Seventeen-year-old Ann McKay is a Scottish young woman who's been living in Ireland with her family, but when her father decides it's time to search for greener pastures, they set out for the American colonies. During the arduous sea voyage, Ann's ailing mother passes away, leaving her feeling disillusioned. Caleb Craighead is a schoolmaster who feels a calling to become a minister, and he does what he can to bring comfort to Ann and her family. Ann is rather taken with Caleb, but when they reach the shores of Pennsylvania, the two part ways, as Ann's father wishes to head west in search of land and Caleb must raise the funds to pay for his passage or risk being sold as an indentured servant. As the way becomes rougher, Ann's father stops in Lancaster and finds a position for Ann as a companion to an older merchant's wife, while he continues on, promising to send word when he's found a place for them to settle. During her sojourn there, Caleb chances to pass through and stops for a brief visit, but he, too, must move on, looking for a place where he can settle down and minister to a community. As the months pass by, Ann fears she may never see her father or Caleb again, so she takes matters into her own hands. But has she made the right decision in going after them or will she only find disappointment and heartbreak awaiting her in the wilderness?
I read several of these Serenade romances during my teen years and believe that Love's Gentle Journey may have been among them, but I didn't recall anything about the story. It follows seventeen-year-old Ann, a Scottish young woman who's been living in Ireland with her family. When her father decides to take the family to the American colonies in search of a better life, they undertake the arduous sea voyage. On the way, Ann's ailing mother dies, but Ann receives some comfort from Caleb, a young Scottish schoolmaster who feels a calling to be a minister in the new world. Upon reaching the end of their journey, Ann and Caleb part ways, with him seeking a way to pay for his passage without becoming an indentured servant and Ann heading into western Pennsylvania with her father and younger brother, Jonathan. As the way gets harder, Ann's father makes the decision to leave her and Jonathan with a merchant and his ailing wife who is in need of a companion. They remain there for a few months, and Ann meets the couple's son, John, who is just a few years older than she is when he comes for a visit. John is a bit sweet on Ann, but she still has feelings for Caleb who comes to visit her there as well. But he leaves again in search of a community that needs a minister. Eventually Ann becomes worried about her father and grows tired of waiting for word from him, so she and John, who's gotten into a bit of trouble, hatch a plan to travel west in search of him.
The entire story is told from Ann's third-person POV. She's a nice young woman who is a bit worried about her family making the journey to the Colonies, and after losing her mother at sea, she begins to feel adrift, both emotionally and spiritually. Caleb offers her what comfort he can, along with his copy of the book, Pilgrim's Progress. That and her mother's Bible are the only reading materials she owns, but it takes her a little while to get past her disillusionment with God to really want to read them. Eventually she begins using the Bible to teach Jonathan to read and rediscovers these stories as well as taking the time to pray with her brother. During her stay with the Andrews family, she's the ideal companion, in spite of Mrs. Andrews being a bit dour in the beginning, and although Ann comes to like John, she feels her heart is with Caleb even though she has no idea where he is or if she'll ever see him again. Ann is pretty much the perfect young lady, who always does what she's told. Her only real fault is engaging in a bit of deception in order to travel with John in search of her father, but even that I felt was for a pretty good reason and turned out well in the end. She also doesn't have a really close relationship with God in the beginning, but neither is she a heathen.:-) She just gradually comes to a place of understanding God better through her interactions with others and through her own thought processes. For all these reasons, Ann is a somewhat bland character, but at the same time, I liked her for her sweetness and light.
Caleb is ostensibly the hero of this story, but we never really learn much about him other than that he was trained as a schoolmaster and has a desire to be a minister. As the only pastoral-type person on the ship, he acts in that capacity throughout the voyage, as well as a teacher to the children on board, including Jonathan. He's very kind to Ann's family, especially after the death of her mother, but he doesn't really interact with Ann directly very much. When he disembarks from the ship, he has a few days to raise the cost of his passage or become an indentured servant, an endeavor at which he's successful. After that, he heads into the Pennsylvania wilderness and we don't see him again until he comes to Lancaster and visits Ann and Jonathan at their temporary home, but if I recall correctly, he's only there for a day. Then we don't see him again until the very end. I came away from reading this book feeling like Caleb got seriously short-changed. Not only does the reader not get anything from his perspective, but we also see very little of him even through Ann's eyes. I read romance, in part, expecting to fall in love with the hero, but given that he's absent for the majority of the book, that didn't really happen for me here. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I just didn't feel like I got to know him at all.
Love's Gentle Journey was originally marketed as an inspirational romance, but as a romance, I felt that it left a lot to be desired. Largely because Caleb isn't seen for most of the story, there just isn't much actual romance to speak of. Given how anemic Ann and Caleb's interactions are, I also couldn't put my finger on how, when, or why they fell in love and why she was so attached to him, aside from the fact that he was the person who was there when her mother died. I felt like Ann shared more romantic interactions with John Andrews, who she at least kissed a couple of times. She doesn't kiss Caleb a single time, not even at the very end when they're reunited and he asks her to marry him, which was a pretty big let-down. So with all this being the case, you might be wondering why I gave the book four stars. In all honesty, I thought that Love's Gentle Journey would have been better served if categorized as historical fiction. In that capacity, I thought that it was a decent story. Even though it's a pretty placid, easy read, I wasn't ever truly bored with it. The spiritual message, while pretty heavy, didn't quite reach the place of feeling preachy too me either, which was a plus. Caleb and others simply say thought-provoking things to Ann that she eventually takes to heart, so I didn't feel like anyone was browbeating her about her lack of faith. She just figures it all out herself. I also enjoyed the Colonial setting which isn't often seen in romance, and additionally, perhaps I felt a bit of nostalgia for a story that I'm fairly certain I read in my youth. For whatever reason, though, I did like the story for what it was, even if the romance was far too subdued for my taste, so I could honestly recommend it to fans of inspirational historical fiction as long as they go into reading it not expecting any deep, swoon-worthy romantic interludes.
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