Conor's Way

Conor's Way - Laura Lee Guhrke My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...

Currently I’m going through this odd crush on the names Connor and Daniel which is actually why I picked up this book by Laura Lee Guhrke. I heard her name of course but somehow, never got around reading one before. I would say I was dumb. After reading a few reviews of Conor's Way, I HAD to read this book and now I’m SO glad that I did. I loved LLG’s writing along with the background (as flashbacks) of Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) around the time of American Civil War and their failed revolution. It was a painful read, the torture of the British army on them which had me thinking over and over again, yes, things such as this happened before and happening even today. After reading this book, I ended up reconsidering my concept of a ‘tortured hero’ because I wouldn’t wish what Conor went through on anyone! :(

First, I’d start with the adorable heroine Olivia. She was from quite a well off family before the American civil war. There were/are many tragedies plaguing Olivia’s life. Before the war she lost her beloved mother when she was a teenager. Her father’s, who was already an alcoholic, went on to be constant drunkard because he missed his wife. Olivia’s two older brothers died in the war, leaving her all alone to take care of this mess. The flourishing plantation went down, all but one slave leaving it behind. She couldn’t even marry because of her father’s overwhelming possessiveness, which was quite selfish IMO. When 6 yrs ago, Olivia’s best friend Sarah, a war widow, died leaving her three little daughters alone, Olivia thought it was only fitting that she took them into her big, ol’ house. The girls’ uncle didn’t care for them and Olivia couldn’t think of Sarah’s daughters going into any orphanage. So she unofficially adopted them. They have been living with Olivia ever since through all her ups and downs in life, calling her ‘mama’. And I never felt the difference because Olivia herself never let them feel any difference in her affection. The girls are now from the age 6 to 14. Olivia’s father got badly hurt and died from a drunken misadventure. Olivia took care of him in his last days almost all by herself. Of course old Nate, the only helping hand around was there for her too, however grouchy he was about everything. Nate was of big help to her even in his own fragile state. He did a lot of work around the farmhouse, biggest of all was the crop that brings Olivia money; the peach orchard. Other than the orchard and a few livestock, Olivia has nothing of value left. The house needs repair, she wants to sow cotton in some of the spare lands but it’s quite impossible. Then, old Nate also died last summer. And now, she’s in a fix. The girls help her as best as they could, especially the older Becky but they can’t possibly do the farmhouse work. Not certainly all the plucking, processing and packing of peaches when those ripe in a few months. Olivia can’t afford to lose her peaches so she needs a helping hand, badly and ASAP! But God doesn’t listen to her pleas; neither does anyone else by answering her ad in the newspaper that she put there by ignoring the condescending eyes of old gossips and busybodies of her little town. Her offerings of a lodging and meal 3 times a day weren’t working. But she can’t pay a wage. Moreover, Vernon Tyler, the so-called ‘town owner’ with loads of money has been pushing her to sell her lands to him for setting of railroads. She kept denying his offer no matter what and the man is not happy about it after 4 yrs. He’s making trouble for her here and there since he controls the most of the town. What would Olivia do now? One day, her prayers were answered it seems in the form of a wounded man down by the road Olivia was going to get her grocery. She didn’t know him but the man was tall, big and so badly beaten that she couldn’t just leave him there. Olivia took Conor in without knowing who he is or what he’s been. I honestly loved Olivia for her compassionate nature. Life certainly hasn’t been kind to her in many ways but if you read her consequences and how she fought through the obstacles, you’ll only end up respecting her. Yes, she impressed me the way she weathered it all. Yet, I sympathized not only with the tragedies she endured but also the fact that how lonely she was at her advanced, spinsterish age. She, who definitely wanted a family of her own. More than once in the story, I felt really sad for her, maybe because I could understand her situation even if a little.

It would be so much harder for me to talk about Conor. Although born as the son of an Irish farmer, Conor’s life was anything but mundane. He lost his father very young and all hell broke loose when some British lord took hold of his village and started burning down the houses of the villagers to throw them out and take control of their lands. I could feel that this was the larger scenario all over Ireland. There is a scene that includes a young Conor, that had such profound impression me which happened just after their house was burned and the landlord was passing by the scene like he hasn’t just destroyed another family for his greed. Conor’s mother died soon after of grief over his father’s death, lost of their lands, possessions and in utter poverty. The same landlord beat Conor’s elder brother Micheal to death when he stole something from his land. At the tender age of 11, Conor was the sole provider for his two younger sisters. God, I couldn’t even imagine such a childhood. They used to live in the streets and Conor did whatever he could to feed them. Needless to say, he just couldn’t provide for the young girls and after much suffering with poverty and hunger, they both died in front of his eyes. But to Conor’s utter despair, he survived all these; the poverty, the hunger, the numerous diseases and the list never seemed to end. He was still alive, still suffering through it all. He used his anger and hatred to survive. Conor grew up and worked as a carpenter. Soon, he joined prizefighting because it brought more money and was a way to vent off his frustration and anger. He even had a fiancée of sort, someone more than just a lover and dreamed of a life with her. But by then, Conor was involved in the secret brotherhood that went on to become the IRB and already was attending underground meetings and so on. The girl knew she can’t live a life like that so although she was pregnant with his child, she married one of Conor’s friends who was also sweet on her. But she didn’t survive and died soon after. Conor’s one way to heaven, which she was in the face of so much suffering was thus closed and so he became a rebel and put all his heart and soul into it. After some easy quests, he and a friend of him got caught because of someone’s betrayal while retrieving some weapons. He was carted off to Mountjoy Prison and there started the torture that broke my heart. It was pretty graphic and LLG did a really good job of portraying what Conor had to suffer in the hands of British army because he was a Fenian. What those prison guards made him do to make him talk, how he lived a life of living dead, how his friends were brutally murdered in front of his eyes (something he could still see) and what they finally did to Conor to break him, as they put it. This whole experience did break Conor in the gravest way imaginable. He had no hopes or dreams, just a shell of a man living his life who has nothing in the world to live for. His dreams were shattered as were his ideals stomped and disgraced. Although he was regarded as a hero because he suffered in Mountjoy, Conor could NEVER forgive himself. He felt like a cheater, a betrayer. A man who doesn’t deserve the nicer things in life. Conor also suffered from PTSD and quite bad ones. It tore at my heart to know how he lived his life alone, never letting anyone close enough to get attached to him, never any woman he’d ever known or slept with. He suffered through his dreams alone. He fought his demons alone. And he woke alone. Three years ago, because he couldn’t live in Ireland anymore, Conor came to America and has been working as a prizefighter. His life as prizefighter pays off well. He works 5 months; travelling road to road, town to town, living a day to day life. He never stays anywhere too long. He wins most of the times, celebrates that with Irish whiskey and willing women and he leaves them before the night is out. Everything was going fine as this lifestyle gave him the cover he needed. It distracted him, sort of, from his past. Conor wore a charming, rougish smile to ignore the peoples’ gasps of surprise when they saw the torture marks on his body. Well, Conor is a very handsome man but his body is a sharp contrast to his beautiful face. People think of various things about those marks and Conor pretends that he doesn’t care... Anyway, in this part of Louisiana, Conor came for another prizefighting match. His manager asks him to lose to the local champion because of the bets. Conor has never been good at taking orders and abide by them so he does the opposite. While leaving, he gets an awful beating by the hired crooks of the town owner, Vernon. Vernon threatens him never to show his face here again and snatches away his money. The crooks leave Conor, bleeding and unconscious, somewhere on the road. Which is how Olivia finds him.

Olivia didn’t know of course about Conor’s profession. But she was attracted to him nonetheless. I really loved those opening chapters of their rocky relationship. Ironically, their relationship could be termed as rocky at best almost throughout the story, which frustrated me to no end. I wanted to shake and slap Conor to look at Olivia and really see her. Then there would be another chapter of his heartbreaking past and I just couldn’t hate him or blame him for anything. I couldn’t even think of what he went through. Back to the story. Olivia was enraged at first after she understood what Conor did. Prizefighting is gambling, not to mention it hurts people so it’s akin to sinning. Olivia comes from a rigid religious background so she starts disliking Conor a lot. Then, when he was delusional with fever, Conor cursed and spoke of his past which made Olivia a bit more than scared of him. She was also thinking of her daughters. Carrie, the middle girl, is the most curious of them all and prone to mischief of all sort. She’s the one who approaches Conor first. Miranda, the younger one does too. Becky would help Olivia but she wouldn’t let Becky near Conor always. Conor and Olivia would exchange heated words over their different views of life and beliefs and Conor would vow to leave whenever he’s well enough to do so. But as time passed, he begins to fall into a routine. Conor started to admire Olivia too for her strong yet compassionate nature. And yes, he was very attracted to her. Olivia wasn’t beautiful in the conventional sense but there was something about her he couldn’t deny. At first, he tries to reason that it was the forced celibacy that did this to him but he knew deep inside that was not all.

There were scenes I did love as I did the story. I think I began to enjoy it more when their relationship blossomed into something deeper, even though Conor fought it in every step of the way. He’d convinced himself that married life, settled with a family isn’t for him. He thought this not only because of his self-hatred but also because of his PTSD. He knew any woman who sees him like that would be disgusted and afraid of him. But Olivia has already seen that. Yes she was afraid at first but she also wanted to know what happened to this tormented man. As more days passed, Olivia found it difficult to not to care for him. Even though Conor wanted to leave, he promised to help Olivia for as long as it takes for the peach harvest because he saw that she really needed the help. But he tried to stay aloof. And the girls weren’t helping. Carrie and Miranda viewed him as a hero of sort and worshipped him. He’d do a little this or that for them and they would awash him with their attentions. Conor would feel smothered by their affection, again because he thought he’s undeserving of it all. He never made promises, tried never to keep any but here, things started to change. His lifestyle was changing drastically. So even though he tried to stay away, he couldn’t say ‘no’ to anything the girls would ask of him. He started to do smaller tasks around the farm and gradually went on doing the bigger ones as well, like working on the roof of the house. He also started on a swing, secretly and tentatively, to surprise Olivia.

Olivia was grateful for Conor’s help but she wanted to help him too. But Conor just won’t let her in. In between, knowing he can’t read or write, Olivia took in the task of teaching him. Conor was talented and very dedicated, which paid off soon enough. With this, their attraction to each-other grew. Olivia, so far, has fought with Vernon’s petty threats. She’d also hidden Conor away so that the townspeople wouldn’t know that a strange man, an Irish lowlife at that, was living in her house. Only her neighbor Oren and his family did. Oren was a genuine friend to Olivia, so was his wife Kate till the end. As mentioned earlier, Conor fought his attraction to Olivia but ended up kissing her in an incident that involved Becky kissing one of her friends, a boy from the town. That kiss changed a lot of Olivia’s perspectives about love and passion. Since she’d never even kissed a man, Conor shook her world badly. It was believable, trust me. So she begins to see things differently. At first, Olivia’s relationship with her daughters bugged me because she wasn’t yet 30 and Becky was already 14 or so. But as I got deeper into the story, somehow the feeling was lost and I was glad for it. At times, as I discovered more about Olivia and the fighter that she was, I saw little bit of myself in her. I understood her loneliness as well. I understood that falling for a troubled man like Conor can’t ever be an easy task, certainly not so when he was trying his best of push her away. He hurt her and I was hurt in the process. Though Olivia remained steadfast in her unrequited love for Conor, she began to resign in it. She knew Conor would never love her back and that he’d leave soon enough. In the meantime, Vernon cooked up more troubles to drive Olivia out of her lands and Conor helped her weather those. We learn that Vernon actually worked in Olivia’s plantation under her father. He wanted to marry her but Olvia’s father rejected the idea. It kinda explained why Vernon was so hostile towards her.

Then they harvest the peaches. I really loved reading the details but I also was dreading some bigger change because in between, Conor tried leaving them once just to prove that he’s the kind of man he thinks he is. But he comes back back, not being able to forget about his promises to her. He also taught Olivia shoot for self-defense and safety once he really leaves. After the harvesting, Conor and Olivia left for the town to sell her crop. They stay at a hotel and spend an evening together. Olivia was feeling insecure because of Conor’s imminent departure so she goes to his room and asks him to make love to her. Conor tries to deny her but he couldn’t. It’s been just too long that he’s been fighting this insane longing for her. Afterwards, Conor still won’t let her in and Olivia knew now her heart would break like nothing else. Meanwhile, the girls were staying with Oren’s family when Miranda blurts out about Conor to a gathering, where the towns busybodies were present. When Conor and Olivia come back, things have worsened. The busybodies demand that the right thing be done. They take the girls away because they deemed Olivia as an immoral woman. Conor was very confused about what to do. He wanted to help Olivia but he certainly didn’t want to marry. And again, he hurts her with his words. He marries her but wasn’t very happy about it. God, this turmoil and all the hurt Olivia suffered; it was so sad and so unfair. She only wanted to have a family of her own. How ironic; now that she’d finally married, to the man she loved no less, she had to resign into a cold and distant relationship with him. It was just too depressing for me. Conor wouldn’t even touch her, not because he didn’t want to but those unavoidable and accursed feelings about himself returned every time he thought of a future with Olivia, the girls and any future children they’ll have. What would Olivia do when he doesn’t even want her near? I felt so much for her, can’t explain.

It all started to change when Conor began feeling safer in his new life as a husband and father. He saw that life can be beautiful, if only he gave it a chance and took what was offered to him. So he started taking it all in, one step at a time. The girls, especially Carrie and Miranda, started calling him ‘daddy’ already and he loved it. He loved spending time with them and envisioning a future in the farm. Gradually, he also lets Olivia in, suddenly again making love to her one day. But when she expressed her true feelings, Conor couldn’t believe that someone would love him like she did. So he tries again to prove her feelings wrong by giving his admhaim or confession to her. But Olivia gently handled his insecurities, never losing patience even though learning of his gruesome past pained her no less than it did him while recounting. The ending was marvelous IMO, kinda proved why I loved Conor so much. He can be a contradiction at times but an amazing man nonetheless. He was so protective of his family when the need aroused and did his best. For the first time in years, he let himself believe that he deserved a beautiful life and Olivia was there waiting for him. What I really missed was a glimpse into their future together. I wanted see him holding his children with Olivia. Maybe I just didn’t want the book to end. *sigh* So, with a lot of love for Conor and Olivia, I give this book a 5 star.