As the novel opens in 1905, Katherine Arthur stands at her mother's casket reflecting on all that had passed between them, the misunderstandings and hard feelings that had only just started to heal. Her twin Tommy has yet to be able to let his own unhappy feelings and estrangement from their mother go. The novel then moves back fourteen years in time to when the family was splintered apart, suffering terrible hardships, gross indignities, and bowed down by tragedy. Years prior, after discovering that her father and husband lost the fortunes of most everyone they knew in Des Moines, the once proud Jeanie Arthur left the city with her shamed husband and their young children. They left destitute to try and make a new future. Unfortunately that future included the death of oldest son James, infidelity and abandonment by her husband, divorce, and the need to board her surviving children out with sympathetic families as Jeanie tries to get back on her feet. But families who seem sympathetic in public can be infinitely less so in private. The family Katherine ends up living with takes terrible advantage of her, forcing her to work herself to the bone and depriving her of food. As if that isn't enough, the father of the family is a disgusting lech whose professed religious feeling and his shrew of a wife are the only thing that have kept him from doing more than brushing up against and sneaking inappropriate touches from the young teenager. Tommy, meanwhile, moved between situations, one terrible, which left deep emotional scars, and one wonderful caring one until he is left alone, by choice, to fend for himself. Jeanie has no idea of her children's suffering as she tries to find a way to reunite them with herself and her young, slow daughter toddler, Yale.
Jeanie learned that family and the angels among us were the most important things during her own trials but it takes at least until her death for Katherine and Tommy to accept the same thing, at least in terms of their mother although they recognize it with regard to their own families. Each of them grapples with the idea of forgiveness, both for the staits their mother was driven to that tore their family apart and for themselves and the rancor they harbored for so long, never knowing the whole story.
The back and forth between the two different times in the Arthur family's lives is a little hard to get used to in the beginning, especially since there are also scenes that go even further back to their privileged past and to the moment they lost everything. The book is a sequel and it surely benefits from a reader who has read the first one so that many of the secondary characters' importance and the necessary backstory which is merely alluded to here are already a part of their reading lexicon. Without this information, the reader is left wondering why Katherine and Tommy are still trying (and, in Tommy's case, failing) to reconcile with their mother and why they and their families feel that they don't really know Jeanie Arthur fourteen years after she reunited them. Shoop has done a good job evoking the turn of the century in Des Moines and the farming communities close to it. The dreadful and demeaning options open to the poor are well drawn and her characters' perseverance, endurance, and strength is impressive. I wish I had read the first book before this one though because there is just too much unexplained here for the tale, and its ending to be satisfactory although it certainly points to the importance of even just one person acting as an angel for others in changing lives forever.
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Thanks to the publisher and BookSparks PR for sending me a copy of the book for review.