WHISPERS ALONG THE RAILS, the second installment in the Postcards from Pullman series, continues award-winning novelist Judith Miller’s light and enjoyable historical romance saga.
The story picks up several months after where IN THE COMPANY OF SECRETS leaves off. It’s 1893, and 22-year-old Olivia Mott, the assistant chef at Hotel Florence in Pullman, Illinois, has been hired part-time (and somewhat improbably) as a company spy on the Pullman railroad cars. Dismayed at her new work, she longs to return to the kitchens to assist her dear friend and boss, Chef René, who has suffered a heart attack. Olivia’s subterfuge in book one has cost her dearly. And while she has regained friendship with her erstwhile beau, Fred DeVault, his interest in her has cooled and he has lost confidence in her integrity and fidelity. The widower Samuel Howard continues to push himself on Olivia at every opportunity, and his darker side slowly unfolds as the novel progresses.
Other points of view pick up different plot threads. Fred is deeply enmeshed in the idea of unionizing the workers in Pullman but fearful that his activism may cost him his job and home. He spends his leisure hours helping men gain better craftsmanship skills. Meanwhile, it’s been seven months since Lady Charlotte Spencer has abandoned her baby, and she has run through most of her money. Unsure of what to do next, she finds a room in a home for poor women and takes a job at Marshall Field’s department store. Her path is about to cross with her old lover, Randolph Morgan, and his young family. Will the Christian truths instilled in her at the home for poor women help her deal charitably with the man who cost her everything?
Fred’s mother continues her role as wise Christian mentor to Olivia. When Olivia is frightened of assuming her new position, Mrs. DeVault reassures her: “Worry serves no purpose, and if you permit it, your fears will consume you. Just place your trust in God, my dear.” Mrs. DeVault also continually chastises Fred for his unwillingness to have a straightforward conversation with Olivia about where her romantic affections lie. Unlike book one, however, Mrs. DeVault is more believable for a few flaws here. Despite her reassurances to Olivia, she fears losing the security Pullman offers.
As in the first book, romance permeates the pages. Olivia is desperately in love with Fred, but Fred continues to view her as untrustworthy. Samuel wants Olivia; although frustrated at every turn, he is determined to win her love. Olivia spots her best friend, the wealthy Ellen Ashworth, in a passionate embrace with Fred. Does Ellen want Fred? Does Fred love Olivia? What about the mysterious newspaperman who seems interested in Olivia for more than just a feature story? Who will end up with whom?
Miller enhances her story throughout with vivid details, no doubt the result of hours of careful historical research. From the design of the dinner plates on the Pullman dining car to Marshall Field’s department store, readers discover an intriguing time and place. The interesting settings --- and Miller’s portrayal of Pullman and Chicago just before the turn of the century --- are the strongest aspects of the novel.
The narrative has a few troubles: some clichés mar the plot (Olivia’s sprained ankle), the dialogue is sometimes stiff, and the occasional awkward sentence appears (“Pulling an old shirtwaist and skirt from the walnut wardrobe, Olivia quickly donned them.”) Readers may also question Charlotte’s somewhat rapid character change. However, the gently and pleasantly plotted WHISPERS ALONG THE RAILS will appeal to those who enjoy their history accompanied by liberal doses of inspirational wisdom and light romance.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011