As a single woman, who wasn’t even dating anyone at the time, the young Mrs-Yeoman-Farmer-to-be did something unusual: She bought a wedding dress.
As I said, she wasn’t in a relationship. She and I hadn’t even met. But she was absolutely certain she was going to get married … and that this dress would be perfect. And, besides, it was being displayed on the clearance rack, marked down to a fraction of its original price. How could she pass that up?
She made the purchase, and then had it vacuum packed for long term storage. We met a few years later … I proposed … she unpacked the dress and had it fitted … and it was stunning. After our wedding, she had the dress cleaned and repacked. And that’s where it’s remained, in waiting for our daughter(s) to hopefully use someday.
Imagine if, instead of a wedding dress, a young woman in MYF’s position were to make or purchase a special Christmas gift for her future husband. And then another special gift, the next Christmas. And again. All without being engaged in courtship with any man — let alone being certain of who that man would someday be.
Sound weird? You bet it does — but also quite touching, and romantic, all at the same time. And that’s the premise of Ellen Gable’s new historical romance novel, Julia’s Gifts. Set around the time of American entry into World War I, Julia is a recent high school graduate living in Philadelphia. For several Christmases in a row, she has been accumulating gifts for her future beloved: hand-knit wool socks, a nice journal / notebook, a Miraculous Medal (because she’s sure he’ll be Catholic), and an engraved pocket watch.
Julia and her best friend decide, almost on impulse, to volunteer as medical assistants with the Red Cross. Soon thereafter, they are crossing the Atlantic on a ship with many other young women. Julia’s instincts told her she should take along the box of gifts-for-her-beloved; naturally, we sense that she will find him somewhere in Europe.
With the recent anniversaries of the Great War, you’ve no doubt seen and heard quite a bit about the causes and the battles. I know I have. But this story gives a very different perspective on what the War wrought: the mangled bodies and broken lives of ordinary soldiers, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary American girl.
I hadn’t known that these Red Cross volunteers were even a “thing” – they’re probably one of the more overlooked aspects of military history. Yet they were the ones who freed up significant amounts of time for the trained medical personnel, by taking care of the routine prep work (such as removing clothes, giving injections, cleaning the men up, and so forth) that needed to be done before a wounded soldier could receive treatment from — or be operated upon by — a physician. It’s quite a different view of the War than what I’ve seen in the past.
This is of course more a romance novel than a war story per se. As we would expect, Julia does meet her beloved (Major Peter Winslow, an officer in the Canadian army) while she’s serving in France. What I was not expecting, however, is the way Julia’s gifts ultimately make their way to that beloved. The predictable route would’ve been for them to meet, fall in love, and then for Julia to give the gifts. Instead, the process plays out almost in reverse. I enjoyed the plot twists which deliver each gift to Major Winslow, sometimes without Julia even intending to give him a particular gift.
Due to the circumstances of the war, Julia and Major Winslow must spend significant time apart. He is on the battlefield; she is at the field hospital. Although they do spend some time together in face to face conversation, much of their romance ends up unfolding through letters. The hero and heroine thus grow together through a wholesome connection of minds and hearts, saving the connection of bodies for a day when they are able to make a lifetime commitment to each other.
I also appreciated the way the story’s faith component was woven naturally into the story. Major Winslow is a lapsed Catholic whose faith has gone dormant. His brother, who is also deployed in Europe, is much more devout. Over the course of the story, events play out in a way that leads Major Winslow’s faith to reawaken spontaneously — and all of this serves to further deepen his connection with Julia.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I do know the author personally, through the Catholic Writers Guild, and I was provided an advance copy of the book to review. (The novel itself has just been published in the last few days.) Given that I’m not typically a reader of romance novels of any kind, I initially approached the story with some hesitation. But you know what I learned? I need to expand my reading genre horizons! This is a wonderful story, and one I’m pleased to recommend.
More information and reviews can be found on the publisher’s official page, and the book is available in paperback or Kindle format through Amazon. You can even read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited!
You’ll note that the cover describes this as “Book 1” of a series. I’m not sure how many more there will be, or when they’ll be published, but I’m looking forward to reading them when they are.