Conor's Way by Laura Lee Guhrke
published by Harper Torch (Harpercollins Publisher) in April 1996
A courageous womanGenre: Historical romance, post Civil War
In the aftermath of the Civil War, beautiful and stubborn Olivia Maitland was determined to save her family and their new-bankrupt Louisiana plantation no matter what - even if it meant taking in cynical ex-boxer Conor Branigan in exchange for help. It wasn't long before she discovered the secret pain hidden beneath his rugged ways. And his ache touched something in her, lighting a fire in her heart.
A hard-fighting man
Conor Branigan had seen his family and his hopes destroyed in Ireland and had sworn never to care for anyone again. But now he dared hope for a love greater than any he'd ever dreamt of, with Olivia and her three adopted children - and a future that he would fight to keep forever.
The Story: Conor Branigan earns a living as a prizefighter. As such, he tours the circuit 5 months a year and roams the country the remaining months and that suits him just fine. Unfortunately, Conor gets beaten up and is left on the side of the road, injured, after he refused to fix a match and caused the local bookie to lose big.
Olivia Maitland is on her way to town, asking God for a man who could help with her farm and the upcoming harvest, when she stumbles across Conor. She takes him home and nurses him back to help. The cynical, jaded man with a vile tongue who's been to prison, is not exactly what she asked for... But as her three adopted daughters becomes attached to him, as Conor regains his strength and helps out around and as Olivia glimpses the real Conor and his motives, she is appeased. She also has other problems to deal with, namely someone who wants to buy her land for a new railroad and is tired of playing fair.
Nath: I finished Conor's Way for the TBR challenge!... and I enjoyed it! :) What about you Leslie?
Leslie: I really liked it. I do think I was in the perfect mood for a nice, slow romance. It took a long time to develop but for me it felt right for the characters. Good thing I wasn't craving lots of action. LOL
Nath: I think there was some action, but it didn’t come across because of the way it was written. Although Conor’s Way was definitively about the characters. I loved Conor!! :)
Leslie: Let's talk about Conor then! I think the title was perfect since Conor is really the center of the story with the other characters connecting to him. His back story was well written and explained so much about how he thought and acted. Even right up to the wedding he didn't think he could stay. The thought of having a wife and children and no chance of leaving really scared him. His belief that it was just another type of prison emphasized how important his freedom was to him. I think his history let him believe that any ties, whether they be people or places, would cause him to loose that freedom. He's the anti-hero hero that I love so much.
Nath: Conor was definitively what made the book for me :) I agree with you, his past was really well written and I liked the way it was shared with the readers. The flashbacks were short and concise, but poignant and powerful. They also occurred at the right moment in the narration and uncovered Conor, making us understand why he was the way he was. Personally, I can't blame him for his attitude and his desire of freedom. I think that he lost so much in his life, everything he cared about has hurt him in one way or another... But I think it wasn't really freedom that he craved. Deep down, he was afraid to care and have ties, afraid to lose and be hurt again... and also, the problem with having ties is that he couldn't run again, escape his torments.
"[...] Besides, most folks who think things are better someplace else are just running away from something, and they usually find that whatever they're running from is still with 'em when they get there."When Olivia said those words, it really hit Conor, and yet, he seemed to still want to run. In any case, Conor was a great hero in my opinion. I'm not sure if he's really an anti-hero... but I liked that he wasn't overly tortured. I know readers like dark and tortured hero, but sometimes, it feels so forced. In the case of Conor, it really rang true.
Leslie: Agree that he wasn't portrayed as overly tortured. What he suffered was horrible, especially as a child and losing his family. He didn't like to dwell on it but it was always there in the background, driving him to keep moving.
Nath: Seriously, what he went through was so horrific, I don't think he could ever forget. However, I think that now, he can let go and focus on something else.
What did you think of Olivia? I really admired Olivia. She was a great woman and had a very big, good heart. She did a great job raising three young girls and running the farm. However, I can’t help but think something was missing. She just came across as too nice and selfless... I didn’t get a sense of who she really was. Also, someone who has gone through so much would be a bit more hardened I think, especially given her background. And really, I felt the drive, what made her push herself, was missing...
Leslie: I did like Olivia and how she tried to do the right thing even if it might get her criticized. Her relationships with the girls showed both her serious side and her playful side. I think her sense of purpose was to hold onto the farm and raise the girls. Those were to two main focuses of her life. Really the only focuses.
I did like how she interacted with Conor while he was recovering from his injuries. She was sassy and smart while still being kind to him. I liked seeing how her innocence regarding men and life outside her small town played against Conor's worldliness. He seemed so jaded. Olivia knew about running a farm but she didn't have any experience with the more social aspects of men and women. Olivia's character may seem less complex than Conor but I think that might have more to do with Conor having experienced more of the world.
Nath: Seriously, after the Civil War, times had changed and so many women were left without men... Those people criticizing Olivia were really just clinging to the old ways, not conscious of the changes. Everything Olivia did was indeed for her home and the girls and there was really nothing wrong. I think the reason she maintained her innocence is that even now, years after the Civil War and her running the farm, she's been isolated. It felt to me that she's innocent even when it comes to life in her small town.
Leslie: Yep. Her isolation from the town helped to not only keep her innocence but her positive outlook. She still had that deep seated fear that anyone she cared for would leave her but overall, she only socialized with people she liked and who liked her in return. The girls helped with that innocence as well. Even though they themselves had gone through a lot, they still enjoyed playing and including Olivia in that play. I really liked all three girls and thought they were well developed for children.
Nath: You think she had a fear of being left behind? I didn't see it.
Leslie: She had been left behind. If it hadn't been for the girls, Olivia would have been the only one left. Everyone else in her family either died or left and died while away. All her family, her best friend and even old Nate. I think those girls were her salvation in a way. Then Conor completed the family.
Nath: I got that she feared loneliness... but in this case, fear of loneliness and being left behind is the same. Even then, she wasn’t like her father nor did she cling to the girls or Conor.
You're right though about how the girls contributed to the innocence :) At the same time, that innocence wasn't always a boon. It was touching to see Olivia struggles with motherhood when she hasn't gone through so many experiences.
And I really like the girls - Becky, Carrie and Miranda - in Conor's Way. They were a big part of the storyline and very likable, but at the same time, they didn't steal the show. I think Ms Guhrke did an awesome job with the balance and keeping the readers engaged. However, I think that everything - the characters, the dynamics, the story and the setting - overshadowed the romance a little. I liked the friendship that built between Conor and Olivia, I understood Conor’s attraction for Olivia... but I felt passion was missing from their romance. That would be the weakness of this book in my opinion.
Leslie: For me, it was Olivia not taking the threats from Vernon more seriously as they began to escalate. She did get the guns out but to believe he wouldn't hurt her or the girls was putting them in danger. Maybe she took her belief in the goodness of people a little too far. Even after her friend warned her about the telegraphs and that he thought Vernon was getting more pressure for results, Olivia continued to think that simply saying “No”, she would keep her farm. That was a frustration for me.
Nath: Well I found that Olivia not taking the threats from Vernon more seriously was consistent with her character. There's the innocence and naivete, the Christian seeing the good in everything and the fact that she knew Vernon was sweet on her.
One thing that I really enjoyed about Conor's Way was the life Olivia and the girls were living. Yes, they had chores and the farm to take care of, but at the same time, it seemed to me their life was serene... The difference with today was so jarring where everyone is pressed by time. Or even with the regency historicals. You'd think Olivia would be overwhelmed, but she still had time to go on picnics, play with the girls and everything. Perhaps that’s why I felt like she was missing drive, but in the end, it worked for me :) Also, I think one of the reasons I put off reading Conor’s Way for so long is the story takes place post-Civil War, so I expected a misery, sadness and hardship... and while some of it was present, it was subtle instead of shoved in our face. As a result, I enjoyed the time period a lot more :)
Leslie: It was very serene. Perfect word to describe their life on the farm. Again, their isolation played a role in that. When it was just Olivia, Conor and the girls it was as if none of the bad of the world could touch them. I liked how Guhrke showed both sides of that life and how Olivia was so desperate to hang on to it. It was just the farm she refused to give up but the way of life it provided for her and the girls. The security that Conor seemed so quick to throw away. Loved how they both came around in their thinking of what was truly important in life.
Nath: I think you're right. It wasn't just the farm and the land she was holding on to or the memories, but the lifestyle. At the same time, I understood why Conor told her not to be too attached, that some things were not worth losing your life holding onto it. And really, I don't think Conor recognized that security.
So, final verdict, Leslie :) What is your grade?
Leslie: I'm giving Conor's Way an A. This story hit all my sweet spots. The hero was wonderful. The heroine was strong, smart and a match for the hero. The kids really worked well in the story line and had relationships that felt real with both hero and heroine. And I liked the setting of small, post Civil War southern town. Which surprised me because like you mentioned, I generally shy away from post Civil War stories set in the south because they tend to be too dark and depressing. But I didn’t find that the case with Conor’s Way.
Nath: Initially, I was going to give Conor’s Way a B because while I loved Conor, the girls and their dynamics, I didn’t find Olivia or the romance particularly gripping. However, the more I thought about the book and this review, I came to the conclusion that it deserved a B+. I need to merit Ms Guhrke for writing something different - even after 15 years, it feels original and refreshing - and for the balance of Conor’s Way, especially when it came to Conor’s characterization and the setting :)