Clayton Holland was a conscientious objector to the Civil War who spent three torturous years in prison for his beliefs. When he returned home to Cedar Grove, Texas, he also returned to the scorn and hatred of the entire community including Meg Warner. Meg had lost her beloved husband, who was also Clay's best friend, and three brothers in the war. She and everyone else believe Clay was a coward for not following his friends into battle. They castigate him constantly by not speaking to or socializing with him, and he can't even get credit at the local general store to buy supplies to feed his brothers. Meg decides that she wants nothing more than to make Clay pay in an even bigger way for his perceived offense.
Clay is an extremely talented sculptor, so Meg devises a plan to punish him by commissioning his services to sculpt a monument in honor of Cedar Grove's fallen heroes. She believes that every name he has to carve into the stone will be a constant reminder of his own cowardice and shortcomings, and will lead him to admit that he was wrong. Meg insists on personally overseeing the project. Even though it means spending months in Clay's company, she thinks it will be worth it to see the agonizing remorse etched on his face as he realizes his mistake. Instead, Meg finds herself tortured by sweet memories of her husband, and slowly changing in ways she never dreamed. Clay's quiet dignity and strength begin to chip away at the walls of anger and hatred surrounding Meg's heart, touching her to the core, and teaching her and an entire community the true meaning of courage, friendship, and loyalty.
After finishing Always to Remember, I was left with a sense of almost sheer perfection. This unique book is far more than a mere romance. It is a morality tale of a man making a stand for what he believes, and facing the scorn of an entire town because of it. This story asks and in my opinion, answers quite well the difficult question, "What truly constitutes courage?" It is about love and hate. It is about true friendship. It is about loyalty to one's convictions. It is about redemption and forgiveness of wrongs both perceived and real. Most of all, it is about people finding a way to come together in harmony in spite of their differences. Always to Remember is a story that really delves into the complexities of the human heart and mind with a depth that I don't often see in a romance novel, yet it never feels dark. As I read the book, it evoked so many different emotions and reactions: tears and sadness for all that Clay had suffered and the level of hatred that some human beings are capable of; joy and laughter for the humor that can be found even in the most difficult times; sighs of appreciation for the swoon-worthy romance. This book truly had it all, and I can't think of a single thing I disliked or would have changed.
I thought the characters in the story were incredibly well-rendered. I'm not sure that I have ever read such a kind, gentle beta hero as Clay was. He had suffered tremendously for being a conscientious objector to the Civil War, a genuinely tortured hero in both body and mind. He exhibited a depth of courage that made an entire town rethink what courage really means. His loyalty to both his beliefs and those he loves is a rare gem. If it wasn't for the fact that I know selfless people like Clay actually exist, I would almost be tempted to say that he was too good to be true. I found his virginal status to be both intoxicating and endearing just like Meg did. I also loved his artist side. The descriptions of Clay carving the monument brought it to life in a way that made it seem like a character itself. Meg was a bitter angry woman after her husband and three brothers were killed in the war, and she hated Clay as much as everyone else in town. It was sometimes difficult to read her direct biting words to him that were born out of her hatred, but even though I didn't agree with those sentiments, I never felt like I didn't understand her. I think this was all part of the beauty of the message that the book was trying to convey. Underneath it all, Meg was definitely a kind, caring and compassionate person, and as Clay, slowly and unbeknownst to her, chipped away at the rock surrounding her heart, she was able to show that side to him. The amount of growth that Meg went through from the beginning of the story to the end was phenomenal and believably written. In my opinion, Clay and Meg were two characters who complimented each other perfectly.
Always to Remember also had a great cast of secondary characters. Meg's grandmother-in-law, Mama Warner and Dr. Martin, the kind country physician, were about the only two people who didn't hate Clay, and they were always full of wisdom to impart to those who would listen. Clay's younger brother, Lucian, hated him every bit as much as the other townspeople, but when realization hits him, he too, grows and changes in ways he never would have guessed. Clay's ten-year-old twin brothers, Josh and Joe, are an endearing combination of vivacious wit and wisdom beyond their years. They had me laughing out loud at some of things they said, and on the occasions when they seriously spoke their minds, it never felt out of place or too mature, just that they had been well-brought up to understand and appreciate the finer points of life. Even though Meg's husband and Clay's best friend, Kirk, had been dead for months, his spirit played a pivotal role in the story through his letters and words he had spoken to both of them in the months and years before his death. I really liked that he was a strong part of the story and that Meg had truly loved him. Meg's brother and father, as well as most of the townspeople, hate Clay with a passion and throughout the story do some very despicable things to him, yet even they were important, in that they allowed Clay an opportunity to show his mettle and the power of forgiveness. All in all, this was a wonderful group of characters who really brought to life the warmth and closeness of the typical frontier community.
Always to Remember was my first read by Lorraine Heath, and I don't think I could have chosen a better book with which to begin. I really enjoy Civil War stories but don't often find them, so it is always a pleasure to read one when I do. I thought that Ms. Heath found a great balance, and I appreciated that she never politicized the subject matter in any way. Those who chose to fight were given equal status with those who chose not to, and neither side was ever demonized for the sake of making a point. In my opinion, this was simply an amazing story that has left me thinking about it long after turning the last page, which is something I love in any novel. I had this book on my to-be-read list for quite a while, and I'm now asking myself why I waited so long to read it. I borrowed this from the library, but will certainly be getting my own copy of this wonderful book for my keeper shelf. I can't wait to check out Lorraine Heath's backlist to see what other gems she may have written.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook