HEARTS OF MERCY is an engaging, late 19th-century romance infused with rich historical detail. Following Viney Walker as she travels to a new home to care for her ailing absentee father, the novel covers a part of history not often spoken of–the terror of the White Caps, a proto Ku Klux Klan that sought to pull the rapidly changing America back into the past.
Abandoned by her betrothed and saddled with taking care of her father, Viney stumbles into a political mess that threatens her and those she loves. In her temporary home in the Great Smoky Mountains, things are markedly different than in her hometown. Women get whipped for “lewd behavior,” and nobody seems willing to stand up to the White Caps to protect the community’s girls. Every woman she meets is carrying some burden, whether it’s a desire to protect her loved ones, the sadness of losing a mother, or the threat of an abusive father. And even more problematic is Viney’s blossoming feelings for James, her cousin, as she feels the scrutiny of the White Caps turn toward her.
Joan Donaldson’s story is expertly crafted, an enjoyable portrait of late 19th-century life with a plucky heroine surrounded by sympathetic characters. While the White Caps are irredeemable villains, there are numerous other characters whose sometimes cruel behavior is not excused, but is developed upon as Viney gets to know them. Few of the people she meets are one-dimensional; each character is complex, with needs and wants of their own. We can understand them, even if we don’t agree. The story is gripping once it gets going, but the amount of time it takes to reach that point is the book’s biggest drawback. While it’s entirely possible to read HEARTS OF MERCY without foreknowledge, it’s a sequel to Donaldson’s ON VINEY’S MOUNTAIN. It’s difficult to feel Viney’s betrayal over Charlie abandoning her because we don’t know anything about him, and the events with the fire sound so interesting we wish they’d been included.
More cynical readers might find the ending a touch overdone, but this is a story of triumph and true love–anything less than a brilliantly happy ending would feel like it came from a different genre. Set prejudices aside and enjoy the ride; HEARTS OF MERCY is an enjoyable romance for those who like a touch of history.
Though it might stumble a bit in early chapters, Joan Donaldson’s HEARTS OF MERCY ultimately soars, thanks to an excellent heroine, an intriguing historical hook, and a wonderful sense of character.
~Melissa Brinks for IndieReader