by Karen Barnett
There are as many kinds of summer beach reads as there are ice cream flavors--some bold, some comfortable, but all sweet and hit the right spot on a perfect sunny day. EVER FAITHFUL by Karen Barnett falls into the flavor category of familiar yet swoon worthy, the sort of sweet passion of fresh peach ice cream.
Blurb: It’s 1933 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal shines like a light against the dark despair of the Great Depression. The government gives unemployed young men an opportunity of a lifetime, but it will mean leaving the cities to brave the untamed West.
Nate Webber takes a chance to help his family by signing up for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Although he hides a shameful secret, Nate exchanges the harsh Brooklyn streets for the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, curious to see if the Eden-like wonderland can transform him as well.
Elsie Brookes was proud to have grown up as a ranger’s daughter but longs for a future of her own. After four years serving as a maid in the park’s hotels, she still hasn’t saved enough for her college tuition. A second job, teaching a crowd of rowdy men in the CCC camp, might be the answer. Elsie is drawn to the beautiful spark within Nate, but she knows the scars she carries are far too ugly for any man to love.
When tragedy strikes the park, threatening to undo all she’s done to leave her past behind, can Nate and Elsie uncover the truth before all their dreams go up in smoke?
Barnett’s writing is engaging and almost instantly sucks you into the Depression era setting in Wyoming, creating a vivid world of park staffers and the CCC men (almost like a cross between West Side Story with the Sharks and Jets and a little Dirty Dancing, but without the music). The native staffers (i.e. gear jammers, pack rats, pillow punchers, rangers) are as wary of the city boys from Brooklyn (i.e. the Poles, the Irish, etc etc) are of them. But as Barnett impresses upon her readers, adversity creates some great leaders, and one of those leaders is Nate Webber.
Back home, Nate’s the family failure, too dumb to even finish school, but here in the forest parks of Wyoming, he’s able rise above the things he’s been told all his life. He begins to see a future for himself through the gift of work (something that is in short supply in high unemployment Great Depression.) Soon he is earning a wage he is able to send home to his family; and Nate has earned the respect of his comrades as well as the sergeant of his corps who wants Nate to apply for the manager position. Nate badly wants the job--but one of the requirements of the position is being able to read and write, which he’s unable to do. He certainly doesn’t want to let on he can’t--everyone likes him here and doesn’t constantly call him a dummy.
Elsie has her own past and secrets: she was the victim of a horrible fire which has left scars on her arms, chest, and neck. She’s the literal ugly duckling, despite her family and friends assuring her that her scars don’t matter. She’s decided therefore she’s unlikely to marry--which is fine because her life’s ambition is to become a teacher. She’s been working the last few years saving up her summer work money until she’s earned enough for tuition to the University of Montana. Elsie gets a chance to teach the men in the CCC education classes--and she’s soon immersing herself in her life’s dream during the last summer before she goes to college. It is the perfect summer.
Or it would be if someone wouldn’t set intentional fires during one of the driest seasons she can remember. The rangers and CCC men are on high alert to watch the forests as well as clean up the deadwood to keep ahead of what is potentially a tinder season--and they mostly succeed. The investigation into the arson soon uncovers a sinister plot that seems to lead back to Elsie.
For historical fiction and romance, this story gets a definite five stars. It’s sweet and pure (it is Christian fiction), but so romantic that I wanted a Nate Webber of my own by the time I got to the last page. Nate and Elsie made such a wonderful, convincing couple, I felt sure they could have been my grandparents and their “how we met” story by the time it was done, celebrating their 70th anniversary. The historical detail and setting was sublime--reminding me of stories I heard about my uncles who had served in the CCC, humble young men with little education, little food, but great hearts. As for the mystery bit, I thought it was a bit of a fluffy letdown--but I do believe it does fit the coziness factor that I think this book falls into. (But I also think writing a whodunit is hard and I can be particular...so take my opinion of the fluff factor with a grain of salt.) The secondary characters on the whole were well rounded--and it was lovely to have parents of characters who are good parents and not dysfunctional, absent or abusive ones (well, Nate’s dad is an alcoholic, but we never met him, so I don’t count it.) Elsie’s dad though is a park ranger and a lovely man who loves his wife, modeling the kind of marriage and manliness Elsie seeks when she begins to think of Nate in that way. Nate’s wingman, Red, is adorable--and the subplot of him and Elsie’s best friend Mary was a delightful romance as if you were getting two for the price of one.
This book is the third in a series about the national parks during this era with the CCC programs--and I plan to look up the first two books in the series. (This book works as a stand alone--don’t worry! I just sought out the other books because I enjoyed the author’s voice so much and hoped for more! I was delighted to learn there were two others.) Barnett’s writing is engaging, romantic, and the kind of sweet comfy read perfect for a rainy day...or a beachy one. Enjoy!