with the Wind fangirl. I dislike the movie, actively detest the book, and have never understood the fascination it has held for so many for so long. But even I found it in me to take exception at some of the glaring…er…compliments to that famous work paid here by Woodiwiss. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?)
Just like in Gone with the Wind, we treat with a bewitching Southern belle and her forthright Yankee suitor during—and after—the U.S. Civil War. Just like in Gone with the Wind, said belle, Alaina McGaren by name, is fiercely attached to her palatial family home, and finds herself in quite desperate straits. I could go on, but won’t, if only because the many ways in which this novel resembles its mighty predecessor are vastly outnumbered by the almost Barbara Cartland-worthy histrionics through which the plot erratically hurtles.
There are so many tropes at work here, I don’t even know where to begin. We have Heroine in Drag. We have not one but two cases of Forced to Marry. We have Mistaken Identity, and Lost Treasure, and Falsely Accused, and Interfering Uncle. There is a nefarious villain who desires our heroine, but who also happens to be involved in every facet of the (exhausting) plot in a peculiarly convenient manner. How to put it in a nutshell for you? Well, it would have to be one hell of a big nut. But here goes…
Disembarking into the port of New Orleans comes a disheveled but plucky young lad, who rapidly attracts the ire of a) a flashily-clad and arrogant brute of whom we are bound to see more anon, and b) a passel of Union soldiers looking for some easy sport in the occupied Confederate city. Fortunately for the lad (and the remainder of the story), he is rescued from their attentions by one Captain Cole Latimer, a doctor at the Army Hospital, who bids the boy join him for something to eat and presses upon him a job scrubbing the wards . Dropping the boy—who calls himself “Al”—off at his uncle’s house, Cole meets the beautiful Roberta, a scheming, self-important young miss who is not nearly as attractive in thought as she is in appearance. And who is quite delighted to see that her young cousin, no mere “Al” but, of course, but spirited, captivating Alaina, is determined to play the part of a boy, and is therefore no feminine competition.
Railing against that “Yankee bluebellies” whenever the occasion offers itself (and it offers itself a lot), Alaina maintains her “Al” masquerade; one she donned to escape the false charges of espionage leveled against her by a Union officer whose advances she had rebuffed. Soon, however, her good name is even more besmirched when it is believed that she aided and abetted a massacre of Confederate soldiers. She dons yet more disguises, including that of wanton hussy—her virtue is ripped from her one night by a drunken Cole, for whom the morning after the night before brings nothing but disaster, as he then believes he is in honor bound to wed the shrewish Roberta.
And seriously, by this point, we’re not even a quarter of the way through the book.
There follow outrageous near-death escapes and the relentless pursuit of Alaina by pretty much every available man in the book, along with some political intrigue and organized crime and a more than occasional willful misunderstanding betwixt our two star-crossed lovers. There is pride humbled and selves sacrificed. About halfway through, we abandon sultry, chaotic New Orleans for the northern reaches of frontier Minnesota, more masquerades are revealed—along with some truly bizarre coincidences for which there is really no excuse, nor even reason—and throughout we are treated to casual racism against former slaves and Native Americans that may be authentic to the period, but still feels really, really icky.
My main problem with this novel, though, is our so-called hero. Major Cole Latimer is probably the whiniest, most mercurial, aggravating and irrational protagonist of any romance novel I have ever read. He’s a weird combination of arrogant and insecure, solicitous and cold, generous and overbearing. He’s irrational, tyrannical, and assuredly not the sharpest bayonet in the armory. He’s a mean drunk. In fact, he’s a mean sober. And he’s not above threatening his second wife, our intrepid Alaina—to whom he had promised a marriage of convenience—with some unwanted husbandly attention. “I am a man and you are my wife. You have no right to deny me,” he tells her. Then he goes on to say: “I cannot promise I will never take you by force. I do not know that I can long endure this way.”
Wow, Cole. You had me at “no right to deny me.”
This was my first visit with the works of Woodiwiss, and I am not suggesting here that I will never again allow her to darken my door with her historical flights of fancy. This book was so busy, so very action-packed, that I find myself very curious to see what possible permutations of plot she has left herself to use in other such stories. Her prose, while at times labored—and her dialogue, at times laborious—is nevertheless quite readable, and I did find myself with a smile on my face as the craziness ended. But I read, wait let me count them…fourteen other books while also persisting with this one, and never has the percentage counter on my Kindle advanced as slowly as it did with Ashes in the Wind. My only theory as to why this might be is that there was just so much going on that I could only process it in small doses.
How disturbing, that Kate’s junior high classmates seem to have had no such trouble.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.