Fans of Margaret A. Graham's earlier books featuring the spunky, down-home Esmeralda McAbee will be glad to know that she's back, and in her usual rare form. This time, after serving for years at Priscilla Home, a residence facility for troubled girls, the sixty-something Southern widow is involuntarily retired as housemother when new management takes over and figures she's not up to the demands of the job anymore.
Well, they should know better, but disappointed as she is, Esmeralda takes the news in stride. But then again, she's seriously distracted by such concerns as a job and a place to live, and she figures God will work everything out eventually. Meanwhile, one of the Priscilla Home residents comes up with a temporary solution. The young woman's mother is none other than Winifred Winchester, pretty much the wealthiest woman on the face of the earth, and she needs a companion to take along on an Alaskan cruise.
Esmeralda balks at first, but eventually she figures God must have something up His sleeve. So she agrees to take the position, which she later discovers will require her to travel across the country and beyond, from South Carolina to Vancouver, British Columbia, in a limo driven by the snooty and supercilious Percival. Oh, and accompanying them on this trek will be Desi and Lucy, Mrs. Winchester's Afghan dogs.
If you sense major hijinks in the offing, give yourself five points. As it turns out, Mrs. Winchester is a reclusive lush with a fascination for dead people. When she's not drinking herself silly, she's either sleeping it off or visiting cemeteries where famous people are buried --- or writing really bad poetry about said deceased, poetry that Esmeralda thinks is brilliant.
Just when you think this excursion will turn out to be little more than a combination travelogue-mission trip, some shadowy figures intrude on the scene and wreak havoc on the Winchester-McAbee vacation --- with much more than an Alaskan cruise at stake. Percival, the trusted driver, arouses Esmeralda's suspicions and turns out to be someone very different from who he says he is. When the two women are abducted and held for ransom, Mrs. Winchester's husband, Philip, likewise proves to be a very different kind of man from the one she assumed she was married to.
All this is great fun, of course, and there are some strong elements in LAND SAKES. For one thing, Esmeralda's proselytizing is subtle and low-key, simply a part of who she is rather than an intrusive evangelistic message tacked on to prove this is a Christian novel. For another, Winifred is a highly believable drunk --- not something you find every day in a CBA novel. (However, if this trend continues, CBA editors will have to brush up on their knowledge of all things alcoholic; Chateauneuf-du-Pape was spelled Chateauneuf du Pope throughout one section, and it was not in the context of one of Esmeralda's famous malapropisms. Granted, the term means "pope's new castle," but still, I'm thinking CBA publishing houses might want to seek out freelance editors who have knowledge of these things. Not that I know any personally or anything.)
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a risk I'll gladly take until this practice is corrected, the one significant problem I have with this and many, many other novels is the unrealistic dialogue that's used to provide exposition or background. It's like the typical TV crime drama in which the villain inexplicably and voluntarily explains his every motive in the last seven minutes of the show --- it just doesn't ring true.
But overall, this is another of Graham's delightful efforts, a summer read with enough wit and charm to keep you turning the pages and wondering what kind of fix Esmeralda is going to get herself in next.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011