Book review: ‘Pemberley Ranch’ by Jack Caldwell

On a random weekday, I recently finished a young adult book and scanned my bookshelves for something a little different. While I love my chick lit and teen reads, a girl can’t survive on those genres alone. I wanted some intrigue. A little mystery, perhaps.

And that’s why I love having a bookcase that sags beneath its weight in paperbacks. Approximately ten billion novels await my perusal, and I adore being a flippant, unpredictable reader. It’s fun to flit from modern New York City to the streets of London and back again, and this time — this time — I was ready to embark on an epic journey to post Civil War-era Texas. And Jack Caldwell was channeling my beloved Jane Austen.

Before you scramble away regarding a Pride and Prejudice removed from Regency England, let me say this: I went into Pemberley Ranch expecting a pleasant — if campy — read, and I couldn’t have been more surprised by what I found in Caldwell’s incarnation of a classic story.

This book was so much fun.

Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet — famed heroine; straight talker; owner of “fine eyes” — is now Beth Bennet, a farmer’s daughter in Rosings, Texas. The Bennets have relocated from Ohio to Confederate Texas just after the war, and the family is still smarting from losing their beloved son and brother, Samuel, during the battles that polarized our nation. Beth now spends her days with her sisters and opinionated mother, Fanny, never dreaming that the sights of nearby rancher William Darcy — a wealthy, handsome former Confederate fighter — are fixed on her . . . especially when she does nothing more than insult his religious background and role in the war that claimed her brother’s life.

But Beth is wrong about Darcy — isn’t she? He isn’t the proud, arrogant “half-breed” that townsfolk are claiming. He’s of Native American background, sure, but that doesn’t mean he’s beneath some folks — and certainly not Catherine Burroughs, his cruel and controlling cousin. Cate would like nothing more than to unite the land that once belonged to their ancestors, but Darcy isn’t interested in a truce. And when Rosings’ residents begin facing trouble at the hands of George Whitehead, a charismatic but dangerous carpetbagger, everyone must choose which side they’re on.

So I’ve read lots of Austen fiction, and my love for our lady J is known far and wide. I can be a hard sell when it comes to modern (or historical) retellings of my favorite stories, and I know some purists frown upon “spin-offs” stemming from Austen’s original works. I’m not one of those readers, obviously; any additional time I can spend with the dashing Mr. Darcy is all right by me. But even I, a relatively adventurous reader, wasn’t so sure about this premise.

It just sounded so . . . silly. Over the top. Ridiculous, even. And I’m only admitting that in the interest of full disclosure, friends, because I absolutely loved this book. It was romantic, thrilling, adventurous; the plot was tight and interesting, and the whole novel richly atmospheric. I felt as thought I’d stepped back in time to ride sidesaddle through Darcy’s ranch, and I completely bought into the idea that these characters — these friends — to whom I’m tremendously attached could be transported to a different time, a different place, and have the story still work.

And work it did. Though I missed the prim-and-proper British manners that are so vital to Austen’s work, America in the 1800s wasn’t so grossly different from England. I mean, ladies weren’t permitted to hold court with a young man unchaperoned. And if you think you’re going to run off with a young woman without her father’s approval, son? Think again. There are right ways to do things and wrong ways to do things, and Caldwell knows that. Protocol in Texas isn’t quite the same as in Longbourn, but it’s not dissimilar, either.

Darcy is still a proud, upstanding citizen; Beth is still a hard-headed young woman who refuses to bend to society’s — or her parents’ — wishes. Though Caldwell manipulates the familiar plot in a new way, the spirit of our beloved characters is the same. And that’s what won me over most: the push-and-pull, will-they-or-won’t-they vibe we get from our leads is still present — but not the complete focus.

This isn’t a romance — not in a traditional sense. There’s no bodice-ripping here, friends, and very little in the way of uncouth behavior. Pemberley Ranch’s main focus is really on the Civil War and its aftershocks, bringing the discord between Beth and Darcy to this one salient point: on which side do you fall? And at one point do you let the past go?

Rich in historical detail and high on intrigue, tension and adventure, Pemberley Ranch is a spirited and fun addition to the Austen fiction oeuvre I love so dearly. Gobbled up over just a few nights, I was dying to learn what would become of my two favorite families and enjoyed seeing allusions to Pride and Prejudice even as Caldwell took the tale in new directions. A worthwhile, fun book, and one I heartily recommend to Austen fans and historical fiction lovers alike.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402241283 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Diary of an Eccentric

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12 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Pemberley Ranch’ by Jack Caldwell

  1. I’ve seen this book before and I’ll admit I was wary, b/c I’m quite fond of the original Lizzie and Darcy, so I always worry how an adaptation will change them. But I trust your taste and I think I’ll give this a chance since you liked it so much.

  2. Sad but true, I have yet to actually read an Austen original but I have been gobbling up the spinoffs. They make me want to read the originals and I have copies of all of them on my bookshelves but alas, still haven’t read them. But i will add this to my list of future spinoffs to delve into — it sounds like a great read.

  3. I love me some P&P retellings (I just spent the last week watching & then re-watching Lost in Austen), so this sounds fantastic to me. It’s going on the ever-growing to-read list!

  4. Oh, I’m gonna read this! So glad you wrote about it, and glad to hear you liked it. I’ve got a soft spot for Austen and Westerns. *Never* imagined you could *blend* them. Yee-haw!

  5. I’ve been avoiding this book because it did sound awfully silly. Now that I know it’s got some merit, onto my wishlist it goes. Thanks for the review!

  6. Hi Meg,
    Thanks for the review of Pemberley Ranch. I love P&P though I tend not to read the spin offs, however I did read one and enjoyed it.
    This sounds like an original take on the Austen classic. And I really like the historical context. I’ll definitely read it.

  7. Megan I love your review (and your name – I too am a Megan(: ). I found this book through Austen Authors (it’s a website of group of authors that have written Jane Austen spin offs – http://www.austenauthors.com) I started at Austen Authors via Sharon Lathan who’s Darcy Saga is one of my personal favorites (purists be warned she did base this off the 2005 movie – but it is still a wonderful read: 1 – Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, 2- Loving Mr. Darcy, 3 – My Dearest Mr. Darcy, 4 – In the Arms of Mr. Darcy, 5 – The Trouble with Mr. Darcy, and A Darcy Christmas – which has stories from Sharon and two other Austen Authors)

    I loved Pemberley Ranch. I agree – any time spent with Darcy is time well spent in my opinion – but this was such a unique take from the majority of spin-offs I’ve read (and believe me I’ve read plenty). All of the characters are interesting and well developed in their own right – even the more minor characters. I heartily enjoy Charlotte, Fitzwilliam, and Anne. The story is suspenseful as you don’t know what’s going to happen between Will and Beth and there’s the persistent ominous feeling surrounding George Whitehead and his crew. I also loved Fifteen Thousand Nights under the Trimmed Treasures found on The Writer’s Block (http://austeninterlude.org/writersblock/index.php). I can’t wait for Jack’s next The Three Colonels available Spring 2012. For some additional amusement courtesy of Mr. Caldwell go to austenauthors.com and down on the right is a Find It feature – search for Cajun and read Jack’s “interviews” with various Austen characters there’s four so far: Caroline Bingley, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Anne De Bourgh and Colonel Brandon. They are hilarious!

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