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Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Always to Remember

Lorraine Heath
Historical Romance/Western
Published in 1996

H/h - Clayton Holland/Meg Warner
Setting: Texas, 1866.

Read in Nov, 2011.
My rating:

                                                            [spoiler alert]
He stepped back and plowed his hands through his hair. "You think I'm a coward. You don't think I have the courage to stand beside you and risk the anger of your father. I'd die before I turned away from anyone or anything I believed in. You won't even walk by my side."
He looked the way she imagined soldiers who had lost a battle probably looked: weary, tired of the fight, disillusioned.
"You don't believe in me," he said quietly. "How can you believe in our love?"

These lines were taken from the best scene of the book IMO, where Clay questions Meg’s love for him. And I don’t blame him a bit. I had troubles myself believing that she’d go from a vindictive widow to someone madly in love with him in the space of a few months. I mean, when I read the way the whole town hated (it’s a mild word for what they did to him, comparing to how they treated him- both physically and emotionally) Clay for being a deserter of the Civil war, just because Clay didn’t want to kill people, didn’t believe in war; unbelievable! I don’t think I can capture that hatred in my review the way Lorraine Heath did in her brilliant storytelling, instead I’ll just try to tell you what’s in this book and why I couldn’t give it a full 5 star.

Clay and Kirk have been best buddies since their childhood. Meg was also known to them, as many other in this tight knit small community of a small Texan town. Clay has loved Meg since she stepped into her teens. Kirk has also loved her but I think Clay’s was more down-to-earth kind of love, deeper in level. Yet, when the prank loving Kirk used a fake coin to settle who should court Meg and won, Clay didn’t fight that choice. He is a down-to-earth, reserved one in nature as well. His family, of a stone cutter, has never been very wealthy like Kirk’s and Meg’s, yet they all liked him. Kirk’s father treated him as his own. I can go on and on about Clay’s goodness (not only before the war but also, after) but it’s only going to make this review longer. But, all these changed when he refused to enlist to fight the Yankees. Everyone turned against him and forgot the exceptionally good and honest man he has always been and is still. Soon, the soldiers came to take away the deserter but not before the whole village has plotted to hang him for his ‘action’. Because of Kirk, who’s always been devoted to their friendship (who was also one of the few believed in Clay’s reasons), they couldn’t. But Clay was tortured and was sentenced to death in the prison. The story opens up with that scene, his supposed last day on earth. It was depressing and so horrible to read, just knowing how they’ve been treating him. And no one but Dr. Martin, the town’s elderly physician cared. NO ONE! His loneliness, I could feel it coming from him, pouring everywhere and it has been throughout the book as Clay, who never complains, once blurts it out to Meg in a scene. But, he wasn’t executed because of his last prayer, which wasn’t for him but for those who were about to shoot at him. The soldiers couldn’t put a bullet through but did other horrible things to Clay. They didn’t feed him enough, no sleeping for days, wouldn’t let him read letters from home. Torture with bayonets were a daily thing for him. At first, we really don’t know the level of torture he suffered. The story jumps into 3 years, long after the war has ended, taking away most of the young men in Cedar Grove. They all hate Clay, even his younger brother Lucian. Lucian was quite a weak character, he couldn’t take the level of hatred that was directed towards Clay so he himself took part in it, reminding him more than once what a ‘yellow-bellied coward’ he has been for not fighting in the war.

Meg has been thinking of revenge like many others in Cedar Grove after Clay’s return. She doesn’t take his name, many others as well. It’s a shame even to speak his name! So she plans this thing, a monument, which would be carved in honor of the fallen and carving it would be the just punishment for Clay. And, like many others in the town, she didn’t know the man inside. She didn’t know what a man was waiting to be revealed. I didn’t like her on spot. It took me a while to learn to stand her but I could never really like or respect her throughout the book, even though in the later parts, she did many things to support him. But that was a bit too late for me and I ended up thinking, Clay deserved someone so much better than Meg! Someone who would love him back just the same way as he had. And, it’s not just Meg but every single people he cared about... they didn’t deserve his forgiveness. Clay’s kindness and unfailing acts of goodness and courage knew no bounds IMO. Anyway, Meg goes to visit Clay and tells him about this monument. Of course, she’s very rude to him. In comparison, Clay is ever the gentleman, though the treatment hurt more because it was coming from her. She doesn’t know many things about Clay and Kirk and how close they’d been (like Kirk actually talked about his wedding night to Clay, something I should’ve found creepy but I didn’t). She didn’t know that Kirk met Clay before he died in the war, that Kirk and the men who went from Cedar Grove, believed in Clay and signed a letter for his release, which never came to fruition because of the man in charge. That Kirk trusted Clay with his belongings, which included Meg’s letters; if only you could read how he’d smell them because those letters smelled of honeysuckle and of Meg. *sigh*

As he starts working on the monument, Meg finds herself more and more attracted to Clay; mostly because she keeps seeing/noticing the little things, nicer and beautiful things about him- his goodness in general, his caring nature, especially the young twins, his own behavior towards her which has never been anything short of gentlemanly. No matter what she does, no matter how rude she is, Clay is polite, unfailingly. Clay, at first, didn’t know if he can do the monument. He only had the knowledge of stone carving on grave markers, which he’s learned very young from his father. He wanted to do judgment to this monument, not only because this would honor so many fallen men he knew all his life but also because he didn’t want to disappoint Meg. I think he guessed why she asked him to do it (she didn’t speak out lout about her intentions of course) yet never uttered a word of complain. Meg was intent on visiting him everyday, to attend the carving, not knowing it might take years for it to finish. And even knowing how long it’ll take, she was willing to attend, just to torment Clay. But the whole plan backfired as I’ve already mentioned. She begins feeling for Clay, falling for him too. I mean how could you not? The man is just too good to be true! At first, she wouldn’t even let him touch her, acting like a superior (like the other townspeople) to his deserter state which changed gradually to smaller touches and then to kisses. It was, at times, very hard for me to swallow; to read how hatred can fester like a wound and become something ugly and nasty like one too. How ignorance brings out the beast in men. How war can manipulate people to act as someone they never were in the 1st place. I don’t think I can adequately explain the extent of what LH captured in her narration, the only way you can feel it by reading the whole book.

In between, Clay tries to make amends with the others by saving someone’s crop from fire or working to build a barn for another. And all of those times, he was alone and ignored. No one thanked him for his contributions, his silent urge for an understanding or the courage that took him to face the boiling hatred. He made a marker for one man’s little daughter who died suddenly, yet the guy never knew that Clay made it. He gave all the credit to his father and Lucian, who never worked with stone in his life, otherwise they would probably break it to pieces. In the barn building incident, Meg’s brother Daniel makes trouble for him by tearing down the part he made. Daniel and Meg’s father have never made it a secret of how much they loathe ‘the yellow-bellied coward’. Even Meg was horrified the way they treated him. I had a feeling that these two exceeded by long mark in their hatred comparing with the other townspeople. And it was very painfully proven with one incident much later in the book. But, right now, I was loving things about Clay. I was also enjoying the twins’ banters, their innocent yet charming views of life. They were adorable to say the least! Meg also felt the same and soon, they were taking her to places where they don’t take others, like a hilltop from where they could see bats flying. Clay has also known of this place, has been there with Kirk. Meg was also learning that Kirk hasn’t told her every little thing that happened to him, which did make her sad. She realized Clay was much closer to Kirk than her. One night, she visits a small watering hole, a place she thought her and Kirk’s secret place, for a swim. There, very coincidentally, she runs into Clay. She didn’t know that this place was known to Clay, Kirk and many other boys of their age; a place for their ‘manly talks’. She was already sweet on Clay by then and Clay did kiss her once while in the shed where he works. Their relationship was improving, forming a fragile bond that Meg didn’t see coming but didn’t want to ignore either. So, when he returns her home (or as close as he could get), she initiates a kiss with him. It was so good that Meg couldn’t believe it! After that, they keep meeting in that watering hole, kissing and holding each-other, talking about things- about Kirk, about Clay’s own troubles. So far, Meg still didn’t know to what extent Clay was involved in the war and how much he was tortured. Clay wouldn’t take his shirt off, even when it’s sweltering hot, even though more than once Meg wanted him to, so she didn’t know about the big D that has been branded on his chest to his utter humiliation. She loved his hands too, loved the way he’d touch the stone after he’d chiseled through it, as if he’s apologizing for treating it so harshly. But to Clay his hands were ‘damned ugly’, too big and rough from years of working with stones.

Mama Warner, Kirk’s grandmother was another character I loved to bits. She was one of those very few people who still believed in Clay. She even wanted to save him from his imprisonment. She still loved him like her own grandson, one little ray of affection Clay could still rely on. So, at her asking, Meg took Clay to visit her. But it was a sad meeting for Mama Warner was frail and very ill. She asks him to make her marker. Then one day, Meg decides Mama Warner should have a look at the monument, which was, despite Clay’s zero experience monument carving, coming off very nicely. He’s already worked on Kirk’s face (he chose it to be about Kirk and Meg, later the reason behind his choice was revealed from one of Kirk’s letters) as Meg requested. So at night, they sneak Mama Warner off to Clay’s shed. Mama Warner was like a young girl being carried off by a dashing young man! I loved that scene. Meg had to make sure Robert, Kirk’s cousin, wouldn’t wake up and find them. Anyway, after they returned Mama Warner home, Meg and Clay go to their meeting place, the watering hole and makes love. Yes, it was Clay’s first time. The man was just starving for Meg’s touch (I won’t say any other woman because it’s only her he wanted)! Meg didn’t know but had some idea, yet she was thrilled and happy beyond belief! She wasn’t Kirk’s 1st so she didn’t think Clay was a virgin still. They even exchange ILU to each-other. Yet the next day, she breaks his heart. Clay was again, at the church, on the back seat throughout. But this time, he was willing to defy anything and approached Meg while she asked him not to, not in front of these people. Daniel sees them, foul mouths Clay and threatens him to stay away from Meg. That night, Clay doesn’t return to the watering hole because the illusion upon which he was building the dream of a future together shattered that day. Meg comes to see him instead. He lets her in at her cajoling and they have an argument. The lines I’ve quoted in the beginning were from that scene. Clay said some really heart wrenching things, Lord, it made me so sad. As they were arguing, mask riders come to Clay’s farm. He didn’t hide away, instead asked Lucian, the twins and Meg to stay put while he faces them, alone. I couldn’t keep my tears at bay reading what they did to him. Those people beat him at first and then put a knife through his left palm, sticking him to a tree! OMG!! I was horrified! When they finally rode away, Meg and Lucian takes him in, then Lucian who already knew his brother is not a coward, runs to get Dr. Martin. When they take care of him, the damage those soldiers did to his body come in sight. Dr. Martin knew because he visited Clay in the prison, now Meg knew why he wouldn’t take his clothes off in the daylight. Meg also knew a few other very crucial things about Clay’s part in Gettysburg, where Kirk and the other men of Cedar Grove fell- that after getting out of prison, he went to look for Kirk, only to find them all died that evening, that he took care of the bodies, buried them in decent graves, that he brought back Kirk’s last letter that he couldn’t post to Meg.

Anyway, Meg was now determined to prove her love to him. As he heals, Clay realizes he can’t hold the chisel anymore with his left hand and it despairs him to no end. His dream of a bright future to study sculpting in a foreign country died in the war, now the little of whatever left seems like slipping out of his hands too. And he keeps himself distant from Meg. Who can blame him? Meg learns that Daniel and her father was among the men who did the crime that night, in fact it was Daniel who put the knife through Clay’s hand because he dared to touch her (in the church)! Mama Warner passes away in all these chaos and Kirk’s father asks Clay to join her funeral. Meg finds a letter Kirk wrote to Mama Warner in her wooden box that she passed on to Meg before dying. It explained a lot about Clay and the reality of war in general. Meg is now more than ever determined to bring Clay back to life, since after the attack, it seems he’s given up on carving and trying to prove his innocence. She makes Clay promise that he’ll work on the monument and she’ll be his left hand, holding the chisel. I did like this part. They work together and then one night, they make love again. Because of Meg’s persistence, Clay couldn’t hold back any longer. The next day, in the church, Meg defies everyone’s glare and acknowledges Clay in front of the whole town. Clay fights that, knowing she’d suffer for this. He was already planning to move on to some other place so that she and his brothers don’t suffer on his account. As Clay tries to walk away, Daniel, again (lord, why does the secondary characters with the name Daniel have to be so obnoxious?!) tries to do something despicable. He tries to run Clay off with a wagon but in the process, almost killed a young girl playing on the road. Clay injures himself badly saving her. That proved finally that Clay never harbored any negative intentions for any of them despite how they all treated him. People begin to see things differently as Meg tells them what Clay did for their sons/husbands and of Kirk’s letters. They all begin realizing how blinded they were by hatred and anger. Maybe to a point, their anger was justifiable, losing your loved ones is never easy but NOT their actions because of it IMO.

I did appreciate Meg’s stance on Clay’s side in that scene but it was too late for me to see her any differently. The ending/epilogue was very sweet. Clay now had a dream and had the means to fulfill it. He married Meg and now has a baby boy named Kirk. I was so happy to see him finally having a grip on his life and the fact that finally he was loved the way he deserved to be all the way from the beginning. It was one absolutely beautiful book and highly recommended. 4.5 stars. If nothing else, you won’t regret reading this book, take my word for it. I finish my review with these lines that were engraved on the completed monument:
"Within the shadows of honor, courage often walks in silence."

Favorite Quotes:

Mentioned two of them in my review but there were many of them. Some more:

Honeysuckle. She smelled of honeysuckle. He thought about her pert little nose. He'd wanted to smile every time she tilted it to demonstrate her disdain toward him. If her obvious hatred for him hadn't been so great, hadn't hurt so badly, he might have smiled.
From the corner of her eye, she watched Clay walk to his wagon, where he'd find no shade.
How simple it would be to prepare him a plate and walk to the wagon to give it to him.
How difficult to step into his world of loneliness.
Meg felt her heart lurch. It bothered her that the twins realized that she hated their brother. The words coming from their innocent mouths sounded so ugly.
He cradled her face between his hands, angled his mouth over hers, and welcomed the bliss she offered. Boldly, she gave her tongue the freedom to roam within his mouth. She sighed. He moaned.
He thought a man could become spoiled touching a woman. He might never want to touch stone again. Stone wasn't warm. It didn't alter its shape with the gentlest of pressures. Stone didn't breathe so he could feel its moisture on his face. Rocks didn't make soft sounds that he'd carry with him until the day he died.


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