From time to time, I receive offers for free downloads of soon-to-be-published books. The only price is an expectation of a review, one which I am happy to satisfy. Following are my thoughts on a freebie that is worth reading.
As the story opens, 18-year-old Clarissa Belhaven has a difficult task: to once again deal with her inebriated father’s outburst. She understands the pain behind Jock Belhaven’s anger. Mourning for his wife, killed in an earthquake, and long-standing resentment against the Robson family whom he believes (with some justification) are out to ruin his tea-growing business have turned the senior Belhaven into a bitter shell of the strong, kind man he once was. Clarrie, devoted to her father, her musical and artistic little sister Olive, their tea garden Belgooree, and the beautiful country of India where she grew up, is wise beyond her years. Feeling the weight of the world pressing down upon her—the failing tea garden, 13-year-old Olive’s bouts of asthma, her father’s seeking escape in drink or opium—the young woman finds solace in sunrise rides through the Assam hills on her beloved pony, Prince.
As Clarrie makes a predawn trek to a favorite hilltop, home to a holy man, she pauses to take in the serene beauty of the landscape. However, a hunter’s gunshot shatters her equilibrium and frightens Prince who, in his panic, slips on wet leaves and throws his rider. Clarrie loses consciousness and awakens in a tent belonging to none other than Wesley Robson, the handsome, headstrong descendent of those who have earned her father’s enmity. Fiercely loyal to Jock Belhaven, Clarrie rejects the young man’s attention and solutions to their monetary woes—including an offer to marry her and take on Belgooree and pay its debts. However, things go from bad to worse, and Jock Belhaven succumbs to illness and despair.
The funeral is barely over when creditors begin approaching Clarrie with their claims. Facing insurmountable debts, the young woman reconsiders Wesley Robson’s offer of assistance in return for assuming control of Belgooree—but she learns that he is no longer in India. With a heavy heart, she locates the address of her father’s cousin Jared Belhaven in England and writes him. When a response arrives with the offer of taking in Clarrie and Olive until they come of age, the sisters sell their possessions and prepare for the long journey from their beloved homeland. After a painful parting from devoted and wise khansama (butler) Kamal, to whom Clarrie gives her pony Prince, the girls (with few belongings and Olive’s violin) leave India behind.
Upon their arrival in Newcastle in northern England, Clarrie and Olive are met at the train station by Cousin Jared. A ride through successively poorer neighborhoods takes them to the Cherry Tree Hotel, a tavern run by Jared and his wife Lily. The sisters are in for a rude surprise: they are given the tasks of preparing food and serving at the bar. Lily makes no secret of her resentment of the newcomers. Long hours, backbreaking work, and no free time off even for holidays take their toll. There are a few bright spots, however: Clarrie’s friendship with working women who seek respite at Jared’s establishment, association with the wealthy Stock family who are regular customers for the pies Lily bakes, and an affable tea delivery man our heroine meets by chance. When the elderly lawyer Herbert Stock discovers Clarrie’s affectionate relationship with Will, his younger son, and her domestic skills, he offers her a position as housekeeper—and agrees to provide a home for Olive, as well. The only drawback to their new situation is Herbert Stock’s older son Bertie, who finds the family’s new staff member a target of constant ridicule. However, resilient Clarrie keeps the household running smoothly and cares for the ailing Louisa Stock—until tragedy strikes and the lady of the house passes away. A despondent Herbert Stock withdraws into himself. As time passes, the housekeeper finds herself in the position of encouraging her employer to rejoin the world—until one day, Herbert Stock approaches her with a proposal that has nothing to do with Clarrie’s employment. To her shock, the elderly gentleman asks her to marry him. Once over her surprise, she realizes accepting will provide Olive with the security she has long promised her. So, to the consternation of acquaintances and the disapproval of many, Clarrie agrees to become Mrs. Herbert Stock. As the couple settles into their comfortable marriage, a devoted Herbert is even agreeable to his wife’s long-standing dream: open a tea house to provide working-class folks an alternative to escaping their reality in taverns. As Clarrie hopes for a better future for herself and Olive, she and Herbert face obstacles from within and without as society is changing and Europe moves toward a world war. Can the Stocks, their family, and friends weather the storm that is brewing on the horizon?
Janet Macloud Trotter takes readers on a wondrous journey. Her descriptions of the hills of India are so vivid we can almost feel the breeze and hear the calls of the country’s colorful birds. In stark contrast, working-class Newcastle and its depressed neighborhoods come to life. Clarrie and Olive’s descent from tea-planter’s daughters to overworked barmaids is realistically painted, and all the people who are part of their lives are true-to-life and believable. Readers will feel and cheer for our heroine. This novel, the first in the India Tea series, is a must-read for historical fiction aficionados and anyone who enjoys a rich, multi-layered story.
After I completed this wonderful story, I did the only sensible thing: downloaded the now-available second volume in the series. As soon as I turn the last virtual page, my review will be forthcoming.