In her debut historical novel, Chappell tells the story of a resolute heroine and an entire community during a time when survival depended on intense physical labor and the kindness and camaraderie of the village.
Mattie’s tale begins in 1879 in St. Louis, Missouri, when she and her brother, Thomas, are attacked by a thief while out for a ride on their horse. Thomas dies at the scene while 12-year-old Mattie suffers a debilitating hip injury. The incident and Mattie’s subsequent recovery put immense strain on the girl, her parents, and two older sisters. But Mattie, with the encouragement of Thomas’ ghost, is determined to walk again, despite the doctor’s prognosis. Her father, with some help from the boys at the mill where he works, constructs an entire second wing for their house and rehabilitation gadgetry to help her heal. During this arduous process, Jesse, the young mill foreman, befriends Mattie and becomes a welcome and beloved fixture in the family. When tragedy strikes again, and this time even more harshly, Mattie and Jesse are left to build a new life together. But they are not alone. The two, despite their constant bickering and headstrong personalities, throw themselves into work and grow together into moral, industrious, accomplished adults. A fraught romance develops between them, replete with miscommunications and unfulfilled desires. As these two hotheads stumble through a yearslong courtship in which shared finances and children come long before marriage and sex, they start creating a loving family unit of orphans and outcasts in which perseverance and tenderness are equally valued. Here is a portrait of an unconventional family—a chosen family—before it was commonplace. Likewise, Mattie’s role not only as head of the household with regard to domestic decisions, but business ventures as well, shows that anyone, even a petite, orphaned, single, disabled woman, can be the master of his or her own destiny. The plot here is absorbing. While this book insists that love, affection, loyalty, and hard work are the cornerstones of family, the prose never becomes preachy or sentimental. Though an abrupt and deeply discordant ending may leave some readers confused, this story overflows with pure heart.
A 19th-century family epic filled with strong writing and an engrossing narrative.