Scrolling through my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a tweet about Alethea Williams’ historical fiction novel, Walls for the Wind. I immediately purchased it:
In Walls for the Wind, Kit Calhoun is an orphan struggling to find her role as a young woman. She has recently returned to volunteer in the New York orphanage where she grew up and life – or perhaps just the reverend in charge of the orphanage – throws Kit many curve balls as she struggles to find a purpose and a path for her life. Increasingly entangled through obligation and love with the lives of those around her, her decisions only become more difficult as the story progresses. Eventually winding up in the notorious Hell on Wheels with other lives depending on her, Kit faces hardship, tragedy, and heartache. Will she ever see her dreams come true or will they be forever crushed by the reality of life in this new frontier?
(Keep reading for my full review or scroll to the bottom for the bullet points.)
I admit I have a weakness for orphan train stories since those were the stories which first turned me on to historical fiction as a child. So that premise alone was enough to peak my interest and get me excited to read this story.
That said, my first impression of this book was not a good one. First, the book does not have a Table of Contents of any kind, let alone a clickable one. As someone with experience formatting digital books, I know how simple it is to format a book to include this and I find it frustrating when a book is missing this helpful feature.
Then I came to the prologue. Normally a fan of prologues, I wish this one had been left out. It was one of those prologues that gives you a peak at something that happens near the end of the novel. When done well, these can work to help keep a reader going through some slower first chapters needed to set up a story. In this case, there were too many characters and not enough background information for me as a reader to fully understand what was going on and how I should feel about it. As a result, the prologue left me confused and frustrated.
Still that premise teased me into giving the first chapter a try anyway and I’m glad that I did. I absolutely love the way it began:
New York City, December 1866
The woman crouched on the floor. Clutching a bloody rag in one hand, she held a big-eyed, trembling little girl with the other.
Does it get much better than that? Already I can sense the danger and I have so many questions that I have to keep reading for answers. Chapter One did not disappoint. By the end I was completely sold and knew that I would be finishing this book.
Williams’ characters in this book are a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some, like Kit, Patrick, Thomas, and Connie were well-developed and felt real. Others like “the gambler” and his “business partner” fell a bit flat for me.
The gambler certainly seemed mentally ill and I appreciated the well-thought out background provided for his character, but other characters referred to him as “crazy” in the clinically insane sense yet I never quite got that extreme impression from his own thoughts. Perhaps I’m being too picky in his case – expecting too much. I’m on the fence with him. If you read the book (and ultimately I do recommend it) let me know what you think of him. Does he seem completely crazy to you?
My least favorite character was Maud, the gambler’s business partner. Her complicated relationship with the gambler was skillfully shown, but her limited role in the story left me with the impression that she was invented solely for the purpose of delivering key information to a main character. I wish she had been utilized more in the story.
One of the things I look for in any novel is the development of the main character over the course of the story. This Williams did very well. The Kit Calhoun we meet in Chapter One is not the Kit we say farewell to at the books’ end. Without giving too much away, I will say that at the start of the book, Kit has the feel of a youth thrown into the deep end of the pool trying to learn how to swim while people on the sidelines keeping throwing suggestions at her and she waffles from one method to another, latching on to any suggestion offered with little thought of her own. By the end of the story, she has matured into a confident young woman able to think beyond the teachings of her youth and the voices of those around her – capable of making her own decisions.
Perhaps my favorite character was Patrick. He appealed to me for several reasons, the first being his willingness to suffer inconvenience and even to suffer personal harm for the sake of doing what was right. Throughout the story he places the needs and wants of others above his own – a trait I very much admire – yet ironically it is what he does for himself that makes me like him the most. Again, without giving too much away, there comes a point where he is faced with a situation where many heroes would typically relent and change course, but knowing he is in the right, this hero stays the course in a way that is not selfish, but calmly confident, all while not giving up hope of yet winning the heroine.
The ending, while not dissatisfying, could have been done better. I felt Kit’s intelligence and previous actions demonstrated that she should have put two and two together, yet she doesn’t. This would be acceptable if there were some extenuating circumstance for her lack of logic (a head cold, a compelling distraction, etc.), but there was not. Then she has a change of heart which was expected but abrupt and left me wondering, “Why now?” Worst of all, however, was a scene where Kit & Patrick openly discuss, before an audience of strangers, a secret Kit has been hiding for chapters. I found this completely implausible and frustrating. I wanted to shout at them, “Go in the other room!” Yet by then I was so engaged with the characters, that I was able to look past this and enjoy the positive things the ending had to offer.
This novel tackles some very controversial topics and covers a significant amount of historical ground – two things which could easily sink the attempts of many authors, but Williams has risen to the challenge admirably. She does not balk in the face of the harsh realities of life in the nineteenth century and provides her readers with refreshingly vivid details where other authors have often shied away, hiding behind vague and minimalist descriptions or euphemisms. Her knowledgeable sprinkling of historical facts throughout the story leave the reader feeling they’ve not only experienced a bit of what life may have been like at that time, but also that they’ve learned something along the way.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Walls for the Wind and would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, with this caveat: please be aware that victims of trauma may find triggers within this story.
As a foster parent, I am particularly sensitive to these issues which are an unfortunate byproduct of handling such delicate subjects. It is good and right that these topics not be kept in the shadows, but I also believe in forewarning readers so that they may make an informed decision.
The Bullet Points:
- Skip the prologue and start with Chapter 1
- Not all the characters fully met my expectations but they still engaged my emotions, which is what I really want from them anyway.
- The ending isn’t perfect, but it still satisfies and I’m glad to have read it.
- The book stands out in its willingness to vividly tackle sensitive and controversial subjects.
- The historical aspects are presented with authority and feel organic, even essential, to the story.
- Trauma victims should beware of possible triggers.
- Recommended for readers of historical fiction.
I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.