Khanh the Killjoy

Almost made up for yesterday's read. Almost.

The Caged Graves - Dianne K. Salerni
“In Catawissa sometimes the dead don’t stay where you put them.”

What a pleasant little surprise. This is the second book set in the 19th century I've read in as many days, but with drastically different results. You see, this book is good. The setting is authentic. The mystery is compelling (although a little bit of a far stretch at some points). The main character is so well written, Verity is strong without being obstinate, flawed without being intolerable. And the romance. THE ROMANCE. *swoon*

“I thought love was—big and loud and sudden, like a thunderbolt.” She looked back, meeting his eyes. “I didn’t know it was deep and quiet and grew upon a woman slowly, until one day she realizes it’s the very breath and smiles and tears of her life."

Come closer, let me whisper you a secret. I might never say these words again in my life. I loved the romance and I enjoyed the love triangle. There. I said it. It almost feels like a confessional, I feel so....dirty. I mean, a love triangle? Really, Khanh? Have you lost your bloody mind?

Well, I may well have lost my bloody mind (years ago, in fact), but I'll be damned if I didn't truly enjoy how well the romance and love triangle was written. I have proof it was well-written, I swear. I wouldn't dare declare something so controversial without a million footnotes and evidence to back it up. I'm not easily impressed when it comes to fictional male characters. It takes a hell of a lot for a guy to grace the hallowed halls that is my "book boyfriend" shelf. The main love interest in this book, Nathaniel, came pretty damn close, and I'll slap him there just to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Summary: The actual summary of the book is somewhat deceiving. Yes, Verity is going back home to Catawissa, Pennsylvania, in order to enter an arranged marriage. But what it doesn't tell you that the arranged marriage is something in which Verity enters willingly. It is her choice.

It is 1867. Verity is 17 years old. She has spent the previous 14 years living with a relative's family instead of her own family because her mother passed away when she was 3 years old, and her father, in his grief, did not know how he would raise a little girl on his own. He was persuaded to give his little girl away to the care of some loving relatives in Massachusetts, where Verity spent a very happy childhood growing up in her aunt's boisterous, loving family.One day she received a correspondence from 18 year old Nathaniel McClure, a wealthy gentleman farmer who lives close by her father's farm. It was suggested that they form an arranged marriage for business purposes, and Verity would not have agreed to such an arrangement, but something about Nathaniel (Nate) and their exchange of letters feel right. She feels a bond with him, she appreciates his thoughtful gifts, his gentle letters, the book of poetry that he sent. Verity felt that it's time to move back home to Catawissa. She and Nathaniel are well-suited. They can make a successful marriage.

Verity is optimistic about her future. Until she moves back to Catawissa.

Instead of the gentle, suave young man she expected, Verity meets an awkward gentleman farmer who hardly knows what to say to her. His letters might have been manufactured with the aid of his pushy sisters. His gifts might have been selected by his sisters, too. Instead of a loving father, Verity meets a taciturn, silent stranger who hardly knows what to do with the young woman who is his daughter, whom he has not seen in years. She has to deal with a pushy housekeeper who clearly does not want her around. She has to deal with town gossip, because everyone is curious about the girl who has captured the "most eligible" bachelor in town without even having seen her. She has to get to know a suitor who is largely a stranger.

And to top it off, she has to find out why the hell her mother and late aunt's graves are buried in unhallowed grounds separate from everyone else, nestled and locked under a metal cage. Verity has to face small-town suspicions and rumors, malicious lies and gossip, in order to uncover the truth of her mother's death, in order to clear her reputation. And she has to figure it out largely alone, because nobody wants to tell Verity anything in this small, close-minded, distrustful town.

In spite of her father’s denial, her mother must have done something that made her an outcast, she and her brother’s wife between them—something that resulted in their burial outside a Christian cemetery.
Turning from the window and laying down her hairbrush, she tried not to think that returning to Catawissa had been a mistake.

The Setting & Plot: The setting is a small-rural farming town in Pennsylvania. It feels authentic, the speech does not stand out as being too modern, the details of life are similarly circumspect. The atmosphere in the town is very well developed, the Revolutionary War is long, long past, but it feels like it only happened yesterday, according to town alliances. People whose family fought on the wrong side (the British side) of the war are shunned, ostracized from village society. The American Civil War has also recently passed, but not gone, and we still feel the impact of it within the book. I really appreciate these small details that add to the authenticity of the setting.

The town and its suspicions, its wariness towards outsiders and racism towards those of mixed (American Indian) blood was well-portrayed and sensitively described. The tension and underlying sentiment were so well done. Overall, I have zero complaint for the setting. Some may complain about the age of the characters within the book, and some may take issue with the fact that 14-year old Liza was "setting her cap" for 18-year old Nate and intending to marry him one day. I do not. This is 19th century agricultural America. Young marriages were very common at the time, particularly in farming communities, and I have no problem with this matter in the book.

The plot was intriguing for most of the book, until it took a somewhat incredulous turn. What prevented me from giving this book a 5 is the rather strange and not quite believable plot twists surrounding one of several mysteries within this story.

The Characters: Really wonderfully done. There is so much detail given to every character in the book, and this is definitely not one of those books in which the main character is given so much focus as to sideline everyone else invovled. I had a clear idea of everyone's characters, every single person stood out to me. But of course, a book is made or broken by its main character, and I loved Verity. I expect certain things from my 19th century leading ladies, and verily, Verity is such a well-developed young woman.

She has inner strength. She does not give up. She is strong-willed, but never stupid, never, ever bitchy. Verity is never headstrong, she is a negotiator, she is persistent, but never pushy. She is not perfect, but she learns from her mistakes. She is brave, but she makes mistakes, and she is able to laugh at herself for her foolishness and rush to judgment.

Verity cringed with embarrassment. Yes, the man had startled her, but she’d run screaming from the sight of him like a half-witted female in one of those dime novels Polly Gaines liked so much. Verity had taken offense when her uncle belittled the Pooles, but she’d behaved no better today. She hung her head in shame.

The relationships between characters are wel well written in this book, and I particularly loved the growing development and love between Verity and her stranger of a father. Her father is such an awkward man, he grieves for his wife still, and hardly knows his daughter for most of her life. Still, he loves her, and he wants what's best for her, and it is just so nice to read about such a caring parent who tries so hard to be a good father despite not knowing how. He knows his daughter's trepidation towards her arranged marriage, and reassures her when he sees her hesitancy.

“You don’t have to marry him, Verity.” Ransloe Boone waved his hand. “Ring or no ring—promise or no promise."
“I’m content with the match,” she assured him.
He nodded slowly, but as he left the room to retire for the night, he muttered, “Rather see you happy than content.”

And I love Nate, oh, how I love Nate.

The Romance: Wonderful! Yes, I said it! It was so well done, I don't even mind the love triangle in the least. I actually felt like the love triangle added a dimension to Verity's character. She is ready to be an adult, she is mature for her age, but she is not ready for love. She is freaking seventeen, people, and about to enter a marriage to a man she has barely known. The love triangle serves to mature her character, to let her know that she has choices, to let her realize what love means, and whether or not she is ready for such an undertaking, such a commitment.

She didn’t know if she was in love with either one of them. Attracted to both of them in different ways, yes—but how, at seventeen, was she supposed to recognize love? Wasn’t it supposed to be obvious? Shouldn’t she feel it in every breath and heartbeat?

Verity KNOWS that it is wrong to feel such emotions towards both men, and even more so while she is engaged. She recognizes her fault, and she is confused, and I find that completely believable and understandable. She hates herself for her conflicting emotions, and feels that she is a "wanton girl." Yes, she is wishy-washy in more than one way, and sometimes I got frustrated with her internal conflict, but it is so understandable and the conflict was so well done that I really enjoyed it. And really, there was no question at all, since the very beginning, as to whom Verity would choose.

And Nate. Nate! Oh, how I loved their relationship. How I loved seeing their misunderstandings and their growing relationship. I loved seeing them get to know each other and learn about each other. I loved seeing their developing trust and their hurt emotions and miscommunications and even their jealousy. Their relationship was so, so immensely enjoyable, so realistic, so well done. I rave about the romance because I enjoyed it, because I feel praise should be given when warranted. Through him, Verity slowly comes to understand what it feels like to be in love. And I think I fell along right beside her.