The Lady and the Lionheart by Joanne Bischof takes place in the Virginia of 1890. Ella Beckley has moved away from heartbreak in her mountain hometown to be a nurse in bigger city. The problem is that her knowledge is self-taught. The doctor with whom she applied won’t hire her for her homespun remedies. But he does let her work as a scullery maid, occasionally allowing her to assist in other ways.
One snowy evening, Ella is nearly bowled over by a tall, panicked stranger with a feverish baby. Busy, the doctor tells Ella to attend to the child. Ella learns that the man is a performer with the new circus in town. The doctor only lets the man and baby stay overnight since the man doesn’t have enough money to continue the baby’s care.
Risking her own job, Ella runs after the man, whom she learned was named Charlie Lionheart. She goes to his tent where she meets Regina, a widow who has become the baby’s godmother and who helps Charlie out. Ella tends the baby and checks back each day.
Circus life is a whole new world for Ella. Charlie has always kept his personal life private from “rubes”–circus outsiders who pay to laugh and gawk at performers but who think circus folks “beneath” fine society. But Ella’s kindness and persistent questions slowly break down his resolve, and he opens up to her.
They grow in appreciation and then attraction to each other, but the situation is impossible. Ella can’t run away and join the circus, after all. And Charlie is contracted for more than Ella knows. Plus they each have secrets from their pasts which have scarred them and affected their futures–secrets they’ve not yet shared.
I listened to the free audiobook version of this story, which did not contain any back matter. I’d love to know what inspired the author to write this story. I loved the subtle theme about not judging a book by its cover. The swarthy, heavily tattooed circus performer may have a heart of gold and a selfless reason for what he does. The pretty, kind nurse may hold a depth of pain behind her smile. But I especially loved when one character makes the point that when people are deeply damaged, and no amount of faith will make the circumstances or the past go away, they are still not to be discarded like a broken vase. They still have great value–and not only value, but beauty.
A few reviews I saw expressed dismay at how people perceived a man’s tattoos. They were offended the author would insinuate that anything was wrong with tattoos. But the author was portraying attitudes in the 1890s. The doctor says early on that tattoos were associated with ex-cons in that era.
I had gotten this audiobook not only because it was free, but especially because I had very much enjoyed the author’s Sons of Blackbird Mountain and Daughters of Northern Shores a few years ago. I felt that this story dragged just a bit (although another reviewer appreciated that it was “unrushed,” so maybe the pacing was a matter of perspective). It seemed the two main characters kept circling around the same issues over and over. There were a few editorial oddities that distracted me.
But despite those minor issues, I enjoyed the story, theme, and characters.