Miss Whitaker Opens Her Heart is about a woman named Sarah who owns and runs a sheep ranch in Australia in 1815 (at the time, it was the Colony of New South Wales). Sarah falls in love with the rancher next door, but he has a Dark Secret. I very much enjoyed this unusual Regency romance, even though the vast majority of the character development fell upon poor Sarah.
At the beginning of the story, eleven-year old Sarah is sailing to New South Wales to be reunited with her father. When she gets there, she’s crushed to discover that he died while she was at sea. Somehow Sarah convinces her cranky and very proper aunt (her chaperone during the sea voyage) that the two of them should stay and run the deceased father’s sheep ranch. The aunt doesn’t get much page time, and frankly I could have used a book just about her.
Anyway, there’s a time jump to 1815. Sarah is an adult and a very capable rancher. The aunt has passed away. Sarah discovers that she has a new neighbor, David. Of course she first meets him when he is bathing in the woods half naked because that’s how these things work.
ANYWAY, at first Sarah sees David as a rival since he buys land she had planned on buying herself, and, like her, is raising sheep for the wool market. However, she quickly warms up to him. For his part, David likes and respects her immediately. However, he’s troubled by her insistence that one cannot trust a convict. Her reasoning is that “people do not change.” David finds this awkward, not only because it makes Sarah act like an enormous jerk to convicts, some of whom she reluctantly employs, but also because David, unbeknownst to Sarah, arrived in New South Wales as a convict himself (he was pardoned on arrival due to having a rich protector). David keeps trying to tell Sarah the truth but he always thinks maybe the time isn’t right, or he gets interrupted – you get the idea.
Sarah’s biggest character flaw is that once someone hurts her, she distrusts not only that person but also everyone similar to that person. She hates the Aborigines because one of them killed her father. She hates people who arrived in New south Wales as convicts because they have cheated or otherwise betrayed her in the past. Over the course of the story she makes her peace with both groups. She learns that people can change and that the behavior of one person does not apply to a whole group of people.
She also learns to respect the Aboriginal people. Early on, Daniel becomes friends with Charrah, the leader of the local clan. Charrah is depicted as skilled and knowledgable, but (thankfully) not magical. He and Daniel have a significant language barrier but enjoy hunting together. Later on, Sarah meets an Aboriginal mother and baby. The three are caught in the same rainstorm and the mother is injured. Sarah helps the mother and baby until Carrah shows up to help all three of them. It’s more a matter of teamwork than a white savior sequence. Sarah develops a bond with the mother and the baby and is finally able to respect their clan. These are not point of view characters (the only point of view characters are Daniel and Sarah) but I appreciated their inclusion even though I wanted their characters to be much more fleshed out.
Unlike Sarah, who undergoes an enormous amount of character growth, Daniel gets all of his character growth out of the way in his first couple of chapters. Even then, it’s not really character growth. We meet him in his prison cell and he’s already repented for his crime. He bet on a race, gave a horse some drug that was supposed to make it sleepy, and it died. He is stricken with terrible remorse and thanks he deserves to be hung. He’s the most repentant of all repenters. His character growth has basically already occurred and the rest of the book is the reformed Daniel being a romantic guy.
From this point on Daniel is a paragon. He forms an immediate bond with an Aboriginal man and shows nothing but compassion to the less fortunate convicts in the colony. He has no problem asking a woman for ranching advice. He’s just generally awesome other than feeling unable to reveal his Big Secret to Sarah.
This book is published through a Christian Press (Covenant Communications) but the only quality of the book that tipped me off about the publisher is that there’s no sex. As would be typical of people with access to a church in the 1800s, Daniel and Sarah attend church but the only discussion of religion comes into play when Sarah and Daniel have to deal with sanctimonious, holier-than-thou neighbors. I’m not a Christian but I thought that the themes of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance and trust were fairly universal.
I liked this book despite its lack of balance with the character development. Both of the characters are likeable. I liked Daniel because is upfront about being new to ranching and grateful for Sarah’s advice, as so few other men are. Meanwhile, Sarah’s intolerance and rigidity are horrible flaws, but she is given plausible reasons for both having those flaws and for being able to overcome them. I admire a woman who isn’t afraid to get messy by sticking her hand up the business end of a laboring ewe to help deliver a lamb. She’s resourceful, tough, and hardworking and still likes a pretty dress now and then.
Above all, I loved the setting. During this time period, there’s a small but well-established town, a clear but somewhat flexible social hierarchy, and opportunities for social events. There’s also a sense of wildness. At one point Sarah takes Daniel and some friends to see a platypus (she calls it a water mole). It’s an idyllic scene, but also one in which Sarah makes everyone take precautions on the hike towards the platypus den to avoid spiders and quicksand. There’s a storm and a fire. The human characters feel very small against a massive backdrop of mountain and forest.
This is a short book that would have benefitted from expansion. It touches on the more painful aspects of that period of Australia’s history (sexism, virulent racism, and the harsh lives that most convicts led) just enough to avoid insulting the reader’s intelligence, but it doesn’t go into detail. All of the supporting characters, regardless of gender, class, or race, exist only to further the character development of the leads, and I would have liked to have gotten more of a sense of these characters as people in their own right.
This book wasn’t perfect, but it was enjoyable. The setting made it special and unusual, and the relatability of the characters made me care about their fates. It doesn’t hurt that there were details about the best shears to use for shearing sheep and details about fabric for a new dress. Also, there’s a lot of food. It was a comforting and entertaining read.I would not use this as a history guide, but I do recommend it for a rainy day with some tea and biscuits.