Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Debut Pioneer Story A Little Too Cliche

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Giselle VanKomen joins the Mormon Church in her native Holland, her whole life changes. She's finally found the faith she's been searching for, but not everyone understands her attraction to the strange, new "American" religion. When her parents disown her, Giselle knows it's time to leave Europe and join with the rest of the Saints in the place they call Zion. It's a long and difficult journey, more dangerous than the 17-year-old could ever have imagined.

The minute Trace Grayson spies Giselle on the boardwalk in St. Joseph, Missouri, he's taken with her. She's young, beautiful and seems to have a bright sense of humor. When he finds out that she's to be on the wagon train he's leading west, Trace can hardly beleive his luck. Not that he's interested, of course. As soon as he unloads his Mormon travelers, he'll head to California. And he's not planning on letting anyone - especially not a Mormon someone - distract him from that path.

Only things don't work out quite that way. Before the wagon train even gets rolling, there's trouble. To protect Giselle from a vindictive mobster, Trace agrees to a sham marriage that will be annulled as soon as they reach the Mormon settlement. With that problem out of the way, they finally roll out of Missouri - only to be hit with worries like illness, bad weather, Indians stalking the wagon train, and squabbles between the travelers. Meanwhile, Trace and Giselle must battle the emotions warring in their hearts. The closer they grow to each other, the more they know it will hurt when the time comes to say goodbye forever. Can their love survive the trials of trail life? Will Giselle make it to Zion? And what will happen when Trace is forced to choose between the woman he loves and his dreams of California?

Any kid who's been through Primary can tell you what it was like to be a Mormon pioneer crossing the plains to reach Zion (Utah). They can describe how the travelers gathered buffalo chips to fuel campfires, pulled their wagons into circles each night for protection, chased off marauding Indians, stomped over treacherous mountain passes, and risked their very lives and limbs to find a place where they could practice their religious beliefs in peace. These tales are as familiar to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the noses on their faces. So, the question becomes, how do you tell a pioneer story in a way that's historcially accurate but original enough to keep the reader's attention? The answer is: You weave the familiar details into the stories of complex, original characters struggling with difficult, life-altering problems. Voila! Problem solved.

The characters Jaclyn M. Hawkes introduces in her debut novel, Journey of Honor, are, unfortunately, not of this variety. Both Giselle and Trace are good, honest, forgiving people, which makes them likable, but bland. They fail to develop, they fail to change - in fact, they fail to do anything surprising at all. Which explains why the tale is nice, just not anything special. I think in trying to create an inspirational, faith-promoting novel, Hawkes makes a handful of rookie mistakes (making the characters too perfect, not giving the romantic relationship enough conflict, letting the story wander down predictable paths, not giving the characters strong enough motivations, etc.) that bog down what had the potential to be a very entertaining book. With some intensive editing, it could have been a much more affecting novel. As is, it's just a little too blah, a little too cliche, a little too forgettable for my tastes.

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scary images and vague sexual references

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Journey of Honor from the generous folks at MediaGuests, for whom this review was written. Thank you!

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