Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Willow Vale by Alethea Williams

This novella is a true account of Ms Williams ancestors who founded the Willow Vale Ranch in Wyoming.

Francesca Sittoni  has not had much of a life so far, being born an Austrian, after WWI her nationality changes to Italian, but also results in the death of her husband, leaving her with a small daughter, Elena. Even as a widow, Francesca is not in charge of her own life and when her father, a man bereft of compassion due to the blows life and war have dealt him, marries her off to Cesare, who has plans to emigrate to America, she has no choice but to obey and leave Val di Non, her childhood home she loves, but in which she cannot survive.

Cesare takes work as a miner, and Francesca’s life is little better than that of a servant, keeping her surly husband content by avoiding confrontation, and making sure Elena doesn’t annoy him.  When Cesare is killed in a fall in at the mine, Francesca has no inclination to mourn him, and who can blame her, for her struggle now is for survival.

Francesca has to leave the company accommodation, has no money and no skills to speak of, and worse still she is pregnant with her dead husband’s child.

Francesca answers and advertisement in the newspaper by a Wyoming farmer who is in search of a woman to keep house for him. She sets off across the country and is met my Mr Kent, a divorcee with health problems who has his own demons to fight from the war.

Mr Kent is not quite what Francesca was expecting, and it’s obvious from their first sight of each other that she is also a surprise, as is her burgeoning pregnancy and the appearance of little Elena.  However Mr Kent welcomes them both and the two consider what happens next.

It is at this point I become confused with Francesca’s behaviour. From a meek, subservient woman, she turns on this gentle man who has done nothing but be kind to her and is surly, uncommunicative and rude. She has nowhere else to go, is pregnant and with a small child and yet she issues threats to the bewildered Mr Kent, saying she won’t work for him and will leave right that moment, when all he has done is suggest he buys her lunch. Mr Kent has to cajole her into not making any hasty decisions.

Francesca stays and starts work as his housekeeper, but her attitude remains reluctant, and before long begins to settle – but again she isn’t satisfied with the arrangement. She doesn’t like Mr Kent’s diet of predominantly beef and demands milk and eggs. Does Mr Kent throw her out on her sorry ass? No, the poor put-upon man does not, but does his best to comply and asks a neighbour for a cow and some chickens.

Francesca calms down, slowly, and as her pregnancy progresses she develops a thoughtful side and begins to understand Mr Kent, especially after a meeting with an elderly neighbour, Agnes Broadbent.  From Agnes she learns that the town assumes Mr Kent will marry Francesca and assumed his advertisement was a ‘Wife wanted’ one.  At this point she resolves not to comply with Mr Kent’s expectations – even though the poor man hasn’t even asked her!

Despite everything, Mr Kent finds himself warming toward Francesca, and when a cattle drive looms, he is reluctant to leave her alone – an instinct which proves prophetic.

Willow Vale is a slow story, and contains a great deal of introspection of both major characters, as one questions the other’s motives and expectations, then begin to understand, then depend upon each other.

Francesca becomes ill at one stage and her reflections on her past life and tragedies during this time are fascinating, but oddly positioned. I felt the facts revealed here would be better placed closer to the beginning so I could understand Francesca a little more. However this serves its purpose and explains a lot about her life and marriages, and the close relationship with her neighbours the Broadbents.

The narrative is well crafted as a portrait of the changing attitudes of two people thrown together in a situation they are unprepared for, and I soon stopped being frustrated with Francesca’s unreasonable behaviour as she slowly came to terms with her situation. Their guarded relationship eventually turns to love on both sides, and glides nicely to a satisfactory conclusion.

At the beginning there are some very involved explanations of how the political situation between Germany, Austria and Italy in 1918 affect Francesca’s family and their ability to earn a living. This was very well done, but author intrusion as the talk about the Hapsburg rule, the Catholic Party; Socialists; nationalists, the Popular Party supported by agriculturalists etc, would have all gone over Francesca’s head as she isn’t well educated and would fail to grasp the bigger picture of what was happening in her country.

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