Review: A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole

Aidee’s Review of A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole
Historical romance released by Kensington on November 28, 2017

The Civil War has turned neighbor against neighbor—but for one scientist spy and her philosopher soldier, war could bind them together . . .
For all of the War Between the States, Marlie Lynch has helped the cause in peace: with coded letters about anti-Rebel uprisings in her Carolina woods, tisanes and poultices for Union prisoners, and silent aid to fleeing slave and Freeman alike. Her formerly enslaved mother’s traditions and the name of a white father she never knew have protected her—until the vicious Confederate Home Guard claims Marlie’s home for their new base of operations in the guerilla war against Southern resistors of the Rebel cause.
Unbeknowst to those under her roof, escaped prisoner Ewan McCall is sheltering in her laboratory. Seemingly a quiet philosopher, Ewan has his own history with the cruel captain of the Home Guard, and a thoughtful but unbending strength Marlie finds irresistible.
When the revelation of a stunning family secret places Marlie’s freedom on the line,  she and Ewan have to run for their lives into the hostile Carolina night. Following the path of the Underground Railroad, they find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love—and freedom—before they ever cross state lines.

I really enjoyed An Extraordinary Union, which is the prequel to A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole, so I kept an eye out for it. I am here to tell all of you to go and read it right now. You are wasting your time with my review. However, since I suspect you’re here for a review, read on. There are intelligent protagonists being wonderfully competent in their own ways, and equivalent character development in a historical setting I didn’t know much about beforehand.

Marlie Lynch is a pharmacist, to use a modern occupational title. She is a Unionist, albeit a discreet one because of her tenuous position in her family and society. She and Sarah–the woman she believes to be her sister–are involved in efforts to help the Union army and Black people—they are conductors on the Underground Railroad and they bring food and medicine to a nearby Confederate prison. She first learned how to treat people from her mother, and after going to live with Sarah at the family estate, she added to that knowledge by studying from scientific texts. However, Marlie is somewhat aware of a certain distance between herself and the white members of her family, as well as the distance that grew between her and her mother after her move. For instance, her explicit connection to Sarah is not made clear to her until further along in the book, so that while Sarah is incredibly affectionate with Marlie, she never calls her “sister.” This bothers Marlie. Marlie also recalls that when she started learning about botany from textbooks, her mother was not pleased, which only increased the emotional distance that formed after Marlie went to live with Sarah. As Marlie grows more and more aware of the racism that exists in the world outside of her home—and as that racism begins to affect Marlie intimately—she becomes more and more reluctant to depend on others, particularly Ewan. Ms. Cole has depicted in Marlie a person who grew up in a certain environment, who is fully exposed to a different environment and discovers that the world is not what they thought it to be. Sometimes this can be a good discovery, and sometimes it can be rather painful. Lastly, Marlie is intelligent—she is for the most part self-taught—but she is tugged between two extremes in perspectives. She doesn’t subscribe to Ewan’s philosophical leanings, but she also isn’t entirely comfortable with her mother’s way of viewing the world.

Ewan McCall is the brother of the hero from An Extraordinary Union. He’s involved in counterintelligence for the Union, and he’s been in three different Confederate prisons in the last year after a bad encounter with his counterpart. Ewan is incredibly logical and admires Greek philosophy, particularly The Enchiridion. He uses it as a foundation for his own values and world view, which he is struggling with for a few reasons throughout the book. One of the reasons he is faltering is that he is dealing with the emotional repercussions of being a counterintelligence agent during the 1800s; his information-gathering is not like his older brother’s. I’d like to mention here that there are descriptions of torture, so if that’s not your thing, you can either skip those parts or put down the book. (I’m not triggered or bothered by that, generally speaking, but it is in the story and I know people for whom that might make the book difficult to enjoy.) Like Marlie, Ewan is also learning about the way racism affects society, and he’s made to take a closer look at his revered Greek philosophers.

Ewan thinks the war is ridiculous. Here is his explanation:

“I believe the war to be ridiculous because I believe this nation to be ridiculous. The very basis of our nation, the Declaration of Independence, states that it is self-evident that all men are created equal. And yet every aspect of our law and political climate have stated otherwise by creating a hierarchy between white, colored, and native, rich and poor. Thus, this nation was inherently divided, from its very conception. To pretend otherwise is illogical. To add to this foolishness, the Southern legislatures secede on the basis that their rights have been infringed upon, when the only right being disputed is whether to hold other men in bondage for something as inconsequential as the color of their skin. Thus, I argue that our nation is ridiculous, and has always been so.”

Even though Ewan thinks the war is ridiculous, he still is involved in it because it is an “honorable fight against the most despicable facets of human nature.” This comes from a series of notes that Marlie and Ewan exchange while she is hiding him from his counterpart and the organization trying to find those who do not support the Confederate cause. Later on in the book, Ewan begins to come to terms with how slavery can’t just be waved off. He admires Ancient Greek philosophy a lot, but he has this ah-ha moment:

“Then he thought about the books Marlie had brought for him, the great philosophers he revered so much. She had read the books, too, had seen the blithe talk of slaves. She was free, but her people as a whole were not. How had those passages read to her? What must she think of him? He’d met enough Copperheads in the prison, and flat-out racists in the ranks of the Union army, to know that wanting to maintain the Union and wanting to end slavery were not mutually exclusive.

“I suppose I always just… looked past it.” He unfolded his arms. “I’ve had the privilege to pick and choose what spoke to me from those passages. To me, it is history. I was mistaken about that, though. It is not history when we fight this war. … The Enchiridion made me feel like someone, though separated by time and country and mother tongue, had understood me.”

Ewan isn’t excusing his way of understanding these texts or applying them to his own life. He is recognizing that they are problematic and also that they were valuable and important to him.

While Marlie is learning all about the racism—I’m not quoting much from that part of the book because it does get nasty—Ewan is there for her. This is great—he helps her gather and prepare her treatments, and he makes sure Marlie is taking care of herself. He also helps others—when they hide out with a conductor after escaping Marlie’s home, he puts the cabin—which was torn apart by the same organization he’s hiding from—to rights. Marlie struggles between relying on him and being happy that he’s there for her or being an independent person. For most of her life, she’s lived under the care and protection of others—first her mother, then Sarah. This is not to say that Marlie isn’t a capable adult, just that making her own decisions and moving through the world as a free Black woman is tricky and not something she’s used to doing outside of her home.

I really enjoyed this book for how well it developed the characters and how it showed them growing and learning while still being competent. The historical setting wasn’t something I was very familiar with before reading the book, so I also liked seeing that piece of American history depicted in romance. If all of what I just said doesn’t convince you, there is a really cute, awkward and emotional marriage proposal scene at the very end of the book.

There isn’t anything I really disliked, just things I would have liked to see in the book. For example, I would have liked to see what Ewan does once he is recovered from a significant injury at the end of the book. Does he quit the army and go and work for the Loyal League? I also wanted to see a meeting between Marlie and Elle from An Extraordinary Union. That last one isn’t really necessary for the book’s narrative, but I do feel that seeing what Ewan does after recovering from his injury would tie off the thread of him recovering from the emotional trauma of the work he did for the Union army.

A Hope Divided explored complicated topics in a non-preachy way, had an intelligent heroine and an intelligent hero being competent and learning, in a new-to-me setting. These are all things that made me very happy.

Grade: A

You can buy a copy here.

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