When Elvira Kilmer’s two-week housekeeping job working for Jackson Smith on Dillon’s Island becomes permanent, she’s not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse. The unconventional relationship between Ellie and the handsome widower is complicated by his two little boys and the vicious gossip that surrounds the death of his wife. In Delia Parr’s historical Hearts Awakening we follow Ellie into the fall of 1840 as she blunders her way through her assignment, burning griddle cakes, mothering Jackson’s two grieving little boys, all the while trying to quell the feelings that are growing inside her.
Ellie is an atypical romantic heroine. Plain in appearance, meek in manner and principled to the extent she refuses to relish and pass on juicy tidbits of gossip, Parr keeps us wondering: will her kindness, generosity and general selflessness be enough? Enough, that is, to win the heart of the handsome but chauvinistic young man whose life experiences have left him with a huge chip on his shoulder and memories of a stunningly beautiful but unavailable former love. The children are modeled on real kids. They make for a poignant and sometimes amusing diversion.
The setting has old-fashioned charm with its abundance of apples and the pies, fritters, cobblers and cakes Ellie is always mixing up for her men and the customers she serves on the family’s weekly market trips. Ellie’s misadventures with the stove and other challenges of pioneer living induce a few chuckles. The isolation of the island keeps the characters from being able to escape each other and the complications of their relationship. Of course the hostility of the Harrisburg society toward Jackson and Ellie binds them together as well.
Relationships in all their various permutations are a big preoccupation of the book. The story offers insights into friendship, marriage, parenting, and step-parenting. As Ellie and Jackson get comfortable in their atypical liaison they learn about honesty, openness, communication, respect and reliance on God.
Of course the ending is satisfying, though Parr keeps us on the edge of our seats till the very last page. Altogether, Hearts Awakening is a sweet story that renews one’s faith in the triumph of character over the usual winners: beauty, charm, money and status.