It’s always unexpected when I find myself in the Reading Desert (not to be confused with the Reading Dessert, which is quite a different experience).
Know the place?
I often find myself there in a number of ways:
- I don’t have time to read.
- I can’t settle on anything to read.
- I don’t want to read.
The best part of the Reading Desert is emerging from it and finding myself with time and/or a pile of delectable reads and/or the desire to never stop reading.
That vast wasteland of Reading Desert stretched since nearly the beginning of this year and into last year, and when I emerged last month, it was with a cry of victory and an enormous novel from the library in my hand.
Julia’s Gifts was one of the books in my October line-up, and it was one I whipped through in but a few days. I wish now I had the paperback, because I suspect it would be the kind of book I’d revisit, though I really never thought I’d feel that way about historical fiction.
I was reflecting on my look-down-my-nose attitude toward historical romancey fiction earlier today. Why is it that I take this uppity approach? I’m surprised when I find a historical romancey novel well-written and well-plotted.
But why shouldn’t they be?
Ah, and therein lies my problem. When I’m reading, I want to be surprised, taken aback, delighted in ways that, honestly, some genres just can’t ever deliver.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good books there, though.
Julia’s Gifts is one such book. Set at the end of World War I in France, it highlights one girl’s desperate attempt to find her “beloved.”
At first, I was convinced I would hate Julia. I didn’t think I would like her character (cue cynical Sarah: come on, did people ever really look for a serious Prince Charming beyond age 7?!), but I found myself getting a little maternal toward her.
The predictability of the book did nothing to detract from the way the story moved. As a reader, I watched the characters grow throughout the book, and that’s no small feat for a writer.
There’s no foul language, no untoward “romantic actions,” and nothing to offend younger readers (read as: completely clean, not completely boring).
As it happens, the author’s inspiration for this book came from her own youth.
She shared, “When I was a teenager, I yearned to meet my future spouse. It was difficult because most of my friends (and all of my siblings) had boyfriends. Since I looked very young, boys weren’t interested in me. I felt lonely, especially on Friday nights when all my siblings and friends were on dates.”
The idea for the novel was planted as a seed when she thought of how beautiful a gesture it would be a for a young woman to buy Christmas gifts for her future spouse.
If you want a taste of it, here’s an excerpt:
December 17, 1917
The bustling streets of Center City Philadelphia shimmered with electric lights, heralding that Christmas was near. Julia Marie Murphy lifted her head and gazed upward. The night sky was filled with snow clouds, the air brisk. She pulled on her gloves and buttoned the top of her coat. Her thoughts turned to her future husband. Dear God in heaven, please protect my beloved.
Tens of thousands of American men had already enlisted to fight in this “Great War.” The gentlemen that Julia knew seemed anxious to join, and Julia thanked God that her three brothers were too young to fight.
In a few short weeks, it would be 1918. All of her father’s friends and acquaintances expected the war to end soon, hopefully before the middle of the year. But 1918 held far more significance for Julia. This would be the year that she would turn 21.
She approached Lit Brothers department store, admiring the display windows that were outlined with colored electric lights. Julia was thankful that it was Monday. If it were Thursday, the ban on electric lights (in support of the war effort) would mean the windows would be dark.
Julia stared, transfixed, through the window at the tall display. Shimmery red fabric hung from a back wall, a beautiful sterling silver pocket watch lay on top of a cylindrical pedestal. Her eyes widened when she saw the price tag: $12.25, almost 20 percent of her annual salary. But it was beautiful and every man needed one. The price notwithstanding, this would be a perfect gift for her beloved. Yes, it was extravagant, especially during wartime. Yes, there were less expensive items she could purchase. It didn’t matter. This was the ideal gift.
After purchasing it, she took it to the engraving department on the second floor. Behind the counter, the tall, lanky middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache smiled. “What would you like engraved on this?”
“To my beloved, next line, all my love, Julia.”
His eyebrows lifted. “I’m certain the gentleman would prefer to have his Christian name engraved on this lovely timepiece. Don’t you agree?”
“Well, yes, I imagine he would. But I don’t really know his name or who he is yet.”
The man’s mouth fell open and he stuttered. “I’m..I’m…s…sorry, Miss. I…I don’t understand. You’ve bought an expensive pocket watch for someone you don’t know?”
Julia sighed. She shouldn’t have said anything.
“Please just use the words I gave you.”
The man nodded and regarded Julia with an expression of suspicious curiosity, a look one might give a person in an asylum.
“How long will it take?”
“For the engraving? Ten days. Sorry, Miss, but you won’t have it in time for Christmas.”
“That’s all right.” Julia turned and walked a few steps and heard the salesman mumble, “Now there’s an odd girl. Buying a gift for someone she doesn’t know. Tsk tsk.”
Sighing, she checked her own wristwatch and hurried out of the store to begin the three-block walk to her trolley stop. If she didn’t get there in time for the five p.m. streetcar, she would be waiting half an hour.
This year Julia was determined that she would meet her beloved, the man for whom she had been praying these past four years. Why hadn’t she met him yet? Some of her friends were already married. Her beloved was out there and she would find him. Yes, 1918 would also be the year that she would meet her beloved.
Each December, Julia wondered what she would buy her beloved for Christmas. Last year, she searched different stores but found nothing special. She finally discovered — and bought — a brown leather pocket journal at a specialty store at Broad and Bigler Streets. She didn’t know whether her beloved would be the sort to write in one, but it seemed like an appropriate gift, especially since it had a delicate leaf embossed on the cover. The year before, she had bought a sterling silver Miraculous Medal because her beloved would be Catholic.
That first year, her mother suggested that she begin praying for her future husband. After a few weeks of doing so, Julia felt inspired to do more. It had been the week before Christmas, so she decided that she would buy or make him a Christmas gift each year until they met. With no job and no money that year, Julia knit him two pairs of socks, one blue-green and one green-brown, with finely-made yarn that her mother had given her.
The fact that she had made or bought gifts, and had spent hard-earned money for her future husband, had not pleased her father as he thought it too impractical and sentimental. Her mother, however, had declared that it was a beautiful gesture. Of course, if Mother knew how much she had spent on the most recent gift, she was pretty certain her mother wouldn’t be happy.