Today’s cozy read is the first I’ve read by romance author Tamera Alexander and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set in Tennessee shortly after the Civil War, To Win Her Favor takes full advantage of the horse breeding and racing the area is famous for as well as creating a vivid depiction of the difficulties freedmen (former slaves) had finding their places in the new society. It also shows the distrust of foreigners prevalent at the time, particularly the Irish who “need not apply”.
Tennessee horse breeding society was a closed community of men — white men, powerful men — who were, for the most part, loathe to accept change. All of the jockeys were black boys; all of the trainers were men. So when Maggie Linden’s thoroughbred mare runs in a race, it is under her father’s name even though she has raised and trained Bourbon Belle since she was born. Like many of the great plantations in the south, Maggie’s home is in danger. Run down, only Maggie and her father left to run it, there are no crops planted and all of the livestock has been sold except for Bourbon Belle. When her 10-year-old jockey Willie witnesses the hanging of his neighbour, his family decides to head for Chicago. Maggie was counting on Bourbon Belle to win the inaugural Peyton Stakes in order to save her home from auction but she must have a jockey in order to do it.
For Irish immigrants coming to America for a fresh start, the south was an inhospitable place. Cullen McGrath runs into discrimination everywhere he turns. “No Irish need apply” signs were throughout the town, the blacksmith he had agreed to buy the handsome Percheron tried to change the deal, land suddenly wasn’t for sale, and powerful bullies were “encouraging” him to move further east or south to settle. But Cullen liked the area and had promised his late wife that they’d farm in Tennessee where the green hills looked like home, and while she and their little Katie had died of typhoid on the trip over, he intended to keep his promise.
Gilbert Linden, Maggie’s father, is gravely ill and hiding it from her. He is desperate to find a way to have her keep her home, Linden Downs, but without a jockey, they can’t count on race money to pay their back taxes and loan and the farm will go to auction. When Linden meets Cullen, he likes what he sees in the strong Irishman, in the way he talks of his family, the way he handles a frightened stallion, and his fear of gambling and drink, vices his father had displayed to the detriment of the family. Before the afternoon visit is done, Linden and Cullen have struck a strange bargain — Cullen will pay off the debt of the farm in exchange for full ownership but the caveat is that Cullen will marry Maggie.
An interesting plot that sees two strong characters first pulling against each other but eventually pulling together to fight discrimination, violence, and bloodshed as they begin to lift Linden Downs to become a thriving concern. The Ku Klux Klan comes into it, lots of insight into horse racing, a strong power in the community becomes a staunch ally, and Cullen and Maggie when support and friendship from the workers they treat with respect and dignity. When the daughter of one of them turns out to be a natural rider, Cullen and Maggie have to overcome obstacles and personal conflicts before they can agree about horse racing. This is a powerful story in addition to being a romance and a very fast read because it is so hard to put down. I’ll be looking for more by Tamera Alexander for sure. * * * * 1/2