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I bought Courting Carrie in Wonderland last year, not sure why I didn’t read it right away. Carla Kelly’s books are auto-buy for me, and when I saw the cover, I wanted to read this one. Yet somehow I never got around to. So to amend that, I picked it up last week without reading any reviews, as I do for many of Ms. Kelly’s books. Have to wonder again, why I didn’t read it last year cause the story was simply amazing, heart-touchingly so!
TBH, I had no idea what ‘Wonderland’ in Courting Carrie in Wonderland stood for. I thought it was one of those titles with a touch of fancy, maybe the H and h went somewhere they liked calling wonderland? Seems like I was almost correct in that regard. This book is set in the Yellowstone National Park, a place I’ve never heard of (I don’t live in the US), which was known to be the Wonderland. Even while reading I didn’t check out anything in google. I just read on, seemingly trying to figure out the place through our H and h, Ramsay and Carrie’s eyes and Ms. Kelly’s narratives. I’ll be honest that I struggled to picture the Park and it’s specific attractions that were mentioned as they’re known: such as the Old Faithful, the Chittenden Bridge (previously the Melan Arch Bridge), the viaduct that linked the edge of the mountains creating a perilous road and many other descriptions of the scenery, the flora and the fauna. Even then I could tell it was a marvelous place. After I finished I couldn’t wait to find out how those noted areas looked like, and was blown away by the beauty of the Park. I could imagine why Ramsay and Carrie (or anyone for that matter) would love the place and want to stay there. Like, I had this urge to visit Yellowstone ASAP, though that dream may never materialize for me. :(
Newly minted Sgt. Major Ramsay Stiles arrived at Yellowstone with a new job and a shiny new medal to boast. He’s a veteran of the Philippine-American war, survived a cave full of insurgents with his head intact. He was able to save most of his men from that nightmare too, except for his own lieutenant, an error that will haunt Ramsay for a long time alongside the PTSD he still suffered from his own ordeals. For his bravery, Ramsay had won a medal of honor. But because the down-to-earth man he was, he wasn’t sure he deserved it. In fact, Ramsay would’ve been happy to remain as the Sergeant that his men liked to call ‘Sarge’ and be with his cavalry like before. He wasn’t comfortable with his elevated status and the recognition for his medal, because it turned out President Roosevelt recognized Ramsay months after he had pinned the medal on his uniform.
I’d like to mention here that several characters in this book turned out to be real life people. I’ve already mentioned President Roosevelt, whose name I already knew but there are plenty more. They make their appearances on and off throughout and play their role and, to me, it felt like Ramsay was a part of that too! He was assigned under Major Pitcher (a real life Park superintended) who asked Ramsay to tour the Park, hear the woes of all the amusement park and hotel owners within it, and report back to him. Ramsay wasn’t really happy about his new job, but he’d do whatever it was asked of him by his superiors.
In the beginning, I hadn’t realized that Yellowstone Park wasn’t a new place for Ramsay. He’d been there before and lived for years. He was recuperating from his wounds from the Philippines, both physical and emotional. As lovely as it was, Yellowstone could be a lonely place for a lonely man like him but Ramsay survived it all. He was ready to work again, and he thanked it all to the wolves of the Yellowstone. Why? I’ll try to elaborate in my review as I go....
As he was being assigned to supervise Yellowstone Park from every corner, Ramsay knew that the biggest woes of every camping sites and hoteliers, would be the animals that come for a visit. Black bears and coyotes were common, so were the wolves. Some hoteliers made a business out of feeding black bears the kitchen scraps because the tourists liked watching it, even feeding them when it was possible; something Ramsay didn’t approve of. He knew bears shouldn’t be eating that crap, and this habit of ‘ready food’ will take a negative turn when the food is gone. TBH, I was quite surprised that people came so close to the bears at all! The horror stories I’ve read about bear attacks........ *shudders* Yet, it seemed like a booming business despite Ramsay’s utter dislike of it.
The other thing Ramsay hated was the instruction given to the forts based in the Park (Ramsay was based in Yellowstone Fort) to kill any coyotes and wolves to make the park a ‘safer place’, the plan being to clear the park off of them. This was one of those commands that Ramsay knew will come back to bite everybody’s a$$ one day in future. But it was a command from the upper echelon and the men had to abide by it. But unlike any of them, Ramsay had a history with the wolves. When the loneliness and PTSD became too much to handle, especially in the winter-time, Ramsay had watched the packs. It not only kept him sane, but also gave him an idea of how a wolf pack worked which fascinated him to no end. Ramsay had kept notes of his observation, mainly for himself. He didn’t think those would ever be helpful for anyone. But because he knew the wolves, he knew what the Army was planning to do was so, so wrong.
In Ramsay’s 34 years on earth, he’d largely been lonely. There were no details from his childhood but I remember that he lost his parents young. The army has been his family for as long as he can remember. But these days, he felt the loneliness biting down in his bones. He felt restless, even when he liked to crack a joke or two about the whole thing at his own expense. So when he suddenly met a lovely strawberry blonde by an outhouse of Wylie Camp, while assuring her that there was no bear outside, he wouldn’t have thought this odd encounter will lead to somewhere. When Carrie McKay came out of the... uh, toilet :P, Ramsay tried his best not to smile at the oddity of meeting a beauty in a place like this. Because Ramsay indeed had noticed Carrie and was pretty much a goner from day 1. ;) He found his own strawberry blonde hair ridiculous but boy, he loved the same shade on Carrie!
Carrie’s story mirrors Ramsay’s as far as her place in the world went. She had also been alone since her mother passed away. She’s now 23, but barely scraping by. Carrie was studying in Montana Ag, had plans to become, I don’t know, a cook? Housekeeper? She was taking various courses on cooking, sewing etc. but it was obvious she adored baking, especially pies. So when she heard of Ramsay’s longing for a piece of cherry pie which he missed during his stay in the Philippines, Carrie couldn’t help feeling a deep compassion for him. She learned of his work and the medal he’d earned. She thought he was some high and mighty officer who’d never look at her twice. :P Of course, she was wrong. Funnily enough, Ramsay kinda thought the same about her; from a well-off family but working a part-time at Yellowstone to earn some pin money and, maybe, a bit of experience. There were plenty of boys and girls who did that at summer vacation. A beauty like her would never give him a second thought. If only they knew how alike they were than different.
Long story short, Ramsay had to find ways, make excuses to visit Carrie even if it took him days to tour around the park on horseback. And Carrie would bake cherry pies and save a slice for him everyday hoping Ramsay would visit. I found it way too adorable for words. :D Nevertheless, for me, things were moving slow. I was having a bit of a hard time connecting with the story, and while I found the characters interesting, I could see neither Carrie nor Ramsay doing anything about their obvious attraction and longing for one another unless there’s a big shove and even a bigger push. They were both too gentle, too nice and both had their own negative experiences in life to take any impulsive step. But that’s not to say that their relationship was at a stand-still. Nope. It was budding. They begin to become more comfortable in each-other’s company, talk about the park, various other things and their own lives. And pies, just how much Ramsay loved Carrie’s baked pies. :D
When they were at it, Ramsay gets summoned by Major Pitcher. A command from the president himself has arrived. Someone is coming to the Yellowstone Park for a visit; someone prestigious enough that the President won’t trust anyone but Ramsay with her well-being.
Ramsay hated being an escort to some rich, spoiled AND lazy old woman because he’d seen how badly a majority of them treated their servants or people who they thought were below their notice. However, this was one command Ramsay couldn’t deny so he went to receive former Opera singer, a socialite and now an elderly widow, Mrs. Louise Lamarque....... and found himself in the middle of a drama. Quite literally. Though not from the lady in question, but her maid. The maid won’t step out of the train in fear that the Indians were gonna scalp and kill her while making a good racket about it too. -_- Within a few mins., Ramsay had had enough. He had to find a solution and pronto so he advises Mrs. Lamarque to ditch the maid and hire someone new for the duration of her stay at Yellowstone. The lady must listen to him or do her own chore herself because Ramsay had a plan. Who better than the ever efficient Carrie McKay to fill out the role?
I could only think “brilliant” to that move Ramsay made on behalf of Carrie. If that didn’t spell love then I don’t know what did. He was smitten with Carrie and her well-being was always on his mind. He knew the widow was filthy rich and this was the perfect opportunity for Carrie to make some good money so her next semesters went smooth, without any worries over the tuition fees. All she has to do is to survive a few days with the Dragon who needed nothing to look down on anyone she thought unworthy of her attention; even if they were half a head taller than her much like Ramsay himself was.
Carrie took the news quite well. After the initial misgivings, she was willing to do it; quite up for the challenge since she needed the money. The amount Ramsay had bargained from the widow in exchange of an efficient maid was quite ridiculous to ignore. Needless to say, Louise Lamarque wasn’t impressed. In fact, she was quite annoyed with Ramsay and thought him insufferable. LOL Ramsay was being tough on her so she doesn’t start misbehaving with Carrie. Now it was all up to Carrie to earn that ridiculous sum.
Ironically, I thought Louise Lamarque was the ‘shove’ that Ramsay and Carrie needed. I can’t adequately express it all, only that while they were working to keep the Dragon happy, things starting transforming for them all. And I don’t only mean for Ramsay and Carrie, who got to see each-other more often than usual which that helped in their courtship immensely. Yep, by then Ramsay was quite sure only Carrie will do for him—all he needed was the time and the tactics to convince her that he’s the only one for her as well ;). This whole journey also did wonderful things for Mrs. Lamarque. She gained two dear, genuine friends she would’ve otherwise never even thought about having. The story which was going slow until now, suddenly had meaning tenfold and I was quite engrossed by the whole transformation. Alongside the brilliant narratives of the Yellowstone Park, there was Mrs. Lamarque’s one last wish to visit the Yellowstone Grand Canyon Falls because of an unrequited love of many moons ago; something that remained a closely guarded secret in her heart until she confided in Ramsay and Carrie. You may wanna look up Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone, the reason behind Mrs. Lamarque’s wish. :)
But fate won’t be so kind to Carrie and Ramsay because he was going to be charged by the Army for not following one commend in his whole career; all because he loved wolves and wanted to save them. Ramsay didn’t think he had anything to offer to Carrie any longer, but little did he know that she wasn’t going to let go of the love her life so darn easily. She was going to do whatever it was possible for her. But then they should’ve realized that they had friends; not one, not two but many. A park full of people who knew and admired him, admired Carrie too. Ramsay’s own men who felt the same, the other army officers, not to mention the President himself and their dearest friend, Mrs. Lamarque! You see, Ramsay wasn’t even expecting any of them to help him cause that’s just how he was. No entitlement of any kind. What a wonderful, down-to-earth man! He was ready to do his own battle, alone.
So as you can see, I simply loved the storytelling, loved the characters, especially both Carrie and Ramsay. I wish the ending was a bit fleshed out because to me it felt somewhat hasty. I thought it’ll be longer than it was, with Ramsay doing his time or whatever punishment the Army doled out on him. But I guess I’m happy he had friends who made sure that an honest and earnest man like him didn’t lose his credibility for protesting something that was wrong to begin with. Last but not the least, there’s a fantastic Afterword where Ms. Kelly details some historical facts and notes so relevant to the story in its own way that I loved it too!
All in all, a great read. Recommended if you enjoy historical romances set in the early 20th century, love the Yellowstone National Park, pies and clean romances.