Although touted as the first book in the "Country Road Chronicles" series, ROREY'S SECRET will feel more like a follow-up to Leisha Kelly's first three novels, which spin the story of the Wortham family in the Depression years.
If you haven't read Kelly's earlier books --- JULIA'S HOPE, EMMA'S GIFT and KATIE'S DREAM --- put this review down now and read them first. In JULIA'S HOPE, we are introduced to Samuel and Julia Wortham and their young family as they come to Illinois during hard times, looking for work and a place to live. Through the generosity of the elderly Emma Graham (EMMA'S GIFT), they find stability of sorts and community on a farm in rural Illinois. KATIE'S DREAM explores issues of trust as the Worthams add another child to their family. The Hammond family, with its multitude of rag-tag children living on a neighboring farm, provides plenty of chaos to keep the story chugging along.
ROREY'S SECRET takes place over a few days, but there are plenty of crises. Sam Hammond's wife Thelma arrives at their house with their two-year-old active toddler, Georgie, just in time to go into labor with their second child. The doctor is nowhere to be found (a stock device in so many novels). It's up to Julia to deliver the baby. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Rorey Hammond is up to no good with 18-year-old bad boy Lester Turrey, whose influence bodes ill for the young girl. When the Hammonds' barn and crops go up in flames, Rorey's best friend Sarah Wortham realizes that a secret Rorey has told her could hold the answer as to who is responsible. Samuel Wortham is injured in the fire, and the rest of the story revolves around his recovery (which takes place in an unbelievably short time).
Without proof of who caused the fire, the scripture-spouting Franky serves as a scapegoat. He also serves as a Christ-figure, even down to the wounds in both hands and his talent at carpentry, but the allegory is obvious rather than subtle. Franky seems too good to be true, and more dimension in his portrayal would have been welcome.
This recent offering in the Illinois family saga shows evidence that the Worthams' story may be wearing a bit thin. The many changes in points of view from chapter to chapter, which worked well in JULIA'S HOPE, seem almost superfluous here --- one wonders if a single narrator could have made for a more powerful read. Kelly has done a good job in earlier novels letting the characters carry the story, but the reliance on too many big crises (childbirth, a fire, a life-threatening injury) too fast, and a father (George Hammond) who seems too gullible and unfeeling to be credible mar this installment.
These problems aside, Kelly does a good job examining the response of conscientious children to tragedy (Sarah believes that her father's injury is her fault, since she hid Rorey's secret). Kelly once again also wrestles with the problem of bad things that happen to good people through the character of Julia. "Why Lord? Why did this have to happen? Samuel's been so good. And he's gone through so much in his life. It doesn't seem right." Anyone who has watched a good family go through hard times will resonate with her feelings.
Readers of the series will enjoy the happy ending that brings various estranged family members back together after years apart. Although this is the weakest of the four books in the series, Kelly's loyal readership will enjoy catching up with the lives of the characters.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on August 1, 2005