Inspirational historical fiction author Judith Miller begins her Postcards from Pullman series with IN THE COMPANY OF SECRETS, a good introduction to a famous Illinois town from the past. An entertaining storyline, replete with interesting characters, intrigue, romance, deception and even recipes, will help hold readers’ attention.
The novel opens in London in 1892, where scullery maid Olivia Mott dreams of becoming a renowned chef. She is being chased around the kitchen by the Countess’s randy head chef, humorously named Chef Mallard. He wants Olivia to do more than stir the sauces, so she escapes with Lady Charlotte Spencer (who has her own set of troubles) to Pullman, Illinois, where her cousin Albert lives, and Olivia and Charlotte hope to begin new lives. There, using falsified references, Olivia signs on with Chef René, a kindly, rotund and fatherly Frenchman.
In America, Olivia discovers the truth to the old adage, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” One lie leads to another…and another…and another, and soon she and Lady Charlotte are writing out pages of their fake biographies so they can memorize their false history and keep it straight. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before things go awry, and Miller keeps the pages turning as she narrates their foibles.
As you’d expect in the first book of a series, Miller spends much of the narrative building up future storylines and fleshing out her characters. Samuel Howard is delightfully dubious --- readers won’t know whether he’s a gallant widower or a devious tool of the Pullman corporation. Lady Charlotte’s story contains enough surprises that will invite readers to explore the sequel, and Olivia’s romantic interests that wobble between Samuel and her cousin Albert’s roommate, Fred DeVault, provide some needed tension and entertaining moments.
Readers will find the complete plan of salvation outlined in the novel as Olivia wrestles with questions of faith and integrity. Her Christian mentor, Fred’s mother (known as Mrs. DeVault), is always ready with a delicious hot meal, ideas about God and some motherly advice, which will endear her to readers (even as they wonder if she is a little too good to be true).
There are a few glitches. Mechanical detail bogs down the flow of the story in some places (“Olivia’s starched white cap wobbled precariously above her left eyebrow…”), and the narrative can become wordy (“Before embarking on this journey, never before had she been privy to such luxury and elegance.”) Characters pout, grin and giggle far too much, and things routinely “sparkle.”
But these problems don’t detract much from the engrossing historical context in which Miller sets her story. Pullman was the first planned industrial town, wrapped around the famous Pullman railroad car business in the late 19th century. Today, Pullman has been annexed by the city of Chicago and is a National, State and City Landmark historical site. Miller’s visit to Pullman to research her novel pays off in the many rich details she weaves into the plot. Her interesting setting --- and the pros and cons of a planned community such as this one --- are some of the strong points of the novel. A few recipes, based on events in the story, look yummy, including “Olivia’s Chicken Salad Puffs” and “Mrs. Mott’s Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie.”
Those who appreciate history but enjoy it drenched in inspirational content and romance should find IN THE COMPANY OF SECRETS exactly to their taste. The end of the novel leaves several loose ends dangling, which will whet the appetites of readers for the promised sequel.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011