Tuesday, July 31, 2018

No Roses in June--1961

Back up, Horse. Edward Campbell is about to make his move.
If wedding dresses could talk, what stories they could tell. This one, hanging in an apartment window, billowing into the room would natter over the back fence about the broken engagement she witnessed.
"The wedding was days away and he flew in from South Africa
peddling some story about irresistible passion.
Said he's ALREADY married to her best friend!"
Though Ian, her ex-fiance, tells her that she can 'take it', Fiona MacDonald is not without the need of a restorative. As a good minister's daughter, she's not going to down a bottle of gin and get tight. But she will don a tight dress, garish make-up and go out to have a night on the town in the company of a noted Lounge Lizard. She ends up at a dive called Cat on the Tiles with “rowdy, thought-banishing company”.
"What has being decorous and disciplined ever done for me?"
Just as she is thinking very seriously about pounding jello shots off of Lounge Lizard's sloping shoulders and signing the waiver for Girls Behaving Badly: Dumped in Edinburgh, she encounters a Hot Colonial-type sneering at her. But, after all, she will never see him again. (Gentle Reader, this is her future husband.) After a fender bender in the parking lot, Hot Colonial makes himself their designated driver. Fiona is dropped off last and the conversation goes really well.

Edward was about to lose his five star Uber rating.
Him: You smell of whiskey and look like a hussy.
Her: You have the musk of self-righteousness which is much harder to shower off.
Him: Don't pass out on me since you are definitely drunk.
Her: I'm drunk on sorrow!

Fiona passes out. Not the best look for a girl trying to maintain that she is Most. Certainly. Sober. And as Hot Colonial carries her up to the apartment, let us pass around the box of Kleenex and dab our eyes gently over the fact that she has been carried across the threshold in the muscled arms of a stranger on the very night her ex-fiance carries his own bride across another. The Colonial sees the wedding dress and flings Byron (who knew a thing or two about shagging and inconstancy and diss tracks) at her feet:

...as soon
Seek roses in December, ice in June;
Hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff,
Believe a woman, or an epitaph
Or any other thing that's false--

Soon, Fiona has taken a job as a governess on a super remote (Is there any other kind, Essie?) sheep station in New Zealand. She is met by her new boss, C. Edward Campbell, the Hot Colonial.

The trollop walks off the plane and he extracts the damning information that Ian jilted her. Of course, thinks Edward, Fiona was tramping it up with another man. She deserves what she gets. He's popped her into the same blender as his perfidious sister-in-law Fleur (also at Cat on the Tiles that night) and hit PUREE.

As much as he'd like to send her away, they have a real emergency on their hands at Belle Knowes. Edward's brother recently died (in an "accident" with a gun) and his sainted sister-in-law (the first wife) died much earlier. Edward quit his job to run the farm and raise the children but help is hard to come by. What can he do?
You could take me back to Dunedin, Mr. Campbell.
It is very telling that when she offers him a way out, Edward does not take it. Instead, he says, "It might straighten you up to taste life at Belle Knowes for a few months. It'll scare the hell out of you, of course." Yes, Mr. Campbell. But I didn't know we were running a Benevolent Home for Wayward Girls.

Her first test in The Great Rehabilitation of Fiona MacDonald, Lady-Delinquent is on the boat ride over to the station. The rabbiters are flirtatious, the dogs are out of control and there is a hot wind kicking up. She exhibits heroism by saving a dog from going over the side of the boat, wins the trust of the captain and kisses an old rabbiter as a matter of honor. Edward sneers. But, note: This is when he says, later, that his heart did its first flippy-flop.

He's so sure though that she is rotten. "...life up here is rather stripped of frills. Veneer soon cracks. You'll show up as shoddy before long." Instead of trying to explain herself to a brick wall like that, Fiona takes the stoic road and waits for time to vindicate her.

When Fiona discovered that Sam Elliott would be her Spirit Guide
on the Stoic Road, she decided to stay the course.

Into the Tar Pits of Fiona's Likeability many creatures come to drink, sinking in the inky depths. Let us make a survey:
  • Miss Trudington. "Quite Victorian" and Edward's best hope to "straighten" Fiona up. Instead, Fiona gives her a make-over and cures her arthritis. 
  • Her charges, Victoria, Elizabeth, William and James. Half Maori, half Scots. Edward is sure she will be a terrible influence on them but Fiona begins as she means to go on, ringing the school bell, whipping them into shape, opening each day with a prayer and homily. They adore her because she is unstinting in her affection for them, unsparing in her discipline and, unlike one of Edward's old flames, NOT A RACIST.
  • A Maori station hand and his wife. He's gotten into trouble over alcohol (A real case of someone needing to work out his own rehabilitation here in the mountains.) and she is dangerously pregnant with their second child. Fiona does all the housework when the wife goes on bed rest, which proves her to be both not lazy AND NOT A RACIST. 
Other steps on the road to Fiona's Rehabilitation include learning to ride horses (Something which terrifies her), giving mobility-saving massages to Trudy and taking the children to the cottage over in Wanaka for a couple of weeks. Edward agonizes over letting her go sample the wild lights of an obscure New Zealand town, but decides it will be fine as long as there will be another adult around to watch her. 

Miss Trudington was not the chaperone Edward hoped she'd be.
Meanwhile, Fiona just wants to do her job, have her character vindicated and love the children (all the while weeping discretely into her pillow for Ian). Moving on from that loss feels impossible. But (Symbolism Alert) have I told you what Edward's profession is? Road-building. Cutting passes through impassable terrain. Linking two distant points.When Ian sends an opal necklace (to match the engagement ring he got her), it's Edward who sends it back with a reminder that Fiona isn't his wife and that opals are kind of tacky anyway. I dearly hoped that when Edward's letter arrived, Ian's new wife opened it and caused a scene.

One day, Edward asks Fiona to clean his study out and she finds an airmail letter from Edinburgh. It's Fleur's letter (telling her husband (the children's father) that she is going to leave him for another man--Edward) but it's not been opened. Robert never saw it. Ergo, the gun "accident" really was an accident. Edward tells Fiona that night that the emotional thickets have been cleared. (Claps hands.) It's time for him to do some courting!
Alas, Edward was not as specific and unmistakable
as Teen Legend Jake Ryan.

But first a rescue. Fiona and the children are caught in a landslip and she rushes to save James, the wee-est of the children, bracing herself above a protective culvert and shielding his body with her own. I love this scene so much. Fiona can be compared favorably to Mother Teresa and Edward is cool-headed and competent, engineering her way to safety. He stitches her up later but his cool-headedness deserts him and he rushes to the garden to vomit.

Yes. Essie Summers turned vomit into a love token.

Further tokens of love are Edward inviting her brother in from South Africa and having the domestic intelligence to have extra wild pig and cream on hand for her surprise guests. (Grab him, Fiona!) When Trudy is on the verge of announcing her engagement to an old beau, Edward takes Fiona aside. Isn't it time to admit they love each other?

The timing of that is too perfect. Fiona wades into him with a lot of stabbing exclamation points about how he's never trusted her and now that he's about to be left high and dry of a chaperone, he can't start doling out the magnanimity. But Edward isn't going to back down this time. They're going to finally get it sorted out. He doesn't wait for her to explain that night in Edinburgh but takes her on wholly on the faith she has given him. It's New Zealand where there is ice in June and roses in December and Edward Campbell can believe in women.

Edward got the rest after a probationary period of abject grovelling.
Rating: 8/10 Digging Out the Sheep. There are so many unforgettable scenes in this one. Here is a sampling:

  • That image of the gauzy wedding dress wafting into the room--first when Ian is breaking her heart and again when Edward is judging her so harshly. 
  • The rescue with little James and after when Edward is stitching Fiona up and has to excuse himself to throw up. 
  • The young children greeting her with a haka on her first morning at Belle Knowes.
Something I wasn't crazy about was how devoted Essie was in re-quoting an exact quote (in one case a Joyce Dingwell poem about tourniquets) when it's resolved. ("Hey, Edward, remember how you said [quote]. It is being resolved this very minute!") It's mistrustful of the reader and these aren't long books.
I liked the little moments of side-eye Essie casts the rest of the anglosphere about New Zealand not having an established "color-bar". She wants none of your apartheids and Jim Crow laws.
But the real genius of this title is how Essie Summers shows Fiona and Edward's relationship building even when he hasn't put aside his distrust of her and she hasn't gotten over the broken engagement. Some authors would push too hard here, making them too obviously in love too soon. But Essie takes her time, clearing obstacles and whacking back misconceptions like she doesn't have a hard, 190 page count to fret about. 

The Misunderstanding: He thinks she leads a secret debauched life and must be reformed by wholesome isolation and fresh mountain air.

Location: Belle Knowes a sheep station on the shores of Lake Wanaka, Otago region, New Zealand

Other Notes: Mentions made of Pigeon Island, Lake Wanaka, Hyndman's (a bookstore in Dunedin). Writers Patricia Wentworth (p. 102) and Joyce Dingwell (p. 114) are mentioned as well as one of her own poems (p. 115).


  1. Sam Elliott! — s w o o n — Thank you for him. 💕

  2. Bold & Italics and the hyperlinks are back!
    And the Recent Comments are working again! Well done, Betty Keira! I am so proud of you! 💖

  3. Keira, I got a huge kick out of this review...and I'm the guy in charge of republishing all of Essie's novels on Kindle. In fact, I really, really badly wanted to find a way to sneak a link to this review into the Afterword of the new edition of Roses, but just couldn't solve the discrepancy in tone. (There is a limit to how irreverent I can allow myself to be in those afterwords, after all.) But I am certainly going to forward the link to Essie's son Bill and daughter Liz, both of whom have very well-developed senses of humor, and both of whom I am sure will enjoy this review as much as I did. Thanks for making my day!

    1. What an absolute joy to get your comment! Ever since I read that there was a devoted Essie fan out there, doing the hard work of getting her books digitally released, I knew we must be kindred spirits. I've been meaning to pick up my reviews for the rest of her books (suddenly homeschooling too many children during COVID hasn't helped--it was rather like a blizzard when all hands are required to dig out the sheep) and am so pleased you stumbled across my review. While my tone IS irreverent, my admiration of Essie Summers is frank and boundless. I'm a romance author (my stuff can be termed 'clean') and she, more than anyone else, gave me the tools to create stories that don't go much near the bedroom but are, nevertheless, stuffed full of romantic tension, chemistry and attraction. (Seriously, she could teach a masterclass on this. Too many sweet romance authors write like disembodied heads are falling in love.) Coupled with the rich details of everyday life in a manse or a draper's shop or on a backcountry sheep station... There is no one like her. Thank you for making MY day! And THANK YOU, THANK YOU for bringing Essie to a new generation!

    2. So if I look for your work, what do I type into the "Author" search field? (Oh, and it suddenly occurred to me that I seem to be using the company account...my name is actually Kenny, not Fior.)

    3. Keira, I'm going to pass on to you a story that Bill (Essie's son, not her husband) told me over dinner a couple of years ago, which has to do with her passion for accuracy and with the unusually high number of men who read her books. You have to know what "crutching" is to get the force of the story; so, just in case you don't, crutching is when you shear only the wool on the sheep's rear end, which over time tends to become, shall we say, befouled. Anyway, Essie was always surprised when men told her they liked her books, but according to Bill, one such male reader was especially memorable. He was a crusty old Scots-Kiwi farmer, the very last person you would expect to be reading a Mills & Boon romance. When Essie asked him, "But why do you like MY books?" he replied (and at this point in the story Bill drops into a rich Scots brogue), "Because, ye ken, ye get all the details of th' crutchin' JUST RIGHT!"

      You can see why I figure Bill and Liz will enjoy your review.

    4. Thank you so much for that. I'm laughing so hard at that answer! She did get so many tiny details right and it takes me right into the heart of her worlds. It makes me wonder how many people (after the larger waves in the 80s, I suspect) have quietly been making Essie pilgrimages to NZ for all these years, on the strength of the descriptions and command of her settings. I've so appreciated your comments, Kenny!