(as posted on my blog)
In the 3rd book in the series begun with The Education of Madeline, Williamson tells the story of Micah's sister, Sarah. Living in her old house which she had converted to a boarding house, Sarah leaves all her friends in order to attend Micah and Eppie's wedding. Along the way, her cabinmate on the train is none other than Whit Kendrick. From the moment she meets him, Sarah is determined to hate him. He's goodlooking, and he's a Yankee. Sarah suffered tremendously during the war at the hands of a Northern Army unit. It turns out, Whit realizes early on, that it was actually his unit that raped and pillaged that day.
Whit is on his way to meet and marry his fiancee. He certainly doesn't need the trouble that Sarah brings. However, they are inadvertently thrown together by circumstances, and their attraction simply cannot be denied.
One of the things I liked about this book is that Sarah is not altogether a sympathetic character. She comes off as nasty, prickly, and surly. Of course, this is all to hide a world of hurt, but it makes for an interesting dynamic. Usually, this is the role for the hero. Whit seems like a good guy, one who feels guilty for cheating on his fiance, but just can't seem to help himself.
I also liked that Sarah is not shy about going after what she wants. She makes all the first moves sexually. She recognizes what she wants and goes after it. Again, though, I got the impression that she used sex as a defense mechanism - kind of like she'd have sex on her terms, not someone else's.
The book is alternately heartbreaking and sexy. It's obvious that Whit also bears a lot of guilt over his apparent role in Sarah's rape and torture. That event has shaped Sarah's entire adult life, even though she puts a brave face to the world.
As so many of Williamson's books are, this is another raw look at the post-Civil War era, and coming to terms with the aftermath of the war. It's about forgiveness and self-awareness. Williamson, who normally excels at the tortured hero (you MUST read her Devils on Horseback series), has created a tortured heroine here, one who is brash, bold, and sassy, yet extremely vulnerable and fragile at the same time. She curses like a man, is overtly sexual (again, likely due to her experience as a young woman), and has a chip the size of Texas on her shoulder. Whit definitely comes off as the more sympathetic of the two... no, just the more ...well-adjusted, but he also has his own issues to deal with re: the war, and his family.
The only thing I had any sort of problems with was the way the confrontation with the sergeant of Whit's unit was handled. It wasn't really clear why he followed Sarah out to Colorado. He seemed to exist only to be the "bad guy." One would have thought he had his own demons to deal with, but he was apparently just rotten to the core. It did serve its purpose, however, in allowing Whit to come to terms with his role in Sarah's attack, and for Sarah to deal with it as well.
All in all, this is a wonderful entry to this series. Full of love, hate, sadness, joy, redemption, forgiveness, and all the other wonderful goodies that Williamson delivers.