After losing her entire family to the Civil War, Rebel beauty Alaina MacGaren tried to defend her plantation, the only home she's ever known, alone. But when Yankee soldiers descended upon her land and she refused to cooperate, they falsely branded her a traitor. Fearing that she may end up in a Yankee prison, she disguises herself as a boy and flees to her uncle's house in New Orleans. No sooner has she disembarked from the river boat, than a group of Yankee soldiers begin harassing her, but a handsome Union officer comes to her rescue, buying her a meal and offering her employment at the hospital where he works as an army surgeon. Not wanting to financially burden her aunt and uncle solely with her care, the independent Alaina reluctantly accepts and gradually comes to grudgingly like Cole and see that he's different than the other Yankees she's encountered so far.
Captain Cole Latimer has no idea that the young lad he just hired is a woman in disguise. He does his best to befriend the boy "Al," despite his prickly nature and finds himself invited into his family's home by his cousin, Roberta, who is a pleasant diversion from the horrors of the war. Then one night, after imbibing too much alcohol, he's rescued from what could have been a watery grave in the Mississippi River by "Al" who takes him to his uncle's house. There, in a drunken stupor, Cole discovers passion with a mysterious, ethereal beauty who gives solace to his soul, but upon waking, it's Roberta in his bed, with her father demanding a hasty wedding. Even though Alaina masquerades in other personas, it's only her he's drawn to, eventually discovering the truth of her real identity, and although it seems like it may be too late by then, fate intervenes to offer them a second chance if only they can learn to trust one another.
From the war-torn South to a Gothic Minnesota mansion overlooking the mighty Mississippi River, Cole and Alaina embark on an epic love story spanning years, while solving a mystery surrounding a lost Yankee payroll shipment for which Alaina is wanted and colliding with a ghost from Cole's past.
I read a few of Kathleen Woodiwiss's books years ago, and before picking up Ashes in the Wind, I couldn't recall if it was one of them or not. After reading it, I'm still not entirely certain. The majority of the story seemed brand new to me, but there were a handful of times that I got a mild sense of deja vu. Whether that's because I had read it before or perhaps because it was somehow similar to another book I might have read, I have no idea. So either way, in the end, it was basically new to me anyway.:-) In any case, this is an epic romance that takes place over the course of a few years in our protagonists lives. It's so long, in fact, that it's split into two parts that each have their own unique feel, as well as separate plot lines and settings. However, in addition to continuing Cole and Alaina's story, the author manages to tie both sections together through the common thread of a mystery surrounding a missing Union payroll shipment that our intrepid heroine, Alaina, is initially blamed for stealing.
Part one of the story begins in 1863 in Union occupied New Orleans. Alaina has just fled Briar Hill, the only home she's ever known. Following the deaths of her father and brother in the war and her mother's subsequent demise from a broken heart, and with her only other brother still off fighting in the Confederate army, Alaina is alone. Union soldiers came to Briar Hill and abused her, creating trumped up charges against her when she wouldn't cooperate with them. Fearing that she might end up in a Yankee prison, she disguises herself as a boy and travels to New Orleans, hoping that her uncle and aunt who live there will take her in. She no sooner gets off the riverboat, than she's accosted by another group of Union soldiers who make sport of her, but a handsome Union officer comes to her aid. Cole then hires the lad "Al" to clean at the hospital where he works as an army surgeon. When he takes her to her uncle's home, he also meets her beautiful - but shallow and vain - cousin, Roberta, who sets her sights on him. Over the coming months, Alaina dons more than one disguise to navigate the city as a wanted fugitive and manages to pull the wool over Cole's eyes for quite some time. One night, though, she rescues a drunk and unconscious Cole, dressed in nothing but his skivvies, from the Mississippi River and takes him back to her uncle's house, where in a drunken stupor, he thinks that she's a prostitute and makes love to her, taking her virginity. But Roberta takes advantage of the situation, making him and her parents believe that she was the one in his bed that night, leading to a hasty wedding. Eventually Cole discovers Alaina's hidden identity and realizes she was the one he made love to, but by then, he's stuck in a loveless marriage. From there, the author pretty much throws everything but the kitchen sink at them for the next couple of years until the war is nearing its end. Numerous outside forces conspire to keep them apart, while they come together often enough to show that they're developing feelings for one another.
Part two takes place after the war has ended. Alaina is still a fugitive, and now in addition to the original false charges, she's also blamed for the Union payroll money that went missing the night she rescued Cole from the river. On top of that, a Cajun scoundrel she met her first day in New Orleans in her disguise as Al, has discovered her true identity and is using the information to blackmail her into becoming his mistress. Roberta has since passed away, leaving Cole a free man, so when mutual friends contact him about Alaina's plight, he doesn't hesitate to offer marriage to protect her. However, her vengeful uncle, who blames Cole for the loss of his only child, engineers a legal agreement that makes it look to both Cole and Alaina like the other wants nothing more than a marriage in name only. So even though Alaina becomes Cole's wife via proxy and travels to Minnesota where he lives, the better part of this section is a will they or won't they ever sleep together again scenario, turning the majority of the conflict inward. This did get a little tedious given that the misunderstanding keeping them apart could have been resolved with a good heart-to-heart conversation. But of course, that doesn't take place until probably two-thirds of the way into this section. However, there is a somewhat Gothic feel to this part as Alaina keeps sensing someone is watching her in Cole's huge mansion. It also has a rather creepy feeling bedroom, which Roberta previously occupied, and a few unexplained things occur as well, which lead to a tense conclusion.
I'd say that this book is primarily Alaina's story and she's a strong and interesting heroine. She begins the book hating all Union soldiers with a passion until she meets Cole who isn't like the other Union soldiers she's encountered before. He treats her with kindness and respect, although she continues to be prickly toward him. Then in the course of her work at the hospital, she meets a wounded Union soldier whose plight tugs at her heartstrings. It's then that we begin to see the chinks in the armor she's built up to protect herself. Even though she won't admit it to herself, she clearly cares for Cole to have pulled him from the river and taken care of him. And even though she's angry with herself and him afterward, she experienced a passion in his arms that night that she'd never expected and couldn't help feeling a bit jealous of Roberta stealing Cole away. But that doesn't stop her from helping save his life again later on. During her time masquerading as Al, she longs to be herself again so that she can wear feminine clothing and be treated like a lady once more. When that finally happens and Cole eventually marries her, Alaina has a stubborn streak a mile wide, refusing to allow him to bed her even though she feels a desire for him, too, all because she thinks he's the one who engineered the terms of the marriage contract. But ultimately she ends up proving just how much she truly does love Cole. Alaina is a very feisty heroine who could have easily rubbed me the wrong way, and perhaps occasionally did, but somehow I felt like I understood her most of the time. She also vacillates between her obstinate, truculent moments and softer, gentler ones that keep her from becoming too harsh. So ultimately I would say that I liked her most of the time and thought she was a pretty good heroine.
We don't get to know Cole with quite the same depth as Alaina, at least until the second half of the book, when we're finally on his home turf in Minnesota. In New Orleans, though, he still manages to show exactly who he is as a person. He's a talented surgeon who has progressive medical ideas and isn't afraid to at least attempt to save even the most hopeless cases. Wounded soldiers from both the Union and Confederate sides are brought into his hospital for treatment, and he recognizes the humanity in all of them, treating them all equally and with respect, never withholding the best medical care possible even if a soldier happens to be on the opposing side. He's also kind and generous with "Al." Even when "the boy" is mouthing off and giving him grief, Cole often finds it amusing, or at the very least, shows compassion. He may not have known who he was making love to that fateful night, but he realizes pretty quickly that it wasn't Roberta even though he doesn't know exactly who it was at first. He's always drawn to Alaina no matter what disguise she's wearing, and when he finally discovers her true identity, he generously tries to do the right thing and take care of her even though she pretty much throws it back in his face. After they're finally married, he exercises a great deal of restraint in waiting to bed her. Although he does get angry a few times, he doesn't force her. So overall, I really liked Cole.
Given that Ashes in the Wind is a forty-year-old book, it does have some problematic content. Since half of it takes place in the Civil War era South, slavery is depicted. While Cole and Alaina are generally kind toward the black characters, not everyone in the story is, so there are occasionally some rather nasty things said. There is at least one utterance of the "n" word, and when the story shifts to Minnesota, there are a few instances of racially charged language regarding Native Americans even though none ever appear in the book. The black characters speak in I guess what could be described as an uneducated dialect, which could be viewed as offensive. However, what bothered me the most is that the author repeatedly refers to the African American characters as simply "the black," which while perhaps not as bad as the "n" word, is still rather dehumanizing, especially given the frequency of its use. In addition to racial issues, there were a couple of instances where Cole mentions, or if I recall correctly, threatens to force Alaina when she's stubbornly holding herself away from him. I mostly gave him a pass for this since it was only twice and he never followed through. In reading other readers' reviews, though, I noticed some people taking issue with the first love scene and calling it rape or forced seduction. Admittedly Alaina does put up a token resistance, but finds enjoyment in it pretty quickly. Cole was so drunk, he genuinely thought she was a prostitute. I maybe felt a slight twinge while reading this scene, but even through I generally don't care for even a whiff of non-consent in my romances, I wasn't quite as bothered by it as I have been when reading similar scenes in other romances. However, I thought it worth mentioning for those who might be.
Overall, despite my few misgivings, Ashes in the Wind was a pretty good read. Nowadays a romance this epic probably would never be published - or would be seriously pared down or broken into a series - so it hearkens back to a more nostalgic time. As a romance author myself, I think it can be interesting to revisit some of these older books for the sake of educating oneself on the origins of the modern romance, while also acknowledging that some of the content is problematic at best and outright offensive at worst. However, if the reader can weed through these parts, there is a good story here about two people on opposites sides of a war who have every reason to hate each other and yet find common ground and a grand love that manages to survive in spite of all the many obstacles, both internal and external, that intersect their paths. Was it a bit too long? Yeah, probably. There were times I felt like the narrative was dragging and wondered when it might end, but then I would turn a corner and Cole and Alaina would be facing some new roadblock to overcome that re-engaged me. So overall, it was a good read for the epic love story if one can get past a few issues regarding the dated content.
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