Caroline Frankston has been in love with Matt Haynes for eleven years. The daughter of the mayor of Barton Creek and his unpopular wife, Charlotte, Caroline is pretty, kind, and intelligent. But in 1907 Oklahoma, on the verge of becoming a state any day, an unmarried twenty-seven-year-old woman is in serious danger of becoming known as a spinster, even if she has a college education. Since Matt shows no signs of proposing any time soon, Caroline decides to accept the invitation of her college friend Madeleine to be a roommate and friend in Oklahoma City. Madeleine also helps Caroline land a job at the Carnegie Library there for which Caroline is perfectly suited. Everything in her life seems to be falling into place when Stuart Whittington, a handsome young attorney and son of a legislator, takes an interest in her. With his own political ambitions, Stuart is looking for a wife who can help him achieve his goals. If only Caroline’s heart would cooperate, she might be able to look forward to a secure future as the wife of a state legislator.
But Caroline can’t stop thinking about Matt. And it is clear, despite his attempts to court Savannah, the pleasant elementary school teacher who has just moved to Barton Creek, that he still cares for Caroline. But he felt rejected when she went off to college, and now, after spending some time back at home with her parents, she has gone off to live and work in Oklahoma City. Besides, her mother is extremely unpleasant and her opinion that Matt, part of a local ranching family getting involved in Oklahoma’s fledgling oil industry, is not good enough for her daughter is well known to everyone in the region. Unlike his sister, Becky, who married Caroline’s brother, Rob, despite Charlotte’s meddling in their personal life, Matt lacks the strength to oppose Charlotte or subject himself to her churlish behavior.
But his heart isn’t any more cooperative than Caroline’s. Will Matt ever find the strength to declare his love for Caroline and make her his wife?
Caroline’s Choice is the fourth installment in the Winds Across the Prairie series by Martha Rogers. Each book can be enjoyed independently — it is not necessary to read the entire series or to read the books in order because each volume focuses upon a different lead female character, and Rogers includes summaries of the supporting characters’ histories, explaining their relationships with each other.
In 1907, the world was changing. Motorcars were becoming popular, although many people still traveled via horse and buggy. Modern appliances such as telephones were increasingly common and accessible. And some women were discovering that there was more to life than getting married, raising children, and being a helpmate to a husband. Becky, for instance, Caroline’s strong, independent sister-in-law, has continued working at the local newspaper during her pregnancy, much to Charlotte’s initial chagrin. Becky plans to work as a reporter until the last weeks of her pregnancy, causing her mother, Mellie, who experienced difficult births, to worry that her daughter might have the same genetic tendency. Assured by the new doctor in town that she is fit and need not worry, Becky defies tradition by continuing to traverse Barton Creek on foot and engaging in her normal activities.
Charlotte grew up in St. Louis and has not enjoyed residing in Oklahoma Territory for the past sixteen years. She resented her husband’s insistence upon moving there, and has been harshly judgmental of and stirred up conflict with most of the town’s other residents. Charlotte has missed her family, as well as the amenities and society events a city like St. Louis offers. For her, Barton Creek has never become her home. Gradually, however, she develops self-awareness about the sources of her own unhappiness, and the manner in which her conduct has complicated the lives of the children she loves unconditionally and beyond measure, especially her precious Caroline. Although she hates to see Caroline leave Barton Creek, she understands, as does her husband, that if Matt is not going to propose to Caroline, the young woman must make her own way in the world.
In contrast, Matt and Becky’s mother, Mellie, is a happy rancher’s wife who has wanted to enjoy a friendship with Charlotte for many years. After much prayer, Mellie decides to confront Charlotte in a tender, Christian manner, to see if she can “break the ice” and forge a bond with the prickly mayor’s wife. Mellie hopes that her efforts might pave the way for Matt and Caroline to finally find their way to each other. Mellie knows that her son loves Caroline. But unlike Becky, he will not tolerate Charlotte, even for the sake of being with Caroline.
And therein lies the major problem with this otherwise charming, enjoyable book: Matt’s indecisive, cowardly nature. Mother-in-laws have been complicating the lives of men and women since the world began. But they are usually not an impediment to marriage. Most people understand that accepting and embracing their future spouse’s parents and extended family are part of the marriage bargain. If men and women were to decide en masse to avoid unpleasantries with their potential mother-in-laws, there might never be another marriage ceremony performed! Thus, it was extremely difficult to cheer for a male protagonist who was so afraid of and averse to his sweetheart’s bossy mother that he would let the older woman’s behavior derail the courtship and actually allow his beloved to leave town without voicing his feelings. Despite his other attributes — honesty, integrity, a kind nature — Rogers forces her readers to wait for Matt’s spine to strengthen. But it took far too long and too many nudges from well-intentioned friends and family members for him to finally “man up.” Even to the point that he attempts to court the initially unsuspecting Savannah, in whom his friend Hawk has a genuine interest. When he finally decides that he must stop stringing Savannah along because his feelings for Caroline prevent him from wanting to pursue a serious relationship with Savannah, his break-up with her is cruel.
Caroline’s unwavering attraction to Matt is thus questionable, causing readers to wonder how long she will be willing to wait for Matt to figure out his feelings and summon the courage to at last declare them. Meanwhile, her experiences in the “big city” — partying, drinking wine, sleeping late and skipping Sunday morning church services — leave her feeling ashamed of herself, and her roommates, and pining for both Barton Creek and Matt. Stuart’s interest in her is genuine and he can provide her with the type of stable future that would satisfy many young women, but for Caroline, what Stuart offers simply is not enough. His advances leave her cold, as she needs to be much more than a trophy wife and means to a political end. As much as she wants to avoid becoming a spinster, marriage without authentic love and commitment does not interest Caroline. She knows that her relationship with Matt can be satisfying, if only he would admit his true feelings for her.
With divine intervention, everything falls into place for Caroline, Matt, and the good people of Barton Creek. Oklahoma becomes a state, and a train derailment gives Matt the opportunity to be the hero who brings Caroline home for good with the approval of everyone concerned, including Charlotte. Intense prayer and self-examination cause Charlotte to appreciate the depth of the hurt she has caused many people over the years, and make amends with her readily forgiving neighbors. New traditions are begun, and even stubborn Matt recognizes and responds favorably to the “new” Charlotte.
Rogers keeps the action moving swiftly, and holds her readers’ interest with historically accurate details about the locale. The large supporting cast of characters are colorful and rich, even though Matt was exasperatingly wimpy until the very last few pages of the story. Overall, Caroline’s Choice was a delightful escape to a simpler time when America was on the cusp of a new era marked by technological, industrial, and sociological growth. Reading Caroline’s Choice felt like a nice, long visit with old friends over a cup of tea in front of a cozy hearth, punctuated by good conversation and a sense of well-being about the state of those friends’ little corner of the world. And that’s not a bad way to spend a few quiet hours on a wintry afternoon.