WEEK-LONG CONTEST: Joanne Renaud Reviews Judith O’Brien’s Ashton’s Bride

This week you have the chance to win a digital copy of Joanne Renaud’s A Question of Time as well as an awesome Baggu bag. [NOTE: The winner of the bag is restricted to readers in the continental US due to cost of shipping overseas]


This week, there will be four posts related to this contest (one each day, Monday – Thursday). They will all be labeled “WEEK-LONG CONTEST” in the post title. As long as you leave one comment on one of the posts before Thursday night at midnight (central time US), you will be included in the contest. Joanne will randomly pick on one of the names on Friday morning and we will announce it on the blog later that day.

Yesterday’s post introduced the contest and has an image of the bag.

Today, in honor of Renaud’s time-travel novel, she reviews another time-travel romance: Judith O’Brien’s 1995 work, Ashton’s Bride.

Gone with the Wind—it’s an iconic movie, and arguably one of the greatest movies made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The imagery of southern belles, soaring plantation houses and tragic yet scrappy Confederates fighting for a doomed Lost Cause are seared indelibly into the collective American memory.  It’s also influenced a metric ton of books, especially in the romance genre. One of the strangest books influenced by GWTW is Ashton’s Bride by Judith O’Brien, a time travel romance published in 1995 (although the book is set in 1993).

Now, when I was growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Old South and the Civil War was everywhere. You had miniseries like North and South in 1984; North and South II in 1986; you also had Alex Haley’s Queen in 1993, and Scarlett, the misbegotten sequel to GWTW, which became a miniseries in 1994. References to southern belles and the antebellum south were also frequent in the books I read. Atlanta socialite heroine Amber in the teen spy series Charisma Inc. was frequently compared to Scarlett O’Hara, and both my favorite YA paranormal series, Swept Away and Teen Witch, featured time travel stories where the heroines are accidentally whisked back to the Confederacy. The books were called (respectively) Gone with the Wish and Gone with the Witch. Cheesy, but I ate it up. I especially loved when the girls, after their weird vacations in the past, returned to their comfortable 1980s existences. The past might be fun to visit, but who the hell would want to live there?

Of course, when I moved to the Atlanta metro area, this pop culture phenomenon of my youth was the first thing I thought of. But I quickly discovered that many people there were beyond fatigued with Gone with the Wind and its ilk. It seemed to me that Gone with the Wind was no longer a hot property; in fact, it seemed that it was no longer relevant or interesting to most people. I remember meeting a librarian at a party, and I tried to discuss just this with her, but her eyes glazed over, and she changed the subject to The Hunger Games.

I was exasperated, but in a way this perfectly illustrates my point. Zombies are all the rage in Atlanta now, what with the runaway success of The Walking Dead, and the Georgia settings for popular zombie games like Left 4 Dead 2. One may wonder about the significance and symbolism of the former heart of the Confederacy becoming (according to the New York Times) “The Zombie Capital of the World,” but this is a subject for another blog post.

Suffice to say, Ashton’s Bride was written at the height of Antebellum nostalgia, and it shows it. I have been a fan of Judith O’Brien’s books for years, but Bride is easily the weakest (and oddest) of her books.

So, on to the plot. It’s 1993, and anti-Confederate Bostonian historian Margaret Garnett, who has written praise of Sherman’s March and who has “scorned everything southern,” comes to Tennessee to accept a teaching job at a small college. She is humiliated and embarrassed to be teaching at a private college in the Smoky Mountains.  Indeed, many of her former classmates at Columbia sneer at her for taking this job, but she procrastinated in sending out her job apps and this was the only place that offered her a position. Oops.

So, the first part of the book details Margaret’s character and background, her loneliness and her insecurity about her six foot height, her dark past where her entire family died in a boating accident off Martha’s Vineyard, her meeting colorful locals like O.B. Willy Thaw and new friends like Emily Ryan, and even encountering an attractive antagonist in fellow teacher Brad Skinner, who is vying with her for tenure. It sounds like a promising beginning. I wanted to see Margaret struggling, succeeding, and finding love at her new school.

Unfortunately, none of this happens. She ends up traveling back to 1864.

Now, in the usual way of things, a time travel story doesn’t properly start until the character goes into a different time. Like in Back to the Future, the 1980s set-up is just a preamble to Marty McFly traveling back to Adventureland (i.e. the 1950s). But here, the change in time grinds the story to a halt. All the interesting characters who are introduced in the modern section are completely dropped; instead we are introduced to the boringly perfect love interest of the book, the Confederate general Ashton Powell Johnson. He’s dazzlingly handsome, chivalrous, kind, noble, gallant, beloved by everyone, and even described at one point as “the jewel of the South.”  In fact, even in the modern day, every woman who lays eyes on his portrait is instantly smitten. A certain level of idealization is to be expected in a romance novel hero, but here it’s laid on so thick that Ashton is pretty much a dreaded Marty Stu.

I’m probably weird, but I couldn’t help but wish that the imperfect Brad Skinner was the hero of the book. Yeah, he’s competitive and a bit obnoxious, but wouldn’t it be great if Margaret drove him to admit how wrong he was, and he finally decided to start mending his ways? And in turn, he would confront her about her snobbery and her absurd preoccupation with her height. To be honest, I would find this plot arc to be more interesting and exciting than having our heroine swept away to the 1860s to be trussed into corsets and crinolines and then romanced by the “jewel of the South.” Ick.

The uninteresting hero is bad enough; but what’s worse, is when Margaret travels back in time, she stops, for all intents and purposes, being Margaret. I found Margaret to be a somewhat frustrating character, but I also thought her relatable and engaging, and I wanted to see her triumph over her insecurity and grow as a character (much like Dougless in that best of all time travel romances, Jude Devereaux’s A Knight in Shining Armor).  Instead, when she goes back into the past, she finds herself in the body of Ashton’s improbably hot girlfriend, Mag, who looks just like Elizabeth Taylor but with bigger tits.

Now, Mag is very much like Terri Garber’s character Ashton from the miniseries North and South; she’s a scheming, slutty and completely amoral vixen. But she dies, conveniently vacating her body so Margaret can inhabit it. And now everyone is dazzled by the new Mag/Margaret; she’s unbelievably, superlatively beautiful, with perfect teeth, flawless skin, sparkling eyes, tiny waist and huge boobs, of course. But Ashton, it is made clear, was always in love with Mag even when she was a nasty ho; but now that she’s a better person he is super-extra in love with her. This is an uncomfortable thing to read about, especially since the old Margaret was perfectly attractive. One of the marvelous and empowering fantasies of romance novels is what I call the Jane Eyre effect– the heroine triumphs by being herself. The hero discovers the beauty of the plain Jane heroine, and ends up ignoring the flashy, shallow charms of such women as Blanche Ingram. But here, in Ashton’s Bride, Jane Eyre becomes Blanche Ingram; and you get the impression that Ashton would have ignored her if she hadn’t turned into Blanche.

Another problem is the lack of conflict once Margaret travels back in time. It’s weird that our heroine finds herself in the middle of a violent war, but it doesn’t really feel very dangerous or exciting.  It’s true that the hardship is not exactly ignored. The violence and the poverty is discussed—there’s a letter from Ashton talking about the horrors of battle, and peanut-shell coffee and other wartime shortages are mentioned– but it doesn’t feel immediate, and it never threatens Margaret. Nothing ever really penetrates her bubble. Also, as Mag, everything comes to her too easily. Even her stint as a nurse feels pretty tame; it doesn’t even touch on the visceral horror in Gone with the Wind. And of course being a nurse comes to her naturally, because the new (old) Mag/Margaret is naturally graceful and kind-hearted.

In fact, when you come right down to it, Margaret doesn’t struggle much in any way. She’s okay with the lack of electricity, the hoops and corsetry, and the implied (but never explicit) sexism; in fact, it sounds like she’s cool with pissing in a chamberpot, even though this is never discussed. She’s come to her true home, and everyone comes to love her without too much of a fight. Even Lizzie, Ashton’s cousin, who despised Mag so much that she got into a hair-pulling fight at a fancy soiree, quickly comes around. Alongside her Marty Stu boyfriend, this once promising character has become a Mary Sue.

However, by far the worst problem with this book is how it white-washes and sugarcoats the Confederacy. Slavery is mentioned only once. There are no black characters in the entire book. (There’s a Mammy type named Aunt Hattie who is mentioned in passing, and a “stoic” black slave in “ridiculous satin knickers” at Jefferson Davis’s house, but that is absolutely it.)  The book is whiter than a white rabbit eating marshmallows in a snowstorm in Alaska. It’s really rather amazing.

But after a few hundred pages of being wooed by “the jewel of the South,” Margaret, who formerly loathed the Confederacy when she was plain Jane northern academic, has now seen the light! She now thinks the South is awesome, even though we are treated to a lot of anachronistic Lost Cause bullshit.

And when Margaret finally- finally- confronts Ashton about how the Confederacy is wrong, note how she never mentions slavery (because it was established earlier, in the one time slavery is mentioned, that Ashton thinks that slavery is wrong). After she says her piece, he wrings his hands a lot:

“Ashton, this is very difficult for me, but I can no longer stand by quietly as you talk about honor and all of that nobility fluff, because there is one simple fact I must state. Please forgive me, but as a Confederate, you’re on the wrong side.”

“What the—”

“Shut up and listen to me.” Her fury startled him, and before he could think of a retort, she continued. “The Confederacy will not win the war. You know it and I know it, and soon the whole world will know it. Your goddamn cause is a lost cause.”

Had she been a man, she felt certain Ashton would have struck her by now. As painful as it was for her to utter the cruel words, she knew that he had to hear them, and they were all the more painful because he must be aware that they were true.

“Margaret, I will not have you curse,” he responded, his hands clenched at his sides.

“Is that the only problem you have with what I just said?” Her mouth was partially opened in astonishment, for she had expected a passionate defense of the Confederacy.

For a long moment he stared at her, and she could see the tumult of emotions playing in his eyes. At last he looked away, his shoulders slightly slumped, and paced to the window. With a deep sigh he parted the curtains, staring down at the park.

“I have nothing.” There was no self-pity in his tone; it was just a statement of fact. She had been able to handle his anger, ready to match his rage with her own. But she was not prepared for the total hopelessness of his voice. Without thinking, she slipped out of bed, her feet bare and cold on the carpet, and walked over to him. He seemed physically larger than before, but there was something missing, a spark in his soul that had vanished.

“Ash?” she asked, her hand resting on his powerful arm. He did not look at her, and she wasn’t sure if he was aware that she was beside him at the window.

“All my life I have tried to live a certain way, tried to behave and think as I had been taught.” He swallowed before continuing, his voice hollow. “Honor was vital to me, always honor and duty had gone together. Now it makes no difference, not to me, not to anyone. I can never return home, I cannot remain here. There are very few choices left to me.”

He smiled, but it was without a trace of humor. “Ironic, isn’t it? I used to lead men, they used to believe in me. And now I realize I simply forced ignorant youths into battle, the same way I used to force them to learn lessons. I convinced them that we could win the damn war. Hell, I even convinced myself. How many hundreds of boys were slaughtered because of me? Because they believed in me, because I believed in a useless cause . . .”

“Stop! I will not hear you speak like this,” she cried, her fist clutching convulsively on his sleeve.

“No, Margaret. You are right—it was a lost cause all along, an army of fools and dreamers, and I was one of the leaders.”

Oh noes– Ashton’s precious Cause is doomed! But no; it’s not because they’re bigots and slavers. It’s because they’re really just “fools and dreamers,” blind to the wealth and geographic advantages of the North. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that their entire economic system was built on the backs of black men and women. Oh yeah and it’s about states’ rights.

Seriously, fuck that noise.

In resolving the Margaret-has-time-traveled storyline, Margaret babbles to Ashton (who is far too understanding about this), about how her real home is in the 19th century, and that since she was sent back to the 1860s to live in Mag’s body, she therefore was able to save her parents and siblings about not being killed in the Martha’s Vineyard boating accident in 1981.

Her voice trailed off as a thought came to her mind.

“Wait a minute,” she mumbled to herself. “They went to Martha’s Vineyard solely because of me, their youngest daughter. I am the reason my brother and sister returned for that vacation.” A blissful smile lit her face. “This is wonderful! Don’t you understand? If I am here in 1864, then my family will not go to the Vineyard in 1981. They will live, with two children instead of three.”

Ashton patted her hand. “Margaret, wherever they are, I am sure they are happy.”

Her eyes were filled with tears. “For so long I have felt nothing but guilt for their deaths. It was difficult for me to think of them, for I would always be reminded that they died giving me a silly graduation gift. But now everything’s been fixed.”

Uh… What. This makes no sense. Margaret clearly lived, and had to come from some place; she didn’t just appear out of the ether. Marty McFly rewrote his family’s past when he rearranged his parent’s meeting; he didn’t negate his own existence. (If he had negated his own existence, then he would have disappeared; shouldn’t this have happened to Margaret too, if she had never been born?) Margaret’s bizarre ‘realization’ is then shown to be complete nonsense when Ashton then finds a copy of her syllabus from 1993 with her name on it. If she never lived, then that syllabus wouldn’t be there.  Because, clearly, she existed.

But this isn’t just stupid. It’s insulting that Margaret’s ‘survivor’s guilt’ is somehow justified as being something that she should have been feeling—because clearly this boating accident was her fault. I was hoping that she could get over her guilt and go on and triumph over adversity, but instead this book gives her a sexier body and surgically, antiseptically removes her earlier family tragedy from her world so it no longer becomes an issue that she has to consider.

This is bad enough in itself. But what happened to Margaret’s body in the present? Mag died, and Margaret took her place in her body in 1864. But what about Margaret’s body back in 1993? Did she die? Disappear? Lapse into a coma? What on earth happened? Did her friend Emily or her rival Brad find her unconscious and unmoving in her house? I’m trying to imagine it, and the implications are chilling.

I suppose it doesn’t matter though, because Margaret’s earlier life is insignificant, even her old body. The implications of this are more than a little disturbing—not to mention disgusting.

But what’s even more disgusting in the end is how the history of the South is bleached white. Ms. O’Brien wrote this book as a tribute to her own family; in the book afterword, the character of Ashton is based closely on a relative who died during the war. It’s too bad that in the book he emerges as a Marty Stu, but sometimes closeness to something blinds us to that person’s faults (or closeness to a project blinds us to the problems inherent in that project). My father’s family was from New Orleans, and I grew up listening to my grandmother laud the Confederacy and curse Lincoln. I never really bought it though. I realized fairly early on that the whole ‘states’ rights’ thing was just a smokescreen for the economics of slavery, and that slavery was a loathsome thing that brutalized everyone that came into contact with it.

Now, Judith O’Brien is not a bad writer. Ashton’s Bride was written pretty early on in her career, and she went on to write better books. For example, I’m fond of her YA time travel fantasy, Timeless Love, a fast-paced and memorable story which features a young teenage girl who travels back in time to save the life of Edward VI. (In this case, messing with history ends very badly.)  In defense of Ms. O’Brien, Ashton’s Bride is very much a romance novel of its time, with its resolutely lily-white cast of characters, a heroine who is somewhat scandalized by young people who dress like Kurt Cobain, and a depiction of the old South which is sanitized to the point of racism. Yet in 2013, with a black president in the White House and Django Unchained in the multiplexes, it’s hard to see something like Ashton’s Bride ever getting written or published in the first place.

And I can’t help but feel that this is a good thing.

One final note about Django Unchained: as flawed as that movie is, there’s something delightful in a story that shows the romanticized antebellum South as a brutal hellhole, and a plantation in being a blood-soaked prison. Django ends up blowing up the Tara-esque Candyland with a shitfuckton of dynamite, while his wife Hildy claps in delight.

I could only have wished that Margaret could have done the same.


3 thoughts on “WEEK-LONG CONTEST: Joanne Renaud Reviews Judith O’Brien’s Ashton’s Bride

  1. Methinks the Confederacy was not as evil nor the Union as good as you depict. The Emancipation Proclamation only came about near the end of the war. If the North was primarily interested in ending slavery, then emancipation should have been a bit higher on Lincoln’s todo list. Money talked back then as much as it did when the Bushes went after Iraq.

    I think your critiques about the Civil War thread are spot-on. Getting timelines to not kink is one of the challenges of plotting time travel stories.

  2. Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, said in his Cornerstone Speech: “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

    You may want to rethink the idea that the Confederacy weren’t that bad. Not saying the Union was perfect, but there’s a clear bad-good thing going on here..

  3. Pingback: WEEK-LONG CONTEST: Review of Gina Lamm’s The Geek Girl and the Scandalous Earl | Steel &Velvet

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