At 32, Elizabeth Garett Westbrook would be considered a spinster by some. But to the heroine of Tamara Alexander’s latest historical novel From A Distance, the fact that she’s still not married is of little concern to her.
What does occupy her mind is the possibility that she could be the first female photojournalist at the Washington Daily Chronicle. To gain the position, she must prove herself, and that’s why she has come all the way to the Colorado territory and goes out on more than one limb to capture its scenery and wildlife at their most spectacular.
In this post-civil-war story, Alexander has put a woman with rather modern values into an 1875 frontier setting. The result is the story of ambition and determination pitted against nature, a mysterious illness and a backwoods community that is not a little askance over our heroine’s big city outspokenness and style. During the months she spends in Timber Ridge, Elizabeth gains more than notoriety and an enviable portfolio as she comes to see that what she thinks she wants may not be what she thought it was after all.
Plot and character seem equally important in this story. Elizabeth’s ambition, along with the unpredictability of the Colorado spring weather, her unexplained breathing problems, and her August deadline push her to take all kinds of risks that endanger her and her assistant Josiah Birch. These challenges help us see what she is made of, expose flaws, and sometimes make her hard to like. Birch, her assistant, comes with his own baggage from the past. So does Daniel Ranslett, bachelor and sharpshooter who, after first meeting the spirited redhead, can’t get her out of his mind. The story twists and turns through murder, romance, greed, and forgiveness. As a whole the characters are well-developed and complex, and the plot is cleverly conceived. Some of the intertwining back-stories with their multiple coincidences left me felling a little incredulous though.
Alexander writes in an easy-to-read style. Her occasional use of period language caught my attention at the beginning (“…those building could be stacked atop the other…” and “…the ability to traverse a chasm successfully lay in focus and balance…”), but I soon got used to it. Her transition from one point of view character to another is seamless and it was easy to feel like I was experiencing the story along with them. She also has a way of ending chapters with a hook that kept me turning pages.
I found some of the historical aspects of the book interesting. The description of the photography of the time gave me a great appreciation for my digital camera. And things took so long. The laborious transportation and mail system of the frontier could stretch a project which would take us days to a week or two, into months.
Women’s roles is one of the book’s themes. So is race. The story’s time frame – ten years after the civil war – was a time when racial discrimination was still deeply ingrained in the nation’s psyche. The evil that results from racial prejudice runs through the story. Truth and its importance is a subject that comes out especially in relation to Elizabeth’s tendency toward sneakiness. On the religious front, though Josiah seems to be the only character with a strongly held personal faith throughout the book, the Christian world view pervades the story and both Elizabeth and Daniel take steps toward establishing their own personal relationship with God.
Altogether, I found From A Distance a rewarding read. Fans of romantic Americana won’t want to miss it, or the next book in the Timber Ridge Reflections series, Beyond This Moment, due to be released in the spring of 2009.Powered by Sidelines