My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Heart and Hand by Rebel Carter is a lot of fun and a little confounding. It's a quick read, kind of crazy interracial romance set in the old West twenty years after the civil war. Rather than straight historical romance I'd say we need a more specific subcategory to appreciate this book. It's not quite alt-history as it doesn't delve into alternate events so call it historical fantasy maybe. Not fantasy in the sense of things that defy the laws of nature but rather the story is grounded in a social reality that strongly defies the American history we know.
First, our feisty heroine Julie is a light brown-skinned biracial New York socialite/heiress descended from the blissfully happy marriage of American aristocracy and Spanish royalty on one side and enslaved people on the other. There are hints of friction about that but not much. Her racial background is generally (though not entirely-- it's confusing at times) inconsequential to her social standing in this version of New York society:
By all accounts, Julie and Julian were happy, well-respected, and considered the cream of society by the social pages. It was hard for them not to be with their striking looks: all tawny skin, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and curly dark hair.
Nonetheless, Julie yearns for freedom and independence. In her brother’s words:
You’re a few heads removed from the Spanish throne. How much more free should you like to be, Julie Anne?”
So Julie has her debut in New York society but decides it's not for her and instead becomes a mail order bride to two men in Montana (Forrest and Will). No one back home knows about the polyamory part, but given her family’s exalted social stature, her move west is a really big deal nonetheless:
Her departure had been an absolute circus. New Yorkers of all walks of life, employ, and station eagerly speculated as to why the Baptiste heiress had chosen to trade a life of luxury and comfort for the frontier.
This only underscores the alt-historical unrealty of the narrative. Again, Julie’s race doesn’t play into it. This is like a Vanderbilt eloping to Wyoming with a rancher.
The three get married in a lawful wedding attended and supported by the whole town, and Julie takes both her husbands' last names. Racism is just really not a thing at work there in Montana as well. The key issue is that Julie has two hubbies. And honestly almost everyone is alright with that too.
The anachronisms don't end there, but the surprising thing for me was I really didn't care. The characters are compelling and incredibly sweet. Will and Forrest have distinctive personalities and relationships with Julie and a lovely bond with each other. Even the grumpy one, Will, is a cinnamon roll at heart. I like the way they love her. And there's just enough internal tension and angst over the unusual nature of the triad within the relationship to make it interesting.
Realism aside, there are other elements though that could have been stronger. Julie's work as a teacher and relationship with her students is a little sketchy/shaky despite the enthusiasm she expresses about it at the start— it’s one of the reasons she wanted this life so that seems like an oversight or shortcut. More importantly, one thing I'd say for writers if you're going to make people fall in love through letters, show your work! We readers love a good epistolary romance. And the letters are what sells it—I want to see the relationship develop and what made them fall in love long distance. There's just a single instance of that here. I wanted more.
The biggest issue though is Julie’s romantic rival for one of the men. It definitely enhances the drama and difficulty for the newly marrieds, but there are aspects of the characterization that are troubling in a problematic rather than juicy way.
Overall, despite or more likely because it’s divorced from reality, Heart and Hand is a very surprising, very fun read if you're open to it. It worked for me. I have rarely wanted to talk about a book I consider a light read as much as I wanted to talk about this one.
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