The Civil War might be over, but Sayra Martin is still struggling in the aftermath. She lost her parents and has been living under the good graces of her brother-in-law when she longs for independence. On top of that, the Union soldiers occupying her Louisiana home town have instituted the Woman Order which allows them to brand as a harlot any woman who disrespects them. Sayra's teenage niece, Lily, has a mental impairment which causes her to speak her mind, so if she unknowingly insults a Union officer, Sayra fears that one day they might not be lenient with the girl. Sayra convinces her sister to allow her to take Lily with her to Julesburg, Colorado, where she plans to apply to be the Western Union operator for the town, and so the two young women set out on their adventure.
Truman Taylor manages all the Western Union stations in the area, and he's very impressed with Sayra's credentials. She's by far the most qualified candidate who's applied for the position, so he doesn't hesitate to hire her. He also finds himself attracted to the lady. But he was deeply hurt by his first wife, who left him, saying he wasn't enough, only to tragically die on her way back East. Now he feels responsible for his failings that he believes caused her death and isn't certain he's fit husband material for any woman. One night, while he's checking on a station in another town, Truman and Sayra engage in a game of taps, conversing over the telegraph line about their lives. Truman used to believe in God's goodness, but after all that's happened he has doubts. Sayra makes him want to believe again, but when she disappears without notice, he isn't sure what to think. If he ever sees her again, can Truman forgive himself for past mistakes and believe that Sayra's motives for leaving were pure? And can Sayra finally make peace with her brother-in-law and all that happened as a result of the war?
Small Blessings is my first read by DeWanna Pace and the last of these little Heartsong Presents inspirational romances that I've challenged myself to read this year to clear some off my TBR pile. It was a pretty good story with generally likable characters about a well-bred lady from Louisiana, who, following the Civil War, becomes concerned for the safety of her mentally-impaired, sixteen-year-old niece. The occupying Union soldiers have put into place an ordinance known as the Woman Order, which states that any woman who shows disrespect for the Union troops will be treated like a common harlot. I'd never heard of this order before, so I looked it up, and it appears that the author may have taken a bit of creative license with it. The Woman Order did exist, enacted by one General Butler, who occupied New Orleans in 1862. Of course, that was while the Civil War was still being fought, and there was such a public outcry, reaching all the way across the Atlantic, that six months later, Butler was removed from his post and presumably the order with him. However, I'm pretty sure the author mentioned that this story takes place about five years after the war ended, during the Reconstruction period, and in my research, I found no reference to such an order at that time. Geeky curiosity with all things historical now appeased, back to the crux of the plot. Because of her mental impairment, the niece has a tendency to simply blurt out whatever is on her mind, and that sometimes means insulting Union soldiers. Her father has been distant and isn't really stepping up to the plate to defend her, so our intrepid heroine does the only thing she believe she can, which is to take her niece and move to Colorado after responding to an ad for a telegraph operator there. In their new home, the two women meet two brothers who turn out to be an answer to both their prayers.
Sayra is a feisty Southern lady who lost both of her parents and is tired of relying on her brother-in-law for everything. She also doesn't like the way the Union soldiers are treating people, in particular her niece, Lily, who she fears might be branded a harlot under the Woman Order. Sayra's brother-in-law seems to be too busy with running the family plantation to pay much attention to his daughter, so she convinces her older sister to give her permission to take Lily to Colorado with her when she leaves to apply for a job as a telegraph operator there. The two women set out for the Western Union station in Julesburg, where Sayra meets Truman, the Supernumerary for the territory, which I gather was a manager of sorts, who not only acted as an operator when necessary, but also went out to repair downed lines and keep tabs on all the stations in the area. The two get on pretty well, and when Truman goes to a different station, he and Sayra engage in a game of taps, where they get to know each other over the telegraph line. Sayra feels for him, but when she receives word that her brother-in-law may be coming to take Lily back, she gets scared and runs away as far as her meager funds will take them, which is to a mining camp in the mountains. When she discovers that the camp doesn't have telegraph service yet, she befriends a miner who offers them food, shelter, and sage advice. Eventually she returns to a different town where she coincidentally finds Truman. He offers to restore her job as an operator and the two begin to grow closer. Sayra is an independent lady who isn't afraid to set out on her own. She can perhaps be a tad impetuous, running when she probably should have stayed put, but her commitment to her niece is indisputable.
Truman was previously married to a woman who didn't genuinely love him and who was never happy with the circumstances under which a Western Union Supernumerary had to live. She ended up leaving him for another man, with the intention of heading back east, but died along the way. Truman has blamed himself for it ever since, feeling that if he'd been a better husband, maybe she wouldn't have run away. When he meets Sayra, he's immediately attracted to her, but not long after their game of taps, she runs away, too, leaving him wondering why. He sets out to find her, but gets waylaid by a side-plot involving a corrupt army officer. This part of the story didn't really go anywhere, so I'm not entirely sure why it was included. Then Sayra and Lily show up again in a different town, but before Truman can completely trust her again, they both have to face some difficult truths. Truman was a good guy who I liked for as well as I got to know him. However, the lion's share of the story is told from Sayra's POV, so I didn't feel like I got quite as much insight into his character as I would have liked.
The other two main characters who get a side romance are Lily and Truman's seventeen-year-old adopted brother, Shago (I'm not usually one to criticize an author's choice of names, but I wasn't particularly enamored of this one). As I mentioned before, Lily is said to be mentally impaired due to the umbilical cord being wrapped around her neck at birth. However, I can't say that she ever came off as being particularly slow. She can read, write, sing, cook, and do just about anything an able-bodied person can. Her only "abnormality" appears to be that she basically just speaks whatever is on her mind, which a lot of people who aren't disabled do. I had some trouble squaring her supposed disability with the fact that she seems pretty normal, but I did like her for her refreshing honesty and feistiness. Shago is a sweetheart who likes to quote Shakespeare and gets under Lily's skin from the start when he accidentally knocks her down at their first meeting. However, he doesn't give up on getting her to like him by turning on his considerable charm.
Small Blessings is a short book and like most of the other Heartsong Presents titles I've read to date, it's somewhat lacking in character, relationship, and plot development. Admittedly Truman and Sayra fall for each other with little thought going into the process and unfortunately they don't spend a whole lot of time together. I sort of understood why the author had Sayra running away, but at the same time, it did weaken the building bond between her and Truman. Then when I thought Truman was going to go after her, he got sidetracked by the side plot I mentioned earlier that didn't really add anything valuable to the story. I think it would have been better if Truman had actually stuck to his original plan to go looking for the women and the corrupt Union officer had been left out. All that said, though, there were good points as well. I liked Sayra's growth and how she came to understand the need to come clean about her real reasons for running. The faith message was given a pretty gentle treatment instead of being preachy, which was a plus. I liked all of the main characters fairly well, and the book had a sweet, romantic ending. So, all in all, it was a pretty good read in spite of its shortcomings that has left me open to trying more of DeWanna Pace's work in the future.
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