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5 Stars

sentence of marriageThis series comprises a trilogy and a sequel, all of which I practically devoured. “Sentence of Marriage” had been sitting on my Nook for well over a year, since I feared it would be romance novel-y. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story of Amy, a girl living in New Zealand in the 1880’s is heartfelt without being sappy, and in spite of its grittiness, ultimately warm and uplifting.

Amy Leith is a 15-year-old living on a New Zealand farm with her father and two older brothers. Even though her mother died when she was small, and her beloved grandmother not long before the book begins, we get the sense that life, though hard, is happy, and she enjoys a close relationship with her family.

All of that changes when her father takes a business trip to Auckland (two days away via steamer!) and returns with a surprise bride. Susannah is an old maid from a wealthy family, and couldn’t be less suited to farm life. I really wanted to feel sorry for her, but she’s so whiny and so horrible to Amy, that my sympathy quickly dries up. She makes life difficult for her husband and stepsons, but they spend their days on the farm, so it’s Amy who bears the brunt of her unhappiness.

Things seem to get a bit better when Susannah’s younger brother Jimmy, comes to visit for the summer. He’s about 20, handsome, charming, and everything that girls like Amy never see in the hardscrabble farming community. Jimmy is very taken by sweet, pretty little Amy, and romance ensues. They get a lot of unsupervised time together because as practically her uncle, everyone trusts him. In no time at all, he’s promised her marriage, she’s clueless about the birds and the bees, and becomes pregnant shortly thereafter.

Under the guise of going home to get his father’s permission to marry, Jimmy hightails it to Auckland, and the next thing Amy hears- via Susannah- he’s gone to Australia to seek his fortune. Of course, this is a disaster in Victorian times. Amy hides her pregnancy as long as possible, but of course her family finds out eventually.

Throughout all of this runs the subplot of the romantic exploits of Amy’s cousin and best friend, Lizzie. Unlike Amy, strong-willed Lizzie is in charge of her life. She sets her sights on Frank Kelly, a young farmer who is just about too shy to speak, and maneuvers him into an engagement and marriage, much to his surprise.

While everyone is wondering what can be done, the creepy old neighbor, Charlie Stewart, has noticed Amy’s pregnancy and offers to make an honest woman of her. He refuses to raise another man’s child, however. So, Susannah drags Amy off to Auckland, where she has a baby girl in secret, under the care of a sadistic nurse, and is forced to give her up.

Upon return home, Susannah pressures her into marriage with Charlie, appealing to Amy’s love for her father, who she claims will be destroyed by having to live with a disgraced girl. Of course, no one else knows about the baby, but Amy takes it all to heart, and agrees to the “sentence of marriage.” And so ends the first book.

Of course, I barely took a breath before picking up “Mud and Gold,” book two in the series. (My only complaint is that the titles that tell you nothing about the story and lack cohesion in the series.)

Unsurprisingly, Charlie Stewart is the husband from hell. Amy is terrified of him from the start, and he mistakes her grieving for her baby as still pining after her “fancy man.” Amy tries desperately to please him and fails utterly. It’s appalling, because she works so hard and has such good intentions. All he does is yell at her and smack her around. Ugh.

Of course, she’s pregnant in no time, but has to continue her punishing work routine, in spite of carrying a huge, awkward baby. At least Charlie is so thrilled at the idea of having a son (it never occurs to him it might be a girl), that he abstains from the physical abuse once she’s pregnant.

Amy spends several weeks at the home of a kindly nurse who delivers the baby- a gigantic boy the spitting image of Charlie- and who suspects the abuse. Soon, she’s pregnant again and has another son, David. After another difficult birth, she’s unable to carry another baby. She has one miscarriage after another until one night, Charlie beats her worse than he ever has. She can’t hide her injuries from her father, who comes to visit (Charlie never lets her leave the farm without him, fearing she’ll “wander off” into the arms of some other man), and he’s livid. He wants to take Amy home, but she insists on staying.

Gratifyingly, she lays down the law, telling Charlie if he touches her again, she’ll take his sons away. Even though he’s angry, he obliges, and Amy happily moves out of the marital bedroom, into the spare room. And there she stays for the rest of the marriage. Amy’s martyrdom was getting hard to take, so it felt very good when she stood up for herself.

As a stark contrast to Amy’s misery, we have Lizzie and Frank make it through the early years of their marriage with a few hiccups, but as a very happy and loving couple. They are a great team, and that never changes, even though they eventually end up with eight children.  Lizzie remains a stalwart friend to Amy, through all of this.

The third book, Settling the Account, picks up as Amy’s boys are getting older. Malcolm -the eldest – is constant trouble, falling in with a bad crowd and doing poorly at school. By contrast, David is a model son, and Amy’s pride and joy. As Malcolm becomes a teenager, he constantly clashes with Charlie, and things become very violent between them.

At one point, Amy is so frightened that one will end up dead and the other in prison, that she arranges for Malcolm to go off and join the army in the Boer War. Charlie is so angry about this that he disowns Malcolm completely. Malcolm dies of a fever shortly thereafter.

Lizzie and Frank are prospering, and start hosting musical “Soyrees” at their home. Lizzie is hilariously overbearing, but their household seems like such fun; full of children and laughter. At one of these evenings, Amy meets Sarah, a young schoolteacher from Auckland. They bond immediately and become close friends despite a 15-year age difference. Hmmm.

In the meantime, Charlie has had a series of strokes and is completely disabled. Amy stands by him, taking wonderful care of him and the farm at the same time. At the end, he and Amy have a reconciliation of sorts. It’s hard to believe, but Parkinson’s deft hand makes it plausible. It’s an ending that’s very true to the essence of Amy.

All of this hardship has its rewards, though. Through all of these years, Amy has been pining for the little girl she had to give up. Quite unexpectedly, (to her, if not to us) she learns that Sarah is that child. She was adopted by a wealthy family that raised her lovingly and progressively. At twenty, Sarah is a well-educated feminist who inherited and runs her late father’s business empire. Very satisfying.

a second chanceIt was a lovely ending, but clearly, Parkinson’s fans hadn’t had enough. So, enter a sequel to the trilogy: A Second Chance. Here, Amy spends time with Sarah in Auckland, who gets a chance to lavish her with all good things, just as she deserves. At the same time, good old Jimmy re-enters the picture. As expected, he’s still no good and unhappily married.

He mistakenly believes that he and Amy can pick up where they left off and that Sarah will hand over control of her money to him. Hah! This is where it gets fun.

Let’s just say, Sarah finishes him off in the most satisfying way imaginable. So satisfying that I immediately re-read that part. It was awesome.

Just in case we’re missing the farm- this book’s subplot concerns David – now about 18- and one of Lizzie’s teenage daughters. It’s all very sweet, but Amy is still torn as to where she belongs. She finally figures it out, with the introduction of a surprise grandchild. Apparently, Malcolm was up to no good before he left for the Army, but it’s all Amy could ever want.

It’s hard for me to gauge if everyone else would love this as much as I did. Certainly, judging by the online reviews, these books have been well-received. I just don’t know if everyone- like men, for instance- would dig this. There is a great deal of mundane description of life on the farm. Milking, laundry, baking, scrubbing, rinse, repeat. I love realistic portrayals of pioneer life, so this suited me just fine. I like to think I would have done well in a Little House on the Prairie situation, so I love reading about that sort of thing.

I can’t unreservedly recommend to Little House fans, because of the sex and violence. The sex is muted, but there’s a fair amount of marital rape, and the violence is graphic and sickening. I liked the realism of it, although I can’t say I enjoyed it. Still, it painted a vivid and interesting picture.