Title: The Hired Man
Author: Jan Irving
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Length: Novel (242 pages)
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
Reverend Ian Kenyon knows the harsh sting of life and how a man can suffer a loss of faith. The death of his wife and newborn son shook him to his foundations, and he’s been drifting ever since. Bryn Morgan has returned home from prison to the only family he has—an abusive father who abandoned him to the law when Bryn was unjustly accused of rape. Still poor, lost, and shunned, Bryn searches for work, any work that will allow him to survive.
Reluctantly moved by Bryn’s plight, Ian hires the young man to work on his farm despite Bryn’s prickly, defensive nature. Soon Ian fears his growing feelings of grace and compassion might be something else, something more… heated. Whatever the cause, he knows they are impossible to pursue, because Heaven only knows what would happen if a man of God began to have forbidden feelings for his hired man.
The Hired Man is the first book by Jan Irving that I’ve read, and though not without some issues for me, I generally enjoyed this well-written and even-paced tale of loss, pain, rebirth, hope and family. Note that this no light and airy romance; after several fairly fun and carefree books, it took a little bit for me to switch gears to this angsty story full of pain and confusion.
THM is told in alternating third-person POV mostly by the protags, but one secondary character has a few minor moments. Set in an untold time during the 19th Century, the story opens with reverend Ian being told by his prim housekeeper, Mrs. Robson, that “Bryn” was back in town. Apathetic and barely paying attention, he needs to be reminded that Bryn is a young man who was convicted of rape and sent to prison. Waxing on about “no-account” Bryn’s faults, Ian remembers Bryn as a dirty, poor youngster who never had a chance with his drunken, abusive father. When Bryn meekly comes looking for work, Ian, feeling badly for the backward, angry man, takes him on against his better judgment. Soon he is making a difference on the farm and becoming part of their small, non-traditional family. He also helps Ian to surface from the sea of despair he has been living in after the death of his wife and son, with Ian helping in return to give Bryn some pride and confidence about himself. But that’s not all; feelings become known on both sides, but it not an easy journey as shame and desire war with each other, as well as outside influences.
What worked for me:
I thought this story started out really, really well. I liked both flawed and hurting characters, even with all of their issues: Ian, a man who lost just about everything — his family, his faith, his will to live — who now has a reason to pull himself together and heal, and Bryn, the angry, bitter and backward man who never had a chance, and who now has the opportunity to better himself and be loved and feel safe. I could feel both men’s pain and suffering as if they were palpable, and we are given plenty of understanding of their backgrounds as to why our heroes are as they are. I also felt the confusion and conflicts each man had over the situation. They were very believable and sympathetic to me.
I thought Mrs. Robson was a good, strong, well-developed secondary character, one who I felt was likely for the time period and wasn’t stereotypical of the dreaded females we often see in the genre. I thought she showed disapproval without being overbearing, and her tentative change of heart was well-paced and credible. Other secondary cast — little girl Dandelion, Ian’s hopeful love interest Ellie Mae, Bryn’s abusive father, the town doctor, the not-so-nice shopkeeper, and various other folks in smaller roles — seemed to be relatively well-developed as well.
About a little more than halfway through, both characters started acting out of, well, character. Ian, who is very backwards and inexperienced about sex, all of a sudden becomes an aggressor at times, initiating encounters where before he had no idea, and saying things that seemed unusual for him. And it isn’t as if there are many sex scenes in the book before this so he could become comfortable in this new, alien aspect of his life. And he is inconsistent; one moment innocent and shocked and unsure of how he should act, the next eagerly jumping into playful bondage or rimming Bryn. This continues for much of the rest of the book: shame, wanting, one step forward, two steps back. It got the point where I didn’t know which Ian I was going to be reading about.
I also felt that Bryn begins to act and talk out of character as well during the second half. One of the things he does to improve himself is to accept Mrs. Robson’s offer to teach him to read. Even with his progress and living with Ian and Mrs. Robson, his vocabulary and grammar improved to a point where it became, for me, somewhat unrealistic. One could argue that he has, indeed, improved that much, but I didn’t think so. Also, his behavior around Ian and sex seems to veer from his general character as well, losing all of his shame and feelings of both being dirty and dirtying Ian seemingly all of a sudden and becoming this wanton creature. Again, somewhat unrealistic.
Even with the issues I had I would recommend this book to those interested in the genre as I did generally like it. As usual, I am one reader with one opinion, so I welcome the opportunity to hear differing views. Some readers may not have these issues at all, and if the high ratings I’ve seen elsewhere are an indication, this is the case.