Monday, December 22, 2003

Shadows of the Canyon: Life with the Harvey Girls

Tracie Peterson’s "Desert Roses" series begins with Shadows of the Canyon, set in Arizona in 1923. Alexandria "Alex" Keegan has worked the last few years as a Harvey Girl in the prestigious El Tovar hotel near the Grand Canyon, hoping to save enough money to leave and take her mother with her, far away from her philandering father. She also enjoys her close friendship with rancher Luke Toland.
It is campaign time that summer, with several Democratic candidates gathering at El Tovar to begin their attempts to win the White House. Through the local workers, mainly Alex and Luke, and the wealthy visitors, Shadows of the Canyon shows an interesting time and region, the early years of the Roaring Twenties in the American Southwest.

The history of this story includes the last days of President Hoover’s administration, including his sudden death in early August (possibly from food poisoning, though many historians today believe he died of a heart attack). The El Tovar was, and is, an actual hotel, a luxury hotel far nicer than the standard train-stop restaurants. By 1923, Fred Harvey himself has passed on, and the Harvey business is in its heyday.

Beyond the basic historical setting, though, is a good page-turner, part murder-mystery and thriller, that could occur in any setting. The main relationship theme is common enough: a young woman distrustful of men, who must learn to trust. A secondary plot involves change and maturity in another young woman who at first appears as a rather flippant, superficial and unlikable character.

The main characters, Alex and Luke, are well developed. The novel also shows a good progression of character for Valerie Winthrop--from rich, spoiled girl to one broken in spirit when events get out of her control. Other characters, such as the father Rufus Keegan and crazy-man Joel Harper, seem more exaggerated and the stuff of movies, larger than real-life. Still, they provide suspense and a quick-moving plot, the classic villains in a story where good must ultimately win.

Shadows of the Canyon works well as a stand-alone novel, yet it is the first in a series about unrelated "Harvey Girls" in pre-World War II American West. This first story keeps the action going, then wraps up all the loose plot ends in a somewhat lengthy denouement. This book is a fun read, and a great start to an interesting series.

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