Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly is the story of a woman who goes from weakness to strength. Julia Darling is engaged to a stuffed shirt kind of man, but she doesn’t have the gumption to say she doesn’t love him or even admit she doesn’t even like him much. She’s reached her late twenties in the early 1900s, just graduated from Fannie Farmer Boston School of Cookery, and feels obliged to accept the only proposal she has received. Seeing her younger sister’s happiness on her wedding day and seeing an ad in the newspaper for a ranch cook in Wyoming, start her first tentative steps toward ending her engagement and taking charge of her own life.
After a rocky start, she learns to care for the cowboys on the ranch and a young orphan boy who wandered to the door one winter day. Her feelings for her boss go beyond liking, though she finds him exasperating at times. He’s a kind man, she discovers, even though he has a reputation for toughness. When she longs to attend Church, he arranges for her to travel to Cheyenne once a month to attend a small branch there. He even accompanies her the first time to show her the way. He has secrets and learns through her that there are ways to trace his mother’s people and discover whether any of them are alive.
A great historical romance, Kelly’s obvious experience with romance writing shines through her first attempt at writing for the LDS market. She maintains a careful physical tension between her protagonists without crossing the line into poor taste. The story is a powerful well-written romance until she reaches the final dramatic scene, then she reverts to her former romance background by putting that scene in bed. Oh, there’s nothing R rated in the scene. The setting alone makes it suggestive and spoils an otherwise good scene. Having the two major characters in bed together, even when they behave circumspectly, is out of character for this pair who have ascribed to a strict code of honor thus far.
Kelly adopts the words of Heber C. Kimball given in 1856 as the theme for the book: “The time will come when no man or woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?” She carries out this theme with thoughtful clarity as Julia realizes her testimony is primarily based on her parents’ testimonies and the way she was raised, then goes on to show her struggles to gain her own testimony. As her faith grows, she also grows in other ways that help her to appreciate her self-worth and discover her capacity for dealing with adversity, danger, and to understand her own weaknesses.
Some of the characters in this book are merely brief sketches and the reader learns only the bare facts about them, but Julia is an excellent character portrayal. Both the male lead, Mr. Otto, and the orphan boy, James, are not as thoroughly sketched as Julia, but both characters have strong points and go beyond the mere essentials.
I absolutely loved Kelly’s sense of humor. It is true to her characters and to the rural cowboy country setting. Sometimes I couldn’t help laughing out loud. And speaking of the rural setting. She shows a real knowledge of Wyoming’s remote, harsh cattle ranching at the turn of the last century. I also appreciate the fact that her humor is more subtle than slapstick when this Fannie Farmer graduate runs afoul of the cowboys’ preference for steak and potatoes over the culinary masterpieces she has learned how to prepare.
This book is Western enough to appeal to Western readers, romantic enough for Romance readers, and contains enough solid Church history and growth in the Gospel to appeal to a wide range of readers, both male and female. I suspect it’s going to show up on the next round of Whitney finalists.
Though Carla Kelly is new to LDS fiction, she has written more than thirty novels for big name general market publishers such as Donald I Fine Co., Signet, and Harlequin. She is the recipient of top awards from both Romance writers groups and Western writers groups. She has also published several non-fiction historical books. She and her husband are newcomers to Utah and are the parents of five adult children who are scattered across America.
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BORROWED LIGHT by Carla Kelly, published by Bonneville Books an imprint of Cedar Fort, mass market paperback, 408 pages, $8.99