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