Echoes of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler abound in this first installment of a trilogy of thwarted love on the mighty Mississippi.
When headstrong Fanny Britton attempts to elope with weak-willed cousin Alex on a steamship, her papa, a circuit-court judge, intervenes and banishes the girl to Miss Markham’s Female Academy in St. Louis. There, Fanny and her roommate, Beatrice Jennings, both set their sights on disreputable riverboat deckhand Joshua Devlin. Joshua seduces Fanny, who realizes too late that he’ll never become a lawyer and a gentleman. When Fanny discovers she’s pregnant, she and Devlin marry, but her husband returns to the river. Once again the judge interferes, sending Fanny to a convent to have her child and annulling the marriage. The pattern continues for the next 15 years: Fanny and Josh remarry and have a second son, but once Josh returns to the Mississippi, the judge takes the boys, changes their last name to Britton and arranges to have Josh murdered. Long years pass with Fanny believing herself a widow. Josh finally turns up, as confusion reigns and subplots proliferate: Fanny’s former roommate attempts to separate the couple; Fanny maintains an attraction to her spineless cousin Alex (think Ashley Wilkes); the judge becomes involved with a witch. While Webb certainly weaves an engaging yarn, the endless misunderstandings and Fanny’s vacillations eventually become taxing–a thorough round of editing could trim the fat by at least 200 pages, and hopefully eliminate the cloying slave dialect (â€œLawdy, Mistis Fanny, I’s sho glad you is home. What’s gwina come-a dis place when you ain’t here to pertect us?”). Still, Fanny and Joshua are compelling characters, and readers will warm to the epic.
An ambitious if bloated beginning to a promising trilogy–the remainder will focus on the Devlin sons and their travails.