Friday, September 29, 2006

book review The Measure of a Lady

Title: The Measure of a Lady
Author: Deeanne Gist
Publisher: Bethany House, June 2006, 320 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / Romance
ISBN: 0764200739

When the two ‘sunbonnets’ Rachel and Lissa Van Buren, along with their younger brother Michael slog up the muddy hill to the city from the ship on which their father died, they don’t know that they’ll be living there for a good long time. Neither do they realize its temptations, vices and challenges will sift and test them to the point where their family bonds will be stretched to the break point. But that is the case when Deeanne Gist places this naive and vulnerable trio right in the middle of the gold-mad San Francisco of 1849 in her smashingly well-written second novel, The Measure of a Lady.

The story is primarily one of character with Rachel and Johnnie Parker – saloon-keeper and gambling house landlord – playing the lead roles. Rachel’s strict moral code, idealistic outlook and determined disposition can hardly bear to coexist with the red-blooded female side of her that Johnny brings out. The result is some great inner conflict. Johnny too fights inner battles as he trifles with the affections of this young beauty and then finds he, an avowed bachelor, is falling for her. Secondary characters Lissa and Michael are similarly convincing and interesting as they develop.

The setting is another major player in this tale. With the harbor full of boats that never leave, having been abandoned by their gold-fevered crews, the orphans are as trapped in this place as if they were on an island. The climate, with its perpetual rain and resulting sea of mud, feels authentic and adds to the sense of isolation. Contributing to the story’s realism is the research Gist obviously did (she lists, in a note at the book’s end, which of the story’s incidents were actually reported in journals and memoirs of the time), and her entertaining storytelling style. It’s hard to believe she wasn’t a fly on the wall of Johnnie’s gaming rooms, judging by the convincing way she calls a card game.

The plot is primarily one of romance. In this department, Gist’s skillful way with a love scene – always stopping just short of crossing propriety’s boundary of course – is made all the more compelling by, in several places, sensuous descriptions of some of nature’s couplings. To me the story’s pace bogged down a little in the home stretch, perhaps because of some time gaps in the narrative – or maybe it was just the fault of all that mud.

Family loyalty and taking responsibility for her younger siblings is a huge concern for Rachel. The theme of faith in God and how to apply it to life also looms large. Rachel, indoctrinated from childhood with the belief that she must shun anything remotely sinful, soon alienates herself from all the working ladies in the town. She also confronts head-on issues of drinking, gambling and the morality of living by monies made in the support of those pursuits. Happily, cataclysmic events at the end of the book act as a catalyst to resolve all these themes on a note of grace.

For the lover of historical Americana delivered with a dose of sweet romance, The Measure of a Lady won’t disappoint.

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