For this one, let’s go straight for a vault entry that is just inescapably bad. Just bad. Even as a kid I don’t remember enjoying this book. It has all the trappings of a traditional historical romance, but none of the thrilling payoff. It’s a sequel to last week’s thrilling entry.
Book: Stephanie: Heart of Gold, by Cameron Dokey, 1998. This is the third in the “Hearts and Dreams” series, which tells you from the cover exactly how awful it’s going to be. The teaser on the back is just as horrid: Share the dream, as the beautiful hope chest passes to a new generation and a young woman dares to follow her heart on a dangerous voyage in pursuit of true love. These books are part of the reason I begged and begged my parents for a hope chest and thought it was just incredibly romantic. I do have a hope chest now, that I got from my parents for a birthday as a teenager, but in all honesty it’s just a cedar blanket chest that sits at the foot of our bed and contains no hopes nor dreams.
Let’s get trucking, shall we?
Baltimore, 1850. We’re introduced to Stephanie Burbank, whom I can only assume is the titural Stephanie-with-a-heart-of-gold. The man she’s in love with, Maxwell Harrington, has just informed her via letter that he’s going to “see the elephant,” and we get a little exposition on how the Harrington family has fallen on hard times, bad investments, general insolubility, and so on. Apparently Maxwell won’t be able to marry Stephanie without any money, and Stephanie blames her father for this, since her father believes this Maxwell Harrington (which sounds like the name of an investment firm) is a fortune hunter. I’m reading this for the first time in probably ten or twelve years but I’ve got an inkling dear old Dad is going to be right on this one.
Mom’s dead, Dad is strict, Stephanie is spoiled—oh, excuse me, “Stephanie was a gently-reared young lady. She was interested in parties and the latest fashions.” (The writing isn’t as good as I remember, either.) Men everywhere are dashing off to California for the gold rush, and Max has gone off to seek his fortune and Stephanie’s dad agreed to finance his journey. (I imagine he did this thinking Max would die horribly in some way.) Stephanie finds out, throws a tantrum, accuses her dad of never wanting her to get married, and her dad tells her he won’t let her get married to this Max character until he can support her. Again—probably pretty damn reasonable! But Stephanie is only about sixteen and this is the! Worst! Injustice!
We get some more exposition on how beautiful Stephanie is by way of her dead mom—“Stephanie had her mother’s delicate features and her wide green eyes. She had her mother’s glossy, dark hair and, around her neck, she wore her mother’s heart-shaped golden locket. Her father had given it to Stephanie the previous month, on her sixteenth birthday.” (I was not wrong about the writing, and we’re verging into comma abuse territory here.) Anyway, headstrong Stephanie storms up to her room and begins hurling clothes into a carpetbag to follow Max to California. We can only assume this is the first of many poor decisions Stephanie will make.
I will admit that Stephanie’s depiction as being a spoiled princess is pretty realistic. Off she goes to the “Baltimore wharves,” where she can hardly admit that her luck has “held so long.” And again, if she’s pleased by making it to the wharves in her own city, I don’t know if she’s really prepared to set off to California. She finds a ship loading coal, because of all the ships going to California, she has to find one that’s carrying some kind of horrifically dangerous cargo. She flirts with some poor kid and makes her way aboard a ship from the Hellesen Company, which is owned and ran by the Fortescues, and there’s our continuity! I’m sure we’ll meet Charlotte-from-the-second-book soon.
And there she is. Except in this one she’s a grandmother going to California in search of one of her sons, and I think her husband? Traveling with another one of her sons? It’s not clear, but since this book is intended for 11-year-olds, I’m sure all will be spelled out in excruciating detail soon. Stephanie wangles her way onto the ship by “helping” to take a goat on board, and it’s never fully explained why no one spots an obviously wealthy girl in a silk dress chasing a goat. Okay then. Stephanie spots a staircase and her chance and stows away. Welp, I see no way in which this cunning plan can possibly go wrong.
She bumps into Jack, Charlotte’s…son? Nephew? Again, not particularly clear, but “younger male relative” is pretty obvious—and is taken by his “spicy scent” and the way it “insinuated itself into her nostrils.” Okay then. There’s some more discussion of how sexy this Jack dude is, the word quicksilver comes up a few times, and then Stephanie makes her way to Charlotte’s cabin and intends to stow away. Further demonstrating her spoiled attitude, she goes into Charlotte’s chest and finds its contents. “An old-fashioned tricornered hat with a silver button sewn onto the front of it; a single sheet of paper printed with what looked like the words to a song. There was a stack of letters, tied with ribbon. All of these rested on a much-laundered bedsheet at the chest’s very bottom.” I didn’t screw up, that sentence fragment is verbatim. Stephanie shoves this garbage out of the way and dumps her own stuff in, then huddles underneath the bed in wait for the ship to sail off.
She’s awakened by that most romantic of maladies, seasickness. She lurches out of the cabin and directly into the arms of Sexy Jack and begs “Help me,” whereupon he swoops her into his arms and runs up to the top deck. Seeing the sails magically alleviates her sickness and Charlotte behaves like there’s nothing strange in the world about some teenager stowing away on their ship and asks for a reasonable explanation. Of which, of course, there is none, but let’s move on. And I was exactly correct, as she says “I am Charlotte Kelly. And this is Jackson, my younger son. Jack and I are on our way to California to join my husband, Matthew, and my older son, Gregory. Greg has been injured working his claim in the gold rush country.” See, this crap is why every story I wrote before the age of sixteen had the characters giving long, expository backstories to one another and describing themselves in explicit details. Anyway, Stephanie refers to her as “Mrs. Kelly,” and Charlotte objects because “It makes me feel so stodgy and old,” as if a 50-something woman in 1850 wouldn’t have had thirty-plus years of being referred to as Mrs. Whatever already. All right then.
Stephane spills all the dirt to Charlotte, complete with “Papa won’t worry. He doesn’t even love me. And he won’t let me marry the only man who does.” Which, again, pretty realistically for sixteen. Charlotte agrees to let her share the good cabin as long as she pays what she can for the passage and writes to her father, and then when Stephanie leaves, talks about how brave and courageous and loving she is to Jack. If it hadn’t been abundantly clear, by page sixty astute readers will have figured out that Max is a total cad and Sexy Jack is going to marry Stephanie. But we shall continue on apace.
Another entire chapters goes by where Stephanie does nothing but dither about how awesome she is for running away, how much she loves Maxwell Harrison And Associates Inc., and how sexy Sexy Jack is. A sailor comes staggering up in the very last sentence to tell everyone the coal is on fire, which everyone saw telegraphed several hundred miles away when they were talking about how dangerous it was that a ship was carrying coal. Foreshadowing: it could be better.
Immediately the ship is struck with a terrible storm, and faced with the choice between staying inside and suffocating on the poison gas or hanging out on the deck and being washed away in the storm, Stephanie and Charlotte opt for the latter. They’re lashed to the deck in an effort to keep them from being swept overboard, and while Jack is tying them down, he kisses Stephanie. “It was warm and hungry as a flame. With all her strength, she kissed him back. Kissed him with all the power of her newborn hopes and feelings, all the strength of her desire to love and live.” That’s actually pretty tame for a romance novel, so I’ll let it slide. The storm clears, another ship comes in sight, and they’re rescued.
On the new ship, Stephanie and Jack commiserate over the explosion of their first ship, she confesses how awful she feels, Jack confesses he was grateful to have her looking after his mother, and I confess that I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before she gets to her dramatic realization that she’s in love with him. Jack returns her beloved heart-shaped locket, the Only Thing She Has To Remember Her Mother By, although it’s never fully explained how he managed to rescue the gold locket from a burning, exploding ship that had just been beset by a storm.
They make it to San Francisco, where Stephanie receives a letter from her father, telling her that he’s going to meet her in Angel’s Bar with No-good Max, and Charlotte and Jack are coincidentally on their way to the same tiny town. (Shocking.) After traveling for weeks and weeks on mules, they arrive, only to find the miners giving them serious side-eye when Stephanie asks for Maxwell Harrington, and it becomes apparent that there’s Some Mystery Afoot. Charlotte and Jack meet up with Matthew-the-father and Greg-the-brother, who dance around the fact that this Max guy is Bad News. Subtlety: also not a strong point here.
Jack takes Stephanie to find Max Harrington’s house, and along the way she conveniently figures out she’s in love, with some more sentence fragments sprinkled in for emphasis, because why not. They come into a clearing with a little log cabin, and a woman Stephanie’s age appears on the front porch, and hands up if you saw this coming. The other girl is pregnant, and Jack introduces her as “Maxwell Harrington’s fiancée,” and the woman declares “You can’t be,” then sways alarmingly before saying “Because I am his wife,” and she’s down.
They carry her inside, and Stephanie loosens the other woman’s bodice to see if they can wake her, and finds black-and-blue handprints on her shoulders and arms, because of course he’s a wife-beater. She wakes up, and confesses that Max came to town and seemed to be awfully taken with her, since her father made a pretty rich gold strike. Max is also not the most subtle guy around. Dr. Dad comes by to check Johanna, the pregnant woman, and they try to encourage her to come and stay with them. “Stephane felt something inside her stretch and snap. The way Max had treated Stephanie was bad enough.” Wait, what? This is the first we’re hearing of Max treating Stephanie badly, other than leaving her to go to California, which we’ve already established was Stephanie’s father’s doing anyhow!
Stephanie forces Johanna to come with them, declaring that Max is “never going to get near you again. He’ll have to get by me first. And the only way he can do that is by killing me,” which seems a trifle eager for a woman you met five minutes ago. This apparently makes her a big celebrity in town, and all the miners come by to meet her and congratulate her on….being so awesome? “’We’re six in that house. Six where there should be only four.’ ‘And we’re the two extra,’ Johanna said, her tone sober.” Good deductive reasoning there, team.
Stephanie’s stellar idea to pay her own way is to take in laundry, which strikes me as possibly the least likely thing for a gently-bred young lady to be even halfway interested in doing. But she tells us all that She’s Changed, by developing a work ethic and having her pregnant friend work with her. Greg-the-brother is apparently falling in love with Johanna, and again, there’s no mention of the absent Max or where he’s gone. Stephanie goes off to wash her feet in the river, and Jack follows her there, where she confesses that she’s done all of this to win his love, and he confesses that he’s loved her all this time, and they have a kiss accompanied by a ton of purple prose and more sentence fragments. Stephanie mopes about how Max is still between them, but…why, exactly? I mean, Max is married to another woman at this point, technically, so it isn’t like her engagement is still binding or anything. Really.
Jack comes home one day with an enormous cut on his forehead, and Gregory and their father decide to finally confess that Someone has been attacking miners in Angel’s Bar, who arrived suspiciously around the time that Maxwell Harrington did, and Johanna reacts to this news with horrified sobbing—but two minutes later, calmly tells them that she thinks Max killed her father. Everyone is this book has the strangest reactions to stuff.
Johanna also tells them that when she told Max she was pregnant, he got angry and stormed off, telling her that he had always planned to steal her money and then divorce her and head back to Baltimore to marry Stephanie. It’s very convenient when villains tell you all their plans, I often say. Stephanie flees into the woods, horrified at what she hath wrought, and returns late at night, once it’s dark, only to find Max in the cabin, lurking with a lantern. Stephanie accuses him of being a fortune hunter, he tells her she’s a spoiled brat (which, knowing how she behaved at the beginning of this book, is correct for all he knows), and Jack comes sailing in to cold-cock Max and rescue her. But Max had stolen the locket, tells Jack it’s proof that Stephanie loves him, and Stephanie tells them that he stole it. Max pulls his gun, and then a lot of things happen at once—there’s a flash of lightning, Max shoots, Jack dives for him, there’s a crack of thunder, and then another lightning strike that conveniently lights the cabin on fire. Stephanie rushes into the now-impressively-ablaze cabin, rescues the hope chest, and saves herself in the nick of time. This entire chapter reads like a screenplay for one of those second-rate Lifetime westerns.
Stephanie’s father shows up and is introduced to Charlotte, and in a weird bit of writing, “He released Stephanie to bow as formally over Charlotte’s hand as if they’d been introduced in his own fashionable drawing room. His actions drew a sigh of appreciation from the assembled miners.” Wait, what? Are these miners who have been pining all along for the sophisticated sights of their wealthy Eastern homes? Because I’m reasonably certain that most miners were pretty poor before, during, and after the gold rush, not secret millionaires. Are they also teenage girls? Nothing about this makes sense.
Johanna divorces her no-good husband, Jack asks to marry Stephanie, all ends happily ever after with some more sentence fragments. “Bound together so tightly that no force on earth could come between them. And each, a heart of pure and everlasting gold.”
Rating: I’m giving this a C for Totally Average. I mean, it wasn’t actively bad or anything, but there were about twenty really potentially-dramatic scenes that never quite panned out. (Hah! Panned out!) It’s pretty standard formulaic teen romance, and I can see Jack seeming pretty dreamy for a 12-year-old, and I’ll let the overly-obvious foreshadowing slide as this is, after all, a book for kids. But nothing more than average.