Where the River Once Flowed by Jennie Hansen isn’t just a quick cup of water, it’s something to be leisurely savored like a tall glass of lemonade. It is a lush historical fiction set in New Mexico and follows the Sebastian family from 1879 to 1891. We learn of the struggles of these proud Spanish people as they sacrifice everything to build a life on their ranch. The Sebastian rancho and its well-being becomes almost a metaphor for the relationships that revolve around it¾as it fluctuates from a land that is flourishing and rich to one with barren soil and hard times.
This ranch is a perfect hub for the characters, but Iliana Sebastian is the impetus that drives them all. The men that surround her are connected by the land and who controls it¾and each man has their own impact on Iliana and her life. She is a beloved granddaughter of Don Sebastian, a man of pride and honor, who, in order to protect the ranch promises her in marriage to an older man named Ross. Ross is a cowboy who loves the land and wants to protect and own it, as well as see the Sebastian line continued. These two men try to do what is best for Iliana as she is growing up and learning her duty as a Sebastian.
I loved the growth in Iliana as she journeys from an unsure, but obedient young woman who does what her grandfather asks, to a wife and mother who will do anything to protect her family. The relationship with her and Ross was realistically portrayed as they struggle to find their footing with each other and as parents. As the story progresses, Iliana is forced to face some hard realities related to her life and the ranch, yet she digs deep to find herself and her own happiness. By the end of the story, it felt as though I had experienced every emotion imaginable right along with Iliana. She is a heroine every woman can relate to in balancing duty and loyalty with independence and love.
Ben Purdy is a neighbor to the Sebastian family, and he wants Iliana as well as the land her family owns. From his first introduction the reader sees the desire and greed within Ben as he strives to take what he wants without any regard for others. What the reader doesn’t know is how far he will go to get it. I enjoyed the fact that Ben was a realistic villain whose motives were consistent throughout, but I felt like Ross’s deal with him was very odd after all Ben had done to the family, especially Iliana. Still, Ben’s actions remained believable which made the deal with Ross less of an issue.
Travis Telford is a horse trader with dreams of owning his own ranch someday. He trades horses with the Sebastian family and comes to respect their way of life. When he tries to help them in their hour of need, he nearly pays for it with his life. His character was subtly woven into the Sebastian family’s story and yet Travis is the epitome of western heroes, strong, yet sensitive, gentle yet forceful when he has to be. I loved his deep sense of honor and his interactions with Iliana kept me turning pages.
The time period, the ranch, and the characters intertwined to make a beautifully written and detailed story. It was easy to soak in the atmosphere and really immerse myself in the characters and their lives. There was a few times where I found phrases repeated on the same page, but the book was well-edited. The beauty and culture of the Spanish people was expertly handled, as well as the prejudice they suffered during this time in history. Where the River Once Flowed is a grand story of a bygone era, where one woman and one ranch brought together men as opposite as the water they needed and the land they loved.
Jennie Hansen and her husband, Boyd, live in Salt Lake County and serve as ordinance workers in the Oquirrh Mountain Temple. Their five children are all married and have provided them with ten grandchildren. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, gardening, and camping.
Julie Coulter Bellon is the author of eight books and the mother of eight children¾which of course speaks to how much she loves children and books. She offers book reviews, writing tips, and her take on life on her blog