Thoroughly-researched historical romance with thought-provoking themes; some sexual content.
Ever since her sister, Daisy, ran away to obtain money through a life of prostitution, Lily Young has been searching for her among the lumber towns of 1880s Michigan. Consumed by guilt and a passion to help injured women, she goes from town to town in the hopes not only of finding her sister, but of making a difference in the lumber towns' dissolute lifestyle.
Then she meets Connell McCormick, the son of one of Michigan's lumber barons, and begins to fall in love. But though Connell agrees that the lifestyle around them is evil, he has bigger worries on his mind than changing the world - worries like making his company a success and winning his father's favor. And Lily's zeal might not only cost him those things, but drag the two of them into danger as well.
The debauchery of most of the shanty boys in the lumber towns Lily visits is shown markedly as wrong, and Lily seeks to combat it. However, it is also made clear that the workers are frequently driven to such pleasures because of the harsh conditions inflicted on them by their wealthy employers; this too is addressed. The devastation wreaked by logging during this time plays a significant role as well.
Drunkenness, prostitution, and white slavery are all major plot points. Also, the romance between Lily and Connell can raise questions and eyebrows (see Sexual Content).
Lily struggles with feelings of self-righteousness and hypocrisy in dealing with her sister, and must remind herself that she is no less sinful than Daisy. She tends to be hotheaded, and her militaristic approach to righting society's ills can be questionable (see Spiritual Content).
Both Lily and Connell have Christian backgrounds, but seem to have little confidence in or use for God, at least early in the story. There are no scenes of salvation/regeneration; the prominent themes are rather the Providence of God, and standing against the evils of the world. Virtue is praised for virtue's sake.
I believe the fashion in which Lily goes up against the wickedness in the logging camps and towns is worth consideration. Her approach is markedly militaristic, that is, taking on evil head-first and combating it, whereas we are told in the Bible that the "weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (see II Cor. 10:1-5 and Eph. 6:10-13). The contrast between her attitude and Connell's is very marked, and perhaps an attitude somewhere between the two mindsets would be appropriate. (This is does come into play in the novel, but it is still worth the reader's while to pause and consider.)
One issue I had with the spiritual aspects of the characters is that, while Lily does come more to realize that God does not need her help, it seems as though the characters continue to believe that they merely need assistance from Him. For instance, at one point Lily prays, "If you'll use your angels to fight off the hordes of demons that live here, then I can take care of the rest" (pg. 201). This is not exactly in line with "Unless God builds the house, they labor in vain who build it" (Psalm 127). Total dependence on God never seems to be reached.
The villain, James Carr, is known to have killed countless men by beating them with brass knuckles. He also beats several women, and one character dies from it. A character kills a wolf in order to protect himself. Some men are shot, others are stabbed; there are a number of fights throughout the book. One character is badly beaten and laid up for some time.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Taverns comprise most of the buildings in any one lumber town, and the drunkenness of the shanty boys is frequently mentioned. Connell's brother is an alcoholic. Drunkenness is one of the evils that Lily seeks to combat.
Since Lily's sister ran away to live as a prostitute, and Lily struggles to help women who want to escape a similar situation, brothels play a large part in the plot. The main villain (who also is an historical character) lures girls in by advertising positions as maids, and Lily and Connell fight to expose this.
One character, rescued from prostitution, rapidly begins an affair with a married man; Lily catches them in a compromising situation. There are several references to Connell catching his fiancee and his brother in an equally compromising situation. His brother, now married, is a womanizer and accuses Connell of the same. A man attempts to corner Lily, for obvious reasons. One character comes close to being forced into prostitution and puts on an elaborate charade in the hopes of escape. A character talks about how she was raped, though little detail is given.
The romance between Connell and Lily can be worrisome. There is strong physical attraction between them, which is understandable, but which plays perhaps a greater role than was strictly necessary. Connell talks several times about keeping their relationship pure. At one point he considers marrying her right away so he can be with her. At another time they are trapped together by a blizzard and sleep close together to keep warm - which of course leads to gossip. There are a number of passionate kisses. All in all, it is questionable whether this aspect of the plot was edifying.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
A few characters, particularly villains and side-characters, swear. "W****" is used to refer to prostitutes.
"Unending Devotion," while woven through the historical setting of Michigan in the late 1880s, is primarily a romance and will probably appeal most to fans of the genre. The Author's Note increased my appreciation for the book as a work of historical fiction, however; knowing that such characters as James and Maggie Carr and Frankie Osborne were in fact historical figures made the story much more real. I applaud Ms. Hedlund's use of historical details, as well, for the setting was never anything but realistic.
My primary concerns were, as mentioned above, the emphasis on physical attraction in the romance and the militaristic fashion in which the characters, especially Lily, dealt with the wickedness around them. While a man like Carr should most certainly be combated by those with means, the "reform" mindset as a whole does not seem to capture the nature of human depravity or the role of the Christian as Salt and Light. I did, however, sincerely appreciate the final conclusion regarding logging, and Connell's decision in the end. But it would be telling to give that away.
Note: SCR was provided with a free review copy from the publisher, Bethany House, in exchange for an honest review.