Like millions of others, I long ago fell in love with the book Christy by Catherine Marshall. I read it in middle school about five years after publication (1967). That was my first introduction to the Smoky Mountains, delving into 1912 southern Appalachia, seeing the world through the eyes of newcomer Christy Huddleston who shows up to teach school there.
Reading My Heart Belongs in the Blue Ridge: Laurel’s Dream by Pepper Basham was another immersion into southern Appalachian culture, its setting only six years later (1918). This time, the new teacher is a man, just arrived from England, with idealistic notions to make a difference in this community.
But the world he enters is plumb full of surprises, from shotgun greetings, mountain lions, and spraying polecats (skunks!) to spunky Laurel McAdams who nourishes her own dream of being an educator. He soon realizes it takes more than book-learning to survive in Appalachia–whether it’s a cougar attack or trying to win folks’ trust.
A caveat–this is a romance! I’d said earlier that I don’t gravitate to romances, but I can enjoy them in the midst of a good story with plenty of other activities and commotion. This one qualifies. If you need a reminder of the books I feature, go here. If you missed last week’s review of Susie Finkbeiner’s book, go here.
Laurel’s Dream is on the INSPY Award Longlist, and is book 1 of 13 in the My Heart Belongs series, written by multiple authors.
Back Cover Blurb
Journey into the Blue Ridge Mountains of 1918 where Laurel McAdams endures the challenges of a hard life while dreaming things can eventually improve. But trouble arrives in the form of an outsider. Having failed his British father again, Jonathan Taylor joins his uncle’s missionary endeavors as a teacher in a two-room schoolhouse. Laurel feels compelled to protect the tenderhearted teacher from the harsh realities of Appalachian life, even while his stories of life outside the mountains pull at Laurel’s imagination. Faced with angry parents over teaching methods, Laurel’s father’s drunken rages, and bad news from England, will Jonathan leave and never return, or will he stay and let love bloom?
“City folk appreciate . . . dressin’ high on the hog,” Laurel McAdams says. Just one of a slew of expressions that greets newcomer Jonathan Taylor after his arrival to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
According to Laurel, Mrs. Cappy has “always got the mollygrubs, but down deep she’s soft as fresh biscuits.”
Yes, sir-ree, the good folks here really know how to turn a phrase, as colorful as “autumn leaf rainbows.”
That’s how Laurel views the trees through maple branches in this gorgeous southern Appalachian setting:
“. . . the rainbow appeared as the trees of various kinds raised one above the other. A yellow birch, an orange sassafras, a hint of brighter red from the black gum, and a golden oak towering above them all. Each color, filtered with sunlight, complemented the next, like a God-made quilt.”
Such descriptions slip in just enough to place us smack dab in the hills and hollows of western North Carolina, to see and appreciate its beauty, making the setting a character in its own right.
Laurel lives in this world yet longs for another. She dreams of seeking an education to become a teacher so that she can someday return here and teach–in a culture that resists change and new ideas. In 1918, it’s hard enough giving up boys to the war in Europe and having the Spanish influenza rage across the country. But in Maple Springs, folks embrace the philosophy that “nothing good comes from the city.” So maybe a native-born teacher can make the difference here.
As she saves up her coinage for college, along comes Jonathan with similar ideals. Yet he is ill-prepared for the culture clash between his upper middle class British roots and this poverty-stricken community. Obviously, this impedes his effectiveness in the classroom.
Laurel is sent to invite Jonathan for dinner upon his arrival. His time with her family is a bright spot in the midst of harsh scrutiny by everyone else.
Besides his uncle, Preacher Edward Anderson, who invited him there, Laurel is the only one standing between Jonathan and disaster at the hands of distrusting locals. Misunderstandings galore characterize his first weeks.
Even prior, Laurel was grappling with her own problems–contending with a daddy who takes to drinking for months at a time, sharing the responsibility of several younger siblings, and painstakingly saving and keeping funds safe in the barn. Just six more months of earnings from work at Mrs. Cappy’s store is all she needs for college room and board.
Meanwhile, Jonathan is trying to understand this foreign culture. Why aren’t Elias’s dark-skinned children allowed to come to school? Why didn’t Ozaiah Greer’s boys and other children show up again after the first day? Who left the dead rats with stomachs slit open on Jonathan’s front porch?
Besides Elias, Uncle Edward, the McAdams family, and Ozaiah Greer, here’s a glimpse of more Maple Springs inhabitants:
- Laurel’s Mama, as “sweet as honeysuckle and strong as pine”–one of the few who welcomes strangers
- Mrs. Cappy runs the local store and greets Jonathan with the end of a double barrel shotgun
- Imogene whose “gossip spreads to the horizon and back”
- Danette Simms, the flirtatious brunette searching for romance
- And many more . . .
Romance between Laurel and Jonathan seems unlikely but happens gradually enough to be sweet and believable. Their relationship is rooted in friendship and common goals, then slams into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The many and varied mishaps are offset by the warmth and wisdom of Laurel’s mother, Uncle Edward’s encouragement, Laurel’s ingenuity, square dancing, and a fun corn shucking scene when Jonathan is a red-ear winner and gets to kiss the girl of his choice. It may not be who you think . . .
Jonathan learns to see life from a new perspective as he responds to misjudgment and senseless anger. It’s complicated by his own roots, his bum leg, his ultimate desire to be a physician, his father’s unwieldy expectations, and a trip back to England to deal with family matters.
The hills and valleys of this setting reflect my emotions throughout the story. My heart actually plunged to despair at one point and I had no idea how the author was going to rectify the situation–which speaks well of her ability to lure me in, then creatively resolve problems while infusing hope.
The ending left many unanswered questions, lending itself to a sequel. Fortunately, The Heart of the Mountains looms on the horizon, coming in July 2022. This is particularly good news for fans of Laurel’s Dream and any fans of inspirational historical romance.
Join me for an interview with author Pepper Basham.
You claim to come from a long line of oral storytellers. Do any of them stand out? Do you have a favorite story from them? And do any of your characters resemble family members?
Pepper: My favorite storyteller was my granny. She knew stories from family history back five generations, so it was remarkable to hear the details besides just a name and birth/death dates. She brought those ancestors to life for me and helped me feel connected to them. The story of Kizzie in Laurel’s Dream is based on a true family history story and I can’t wait to tell it some day. Sam McAdams is based on my great-grandpa.
Are you continuing the oral storytelling tradition with your own family? What’s a favorite story you like to tell your kids?
Pepper: Oh yes, as many as I can remember, I am. Kizzie’s story and my great-grandpa’s stories are some of my favorites to share because there’s SUCH an amazing redemptive thread in them, but there’s also a story about my great-great-great-grandma, Honora O’Connor from Ireland and her untimely death after dancing in the rain. Or the story about my great-great-grandpa who traded his wife for a hunting dog.
Oh, my! Those are challenging situations. What are some favorite memories of growing up in Virginia? Any similarities to your story’s setting?
Pepper: Oh goodness, I don’t think I can separate my growing up from how I write Appalachia! They’re intertwined. The feel of the mountains, the sense of community, family, and loyalty. The value of hard work and being “tough” as well as being ready to help a neighbor in need. Really, that sense of community is just such a beautiful memory of mine. I try to bring it out in my stories set in the Blue Ridge, but it may be a bit more obvious in my contemporary books like the Mitchell’s Crossroads series.
This story shows a clash of two cultures, with Jonathan Taylor hailing from England to teach in a southern Appalachian mountain school. Some of your other books do a similar thing. What is your particular interest in England?
Pepper: I adore the UK! I fell in love with it when I read The Secret Garden when I was stuck in bed with the flu. The “magic” of such a world with rock walls and stone manors and secrets/mysteries, captured the attention of this little mountain girl who hadn’t traveled much at all. As I grew older, I began to read more literature set in the UK and…well, I fell in love.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that a very large portion of my ancestry are from the UK/Ireland. (I mean about 93% of my ancestry shows up in the UK/Ireland!! That’s a lot! The rest is Norway/Finland…with a touch of native American.)
I love the history, mystery, and beauty of the UK. I’ve been so grateful to have the opportunity to visit 3 times (and plan to go to Scotland on a read tour with Laura Frantz in May 2022). There’s something about stepping onto that soil that…well, it’s weird, but I felt like I belonged. And every time I go, I like it better than the last time.
What kind of research was involved in writing this story?
Pepper: Mostly historical accuracy research. Clothing style. What sorts of food was common. How food was cooked? How to perform certain medical procedures of the time.
How do you want Laurel’s Dream to resonate with your readers?
Pepper: Laurel’s Dream is a lot about trusting the God who holds our dreams to also bring them into reality. There’s a lot about seeing people beyond stereotypes and loving people beyond their brokenness. I really hope people discover “hope” in this story (as in all my stories), but specifically the comfort of knowing that God is at work in all things in his kids’ lives, even if it doesn’t “look” like it.
Pepper on Writing
Do you have a favorite book of the ones you’ve written? Which one and why?
Pepper: I don’t think I can pick a favorite. There are favorite things I like about all of my books and there are some that I reread more than others, but I’m not sure I could choose a favorite. For example, I ADORE the couple in The Mistletoe Countess, and love Eisley Barrett from Just the Way You Are, and want to step into Ransom from the Mitchell’s Crossroads series, and wish to visit Maple Springs in Laurel’s Dream, or take a trip with Titus Stewart from Jane by the Book!!
What are a few of your favorite novels by other authors, particularly ones that have influenced you as a writer? Are there any novels about which you’ve said, “I wish I’d written that?”
Pepper: I’ve never wished I’d written any of the novels I love by other authors because I think stories are very intimate things and God calls that particular person to write them. But some of the authors who have influenced me most or that I’ve enjoyed are Laura Frantz, Siri Mitchell, Cathy Marie Hake, Mary Conneally, Julie Lessman, Denise Hunter, Roseanna White, and Laura Jensen Walker. All of them helped remind me that only “I” can write the story God’s placed on my heart.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Pepper: I’m usually not either one. I fit somewhere in the middle. There are a few times (like right now) that I’m going all “pantster”, but most of the time I’m a “planner”. I have a general idea where I’m going and write with a loose outline in mind. One of the first questions I ask my two main characters when I begin the writing process is “What is God trying to teach you through this story?” and that becomes a springboard for the rest of my writing.
Each book has taken me various amounts of time. I’ve written full novels within 2 months and others have taken 6 months to write. With a full-time day job, family, and church responsibilities, it’s hard to predict – plus, some books are just harder to get on paper than others.
You’ve written both contemporary and historical. Do you have a preference? Why or why not?
Pepper: HAHA! I’ve had this question asked of me quite a few times lately! I can’t choose a favorite. I like both for different reasons and am really grateful I get to write both in the future (historical romance with Barbour and contemporary romance with Thomas Nelson). As long as romance is a part of the story, I’m happy to write!
Plus, I enjoy being able to switch from one to the other when I get “stuck” in the writing process, so that I’m still making wordcount, but being in a different genre will sometimes give my brain a break so I get “unstuck” from the other genre.
What’s the most important advice you like sharing with aspiring writers, particularly novelists?
Pepper: Write (you can’t edit or publish a blank page). Write the story God’s given to you. Love these stories, but hold them loosely (they do not define you). Sometimes the writing road is hard and long (believe me, I KNOW) and sometimes detours are painful, but no moment is wasted in God’s economy of your life. He’s using every detour, every twist and turn, to write the story of YOUR heart – which, to Him, is a bestseller because you belong to Him 🙂
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Laurel’s Dream, you might enjoy my recently re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, with the same southern Appalachian setting fifty years later (1968). Instead of the arrival of a British schoolteacher, northern exploitation brings upheaval to a small rural town as a father’s secret is gradually unleashed. Learn more here on my website. Watch the book trailer here.
Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes romance “peppered” with grace and humor. Writing both historical and contemporary novels, she loves to incorporate her native Appalachian culture and/or her unabashed adoration of the UK into her stories. She currently resides in the lovely mountains of Asheville, NC where she is the wife of a fantastic pastor, mom of five great kids, a speech-language pathologist, and a lover of chocolate, jazz, hats, and Jesus. Her newest novel is The Mistletoe Countess, a historical romantic romp with a dash of mystery and a bunch of humor, too. You can learn more about Pepper and her books on her website and on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Join me next time as we explore a novel by author Chris Fabry.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read Laurel’s Dream? Have you ever been to southern Appalachia and the Blue Ridge Mountains? Or . . . when have you found yourself in a clash between two cultures?