I fell in love with A Secret Refuge series by Lauraine Snelling since the first book, Daughter of Twin Oaks, which started the saga of the Highwood siblings, who were in search of safety and peace in the Civil war-torn America. But the ending was rather disappointing; very rushed, hopping-to-finish type.
In book 1, Jesselyn, masquerading as a boy, was journeying with 3 of her freedmen, a freedwoman and her youngest brother, barely 3 yrs. old Thaddeus. Being the eldest daughter of plantation owner Joshua Highwood, who died of war injury, left Jesselyn with loads of responsibilities. Her mother Miriam had already passed away giving birth to Thaddeus. The wretched war took Adam, her eldest brother, the next Zachary being MIA for sometimes. Their biggest pride and joy were the thoroughbreds they reared in their stud farm, for which Twin Oaks was famous in the area. Joshua wanted his horses safe from the marauding army and Jesselyn had to take them somewhere safer, far away from Twin Oaks.
Before beginning her journey, Jesselyn send her two younger sisters, Louisa and Carrie Mae, to Richmond to their Aunt Sylvania, so we get to see their stories simultaneously. Jesselyn journeys pretty much into the unknown, not knowing if her Aunt Agatha and Uncle Hiram, who lived somewhere in Missouri, were even alive or not.
Along the way Jesselyn, now called "Marse Jesse" to fit her masquerade, saw more destruction, pain and misery of the war than she ever hoped to lay eyes on. It shakes her strong religious foundation that their mother instilled in them very badly. She questions God's wishes, feels angry at His apparent whimsy at the suffering of His children. She feels that it shows He doesn't care much by letting the suffering going on for so long. Only Meshach, one of her freedman and friend, would tell her otherwise; that she shouldn't lose faith and continue to hope for a better day.
The Highwoods' story continues in book 2, Sisters of the Confederacy, where Jesselyn found nothing but destruction in Missouri. Agatha has been left destitute after Hiram's death and Jesselyn now had one more mouth to feed in her little mishmash band of people, which also included an orphan girl named Jane Ellen and an orphaned infant named Sammy; both casualties of war. It seemed Meshach and Ophelia married sometimes in between the books, which was never mentioned, with Ophelia now in the family way. They'd also adopted little Sammy as their own.
All through their journey, Jesselyn had taken in soldiers as they found them, buried people after people and dodged several dangerous situations. One of those soldiers, before he went home, showed an interest in her after finding out her sex quite accidentally. He promised he'd join them again in near future. However, after months of separation, Jesselyn had to come to the decision that it will never work. Sgt. White's last letter confirming him unable to keep the promise only solidifies that.
In the meantime, Carrie Mae had gotten married in Richmond and has found herself in the family way. Louisa, on the other hand, continues her work as a volunteer nurse at Aunt Sylvania's, where they were keeping recuperating soldiers. When she was working at the hospital, she met a soldier, forming an instant attraction to him. Lt. Lessling seemed like the man she'd like to spend her life with. But he had to go away on an urgent summon from home. Unfortunately for Louisa, the dream of settling down remains a dream, when later in the story she hears of Gilbert's train being sabotaged. There were no survivors. I was heartbroken and wanted this to be untrue... :(
Around the same time she met Gilbert, Louisa stumbled upon Zachary in the hospital, unrecognizable with his severe head wound and other injuries. Even though he survives, he's not the same man anymore. Zachary has lost a lot both physically and emotionally, yet Louisa, Carrie Mae and Jesselyn when she learns of it in one of Louisa's letters, are all too thankful to God that their brother was alive!
Louisa's strong faith in God though shaken, never faltered throughout, but Jesselyn's needed time. Little by little it was being restored after months of counseling from Meshach. She was now in search of a wagon train which would take her to Oregon to start anew. They've received heartbreaking news of Twin Oaks being burned by the soldiers. After months spending in different caves to keep her people safe, Jesselyn was a little desperate for a home and a hearth of her own. And she wanted her friends Meshach, Ophelia, Daniel and Benjamin to be as free as God made them. Oregon promised all that and more, including their own lands. They plan to load wagons full with supplies, then start searching for a wagon train to take them there.
In the last installment, The Long Way Home, an Oregon-bound Jesselyn finds love in the most unexpected of places. She met the wagon master, Wolf Torstead, in book 2 and their relationship didn't begin on a sweet note. Wolf is half Sioux-half Norwegian, with best of both in his looks and bearing. He thought Jesselyn a "weakling" since he had no idea that she was girl, while she thought he was just grumpy and presumptuous. Of course it doesn't take long for Wolf to figure out why he was attracted to a young man named Jesse and love begins to blossom. ;)
Months on wagon trail teaches Jesselyn more of life's tough lessons. More death, more misery and the fact that evil can be found anywhere. But she also learns to co-exist with a band of strangers, the value of friendship and that a little kindness goes a long way. She makes some amazing friends, a part of whom remains with her even when she decides she's not going to Oregon after all. By then, she'd come to acknowledge that she'd fallen in love with Wolf. Wolf had given the wagon over to a new master so he can go in search of his own tribe. He was craving it, and though Jesselyn was an addiction, he needed to get it over with. As Jesselyn returns to the same fort where he left her, they find each-other again and decide to get married.
Honestly, I knew they shared an attraction but the whole thing was simply too rushed. I couldn't tell when they fell in love exactly since most of their time on the wagon trail were spend glaring at each-other. :/ There wasn't enough time given for a proper courtship to validate anything and suddenly they're married! I couldn't get my head to wrap around the suddenness of it all.
In Richmond, Louisa had already decided to fight her sadness by being more useful where her help was needed. On that quest, she makes Zachary go with her on a wild goose chase (of sort), in search of morphine to help lessen the misery of the wounded soldiers. Though the trips were very dangerous as they had to venture to enemy territory to get their supply, they'd managed to fool them with various disguises... until one day, when luck wasn't on their side. They're caught and taken to prison immediately. In there, Louisa meets a Major of the Union army, James Dorsey. I didn't remember James from book 1 where he briefly appeared; he seemed like an insignificant character. But James remembered Twin Oaks, though Louisa was at Richmond at that time. He had met Jesselyn there and instantly recognizes Louisa to be her sister. He tries his best to help them out in this mess where Zachary was sure to be hanged as a spy, something Louisa had no idea of.
Both siblings spend several weeks in prison, then Louisa, after being freed, spends days to save Zachary. I found her meeting with President Lincoln to be quite the momentous scene. The kind President was not deaf to the urgent pleas of a sister, and Zachary is freed soon thereafter. The whole idea of seeing the President was James', a fact Louisa remembers with gratitude.
Unfortunately, this whole incident changes Zachary into a bitter man. He was already fighting the demons of war (I'm sure he had PTSD) and the trauma of dealing with severe disabilities by living without an arm, a leg and an eye. He was trying to be helpful to his army in any way he could, and he blamed Louisa for taking even that away from him. He would've preferred a death by hanging rather than a life of guilt, living with a feeling of worthlessness. His world was already cloaked in darkness, now this feeling threatened to engulf him completely. His reaction to everything was so bitter and resentful that Louisa becomes overwhelmed. She beings praying for his soul. Back home in Richmond, Zachary begins to isolate himself from everyone. No amount of Louisa's prayers could help their once handsome, dashing and jovial brother back to his former self. :(
Meanwhile, Jesselyn's life was faring much better than it has been so far. She was married to the man she loved and now, finally all set to settle down to a place in Wyoming, which is closer to Wolf's tribe. A place Wolf himself has always planned on settling down in. Soon, Jesselyn finds herself in family way too, completing her happiness. Life was good, except for those letters from Louisa which brought both good news such as the birth of Carrie Mae's daughter, and the bad, like Zachary's fight with darkness. She continues to pray too, hoping much like Louisa that things would change.
Sadly I can't say the same for poor Louisa. It seemed that life has planned to rob her off of suitors. Anytime, any man shows an interest in her, he's called off to war, never to return again. After Gilbert's passing, Louisa didn't think she could love again. Though Major Dorsey would intrude her daydreams from time to time, she knew not to hope where an Union soldier was concerned. Even if he was kind and helped them. Even though James kept sending her letters in secret, on and off. They weren't love letters but they showed his regards, his hidden hopes for something more. Louisa couldn't reply, knowing if Zachary ever learns of it there'd be hell to pay.
At this point, the story jumps over a year and the war is finally over. It was way too abrupt comparing how detailed and connected the other chapters were, leaving me a bit dizzy. I've gotten so invested in the lives of these characters that I felt disappointed. We find that Aunt Sylvania, who had become quite ill over the recent years, had passed on. That Jesselyn has already had her baby, while Carrie Mae has had her second. Louisa remains at Sylvania's home in Richmond though they're now planning to return to Twin Oaks after 6 long years.
One fine day, Louisa finds herself on the way with an ever grumpy and distant Zachary. When they finally arrive, what's left of Louisa's heart is broken by the dilapidated sight of Twin Oaks. The destruction wasn't a reality until that moment; the knowledge that their home with so many happy memories was gone forever finally settling in. That infernal war seemed to have robbed them off so many things! Louisa didn't even know what she can hope for with Zachary in such a dismal state, without their precious horses to start the stud farm.
Then, as promised in another secret letter, James stops by to inquire after Louisa. But when Zachary spies on him, all hell indeed breaks loose. It was that time for Louisa where she had to make a monumental decision regarding her life. Should she stay back as Zachary demanded or leave with a virtual stranger she'd come to love despite all the odds pitted against them? Who, it seems, had fallen for her when she was fighting for the life of the same brother now threatening to banish her because of her association with a former Union soldier. Louisa was sick of this war and the toll it's taken on everyone. She was tired of living for the others. This time, she chooses to grab at that happiness that forever seemed to have been eluding her.
The epilogue was a sort of a reunion for the Highwood siblings, but not the way I envisioned it, taking place some years after Louisa's departure when Jesselyn finally returns to Twin Oaks with Wolf and Thaddeus. It seems Zachary is still living the same bitter, disillusioned life without any hope of ever recovering. Though the sisters have all happily settled down, Twin Oaks seems to have no hope of a recovery either, even with the Thoroughbreds Jesselyn brought along. She wasn't much welcomed either as Zachary strikes at Wolf for his mixed blood.
I was so so sad for Zachary when the story ends that I felt cheated out of a lot. The saga, to me, seemed unfinished, with questions hanging. It seemed to me that the author may have had intentions of giving Zachary his story, or at the least another installment but that never came to pass. He needs so much love in life! Someone to help him through his nightmares. :( And though I was extremely happy that Louisa was able to find love, I wasn't happy the way it was executed and how rushed the whole affair was. How she was never seen in the story again. I was hoping for something more wholesome for her. She certainly deserved that.
Saying that, I loved the daily struggles of the lives of the Highwoods and all the other characters. Recently, I've found myself being intrigued by the history of the Civil war in America and novels based on that; this series just intensified my interest. I'll end my review with the fervent wish that the author would someday write Zachary's story to give us, the readers, a closure. On a side note, I would recommend that you read the whole series back to back in order to get the most out of it. 4 stars.
Review UPDATE: I was cruising the author's website when I came across a free extended epilogue for "The Long Way Home", taking place in 1872. It broke my heart to learn that there was no redemption for Zachary after all. Guess I can forget about him ever getting his own story... :(