We’re reading our way across America…one romance at a time.
Oregon: Fionna’s Will by Lana McGraw Boldt
Now we turn to the very novel that inspired the entire Perfect Unions project. Here’s the story (and what a story it is): One day, I was in the basement, cleaning out the cats’ litter box (ah, the thrilling life of the freelance blogger), when my eye fell upon a bookshelf loaded with old paperbacks that hadn’t been touched in years. One of them was Lana McGraw Boldt’s wildly readable Fionna’s Will, and because thinking about this Oregon-set historical epic was considerably more pleasant than thinking about what I was doing at the time, I began to meditate upon the fact that I had absolutely loved it when I first read it back in college. And then, the light bulb: “You know, there really aren’t that many romance novels set in Oregon. Or New Mexico or Nebraska or Delaware…but I’ll bet there are some.”
Anyway, I picked up the book for a re-read, wondering how it would compare with the book I knew and loved back in the day (I was in college, let us say, several years ago). And guess what: It holds up just fine!
Fionna’s Will tells the story of Fionna Barry, a young Virginia lovely who narrowly avoids being murdered alongside most of her pro-abolition family by marauding rebels immediately prior to the Civil War. Grief-stricken, she sells the family farm and uses the funds to outfit herself for the Oregon Trail, as she has heard that women can legally claim land in the Oregon territory, and she intends to be wealthy and independent. Unmarried women aren’t allowed in the company she joins, but family friend Nathanial Coughlin also happens to be a member of the group, and he agrees to pose as her husband as far as Oregon, at which point they’ll part ways. Nathanial is, of course, young, handsome (red-haired, even!), an expert hunter and trapper, and all around good egg. Of course, passion eventually flares between the two of them, and Fionna’s plans to remain single and independent are seriously endangered.
Eventually another complication arises. There is another man who makes the journey, one Jacob Teall, young, single, handsome, cultured, and wise. Nathanial shares Fionna’s ambition and her love of the land, and he’s a powerful link to her beloved Virginia home. Jacob shares Fionna’s hopes and dreams, as well as the poetry, music, and literature that she loves. In fact, it’s to Jacob that she turns when, near the end of the journey, she stumbles upon a secluded stream that happens to be loaded with gold nuggets. This discovery will make them both enviably wealthy and will bind them together as friends and business partners. But Jacob is Jewish, and he’s afraid that their different religions and cultures will tear them apart. Oh, and also he’s engaged.
Of course, none of this prevents passion from flaring up between them,too.
Nathanial is her rock; Jacob is the air that she breathes. Her heart and spirit will be torn between the two until death finally breaks the triangle. But when Fionna does pass away (before the book begins—the story is mostly told in flashback), she is still able to pass the lessons of her life on to her children and grandchildren, in particular her beloved granddaughter Josie, from beyond the grave. To that end, she has crafted an unusual Last Will and Testament that will guide them toward their true destinies and sustain her influence over her beloved Oregon forever.
There is never a dull moment in this book, between the wars, illnesses, deaths (and no one ever just dies—they get thrown off of trestles, their train goes over a cliff, they die in the trenches of World War I, they’re shot delivering arms to rebels during the Spanish American War, they get caught in the crossfire when the Chicago Mafia comes to town, etc.), love affairs, secret babies, secret families, and just plain explosive secrets. At various times, Fionna and her loved ones encounter the riders of the Pony Express, Indian tribes both friendly and unfriendly, and (less happily) the Ku Klux Klan, which was apparently a Thing in Oregon for a brief period in the early 1920s. (Who knew? I sure didn’t.) Boldt has scrupulously researched her story, from the gear needed to outfit a family for the perilous journey via Conestoga wagon across the continent to the rich and colorful details of Oregon’s history. But the detail never seems dropped in for detail’s sake—unlike with certain other historicals, I never got the feeling that the Distinguished Professor of American History was here to School Me. It was just…interesting.
In Fionna herself, Boldt has created an entirely memorable, although not completely likable, character. Her inability to truly choose between her men will lead to ruin for at least one very sympathetic character and arguably more than one. Also, can you say “control freak?” Her heirs’ inheritances are fully predicated on their doing exactly what she wants them to do! But at the same time, she fearlessly owns the consequences of her decisions, and she’s no hypocrite. For example, she warns Nathanial, early on, “I will belong to no man.” But when she later learns that in fact Nathanial will belong to no woman, she accepts it philosophically and with remarkable grace.
Fionna’s Will was out of print for a while, but has recently been reissued. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves the American Northwest, pioneer tales, and books about headstrong, passionate, and courageous heroines.
Kate Nagy is editor at large of Geek Speak Magazine.