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Sunday, September 15, 2019

"What Heals the Heart" by Karen A. Wyle. A New Western Romance. Book Review.

There are the conventional literary genres: novel, romance, thriller, biography, true crime. Add to this list our own idiosyncratic book genres. There is the history book that made us view a familiar landscape in a whole new way, because we realized that that grassy field was the site of a battle, or that oddly named street once hosted a local celebrity from an exotic land. There is the scholarly book that we emptied out an entire yellow highlighter pen while reading. There's the first erotic book we ever read that introduced us to a slice of human existence we'd suspected, but not yet encountered in the flesh.

Here's a genre of book I've been looking for. I want to read something before I go to sleep, after the day's work is done, and before I turn out the light. I want that book to be well-written, because nothing puts me off so much as bad writing. At the same time, because I want to relax, I don't want the writing to be too rich, to be too hard to digest. I don't want a heaping helping of tiramisu. I want a crisp apple, a bite of shortbread, a sip of buttermilk. I want the book to address serious issues, but not rub my nose in them, because I hope, soon, to be asleep. I want the characters to be reasonably likeable, if not saints, because who wants to invite creeps to share her bed?

Karen A. Wyle's new novel, What Heals the Heart, fits the above-described genre perfectly. What Heals the Heart is a cozy tome about a decent guy and his day-to-day life in late nineteenth-century Cowbird Creek, Nebraska. Joshua Gibbs is the town doctor. He doesn't have a degree; what he has is hard-won experience. He served as a medic in the Civil War. Though the war ended nine years earlier, he still suffers from PTSD-induced nightmares. He shares the town with Freida Blum, a wealthy Jewish widow from New York, Madame Mamie, who runs the local brothel, Li Chang, a Chinese laundryman, the occasional traveling snake oil salesman, and various farmers, barbers, and cordwainers. Yes, "cordwainer" is a word, and you will learn it if you read this book.

The central problem of the book is pointed out repeatedly by Freida Blum. Joshua Gibbs is single and 33 years old. He needs a wife. The plot mostly revolves around his various options and flirtations. The reader is kept guessing as to where Gibbs will land and why. Gibbs' choice will satisfy many readers in the same way it satisfied me. I can't go into detail here or I'd give away the plot. I can say that the moment is handled with restraint and power, and that the resolution, though something you'd previously been unsure of, feels inevitable. Indeed, the resolution scene is worthy of Jane Austen.

There are other issues at play. PTSD in military medical personnel, racism against Li Chang and Native Americans, the dangers farmers risked and the agonies of primitive medical interventions, and how psychological problems were addressed 145 years ago. All these matters are treated seriously but lightly.

What Heals the Heart is very well-written. Readers can sample Wyle's smooth writing on the web. I recommend the very first page. Joshua Gibbs is lying on a corn husk mattress, thinking of where he's been and where he is now. It's a lovely passage. For  my money, the best passage in the book comes later, when Gibbs must treat a badly injured farm boy. That passage is appropriately tense and heroic. Wyle's writing is equally excellent throughout. It's criminal how many books these days read as if edited by a third grader with a short attention span. Word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, Wyle does not let the reader down. She's clearly an experienced author (Amazon lists thirteen books under her name.) She loves language. That love is evident in little things, like Wyle's unobtrusive but careful use of the tone and terminology of the late nineteenth century. Money is "coin." African Americans are "colored." Li Chang is "Oriental." In an author's note, Wyle points out that though we do not use these words today, they were the polite vocabulary of the era.

What Heals the Heart possesses, in print, the qualities of a handmade, inherited quilt. It's cozy, humble, homey, sweet, and a capsule of another time. Its threads and colors hint at larger patterns that extend beyond the work's borders. We live with some of those tendrils today: racism is still an issue, and medical treatment for traumatized people is still imperfect. Like Joshua Gibbs, we all need a trusty dog, home cooking, and someone to love.

 Order "What Heals the Heart" on Amazon here

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