Familial duty and personal passions collide in Across a Broken Shore, a new historical fiction novel by Amy Trueblood.
A story of family ties, duty, and following your dreams, Across a Broken Shore follows Willa MacCarthy, a young woman who has resigned herself to the fate her family has chosen for her. In a few months time, she’ll take her vows and become a nun. But when a twist of fate opens her eyes to the possibility of one of her passions becoming more than just that, her life changes forever.
Encouraged by her new mentor, Willa explores the world of medicine and healing, allowing her to dream of becoming a doctor herself one day. By day, she’s treating workers building the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as well as the less fortunate forced to live in Hooverviles. By night, she’s the meek, penitent daughter whose parents treat her without an ounce of warmth (but whose affections she seeks nevertheless).
But Willa can’t live two lives for long, and so she must grapple with her decision to either stay on the path laid out for her or follow her true calling and risk losing her family as well as her faith.
I have to admit that this novel is a bit different from how I thought it’d be, but in a good way. Going into it, I expected it to heavily revolve around the building of the Golden Gate Bridge itself. After all, it’s positioned as a beacon of hope and light on the cover.
However, the bridge is really just a backdrop. While Willa does visit it and treat men there, there are really only a few very important and dramatic scenes that occur there. The Golden Gate Bridge serves as more of an informing background setpiece than an actual setting.
However, it also serves as a constant harbinger of progress and change, which fits perfectly with the themes of this novel and the trials Willa goes through to determine her future.
Willa’s main conflict in Across a Broken Shore centers around her future plans. As the only daughter in the MacCarthy clan, she’s expected to enter into a life of service for the Catholic church. It’s a tradition in her family and one she feels she must continue.
However, as we all know, traditions never remain constant or unchanging. They grow, evolve, or sometimes, even become outdated and relics of the past. It’s at this point in the MacCarthy tradition that we meet Willa.
Amy Trueblood expertly conveys just how torn up Willa is about the decision she must make. Though I’m no longer religious, I truly felt for Willa and understood her pain in grappling with potentially losing her family.
Her faith is extremely important to her and isn’t something she takes lightly. Every discussion of obligation and belief draws the reader further and further into Willa’s thoughts, really giving us a sense of who she is at her core.
This novel does a great job of showing just how much Catholicism permeated all aspects and facets of life back then. It not only informs Willa’s view of the world and the different gender roles, but it also introduces a strong sense of guilt and dictates just how individuals should live their lives.
Many times, Willa following of her faith can be incredibly frustrating from a modern mindset, but Amy Trueblood articulates Willa’s beliefs and predicaments so well that it’s impossible not to empathize with the young woman.
It’s interesting that, in a historical fiction book that takes place around the Great Depression and focuses on dreams and drives of women, the main antagonist (if you will) of Across a Broken Shore *isn’t* outright, plain-and-simple fighting sexism or rigid gender roles. After all, that’s what we see in many novels set in the past. Women are constantly fighting against the norms of the time and those are what they must overcome.
I’m not saying that sexism and the push for traditional gender roles don’t play a part here. Quite the opposite in fact, as Willa’s mentor is consistently plagued by old-fashioned notions of women’s roles, and Willa herself is constantly forced to play the role of the meek and dutiful daughter.
But instead of sexism and all that comes with it, family obligation and religion are positioned as the story’s antagonists. They’re both what give incredible meaning to Willa’s life but also what hold her back from living her life, her way.
Neither is inherently bad, and they’re not treated as the “villains” of the story, which is what makes Across a Broken Shore so compelling. We all have struggled with these parts of ourselves, so it’s almost impossible to not put ourselves in Willa’s shoes.
The exploration of the roles family obligation and religion should play, make for a truly fascinating and nuanced novel, far much moreso than it would’ve been had general sexism and gender barriers been the novel’s opposing forces. That’s been done before. What Across a Broken Shore does with its conflicts is really refreshing.
Speaking of refreshing, I absolutely loved how the main romance in the novel plays out here.
Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for meet cutes, slow burns, and canonical romances. I can’t help but swoon over every romantic male lead I come across.
That being said, Willa’s relationship with Sam Butler, a young man who works on the bridge, is unlike a lot of pairings I’ve read before. It’s a slow burn, to be sure, but it’s not an all-consuming one.
Willa and Sam balance each other out. They have a perfectly-balanced “give and take” relationship, knowing what the other needs and giving it to them in small, palatable doses. Not only that, but their romantic relationship is less steamy and passionate and based more on friendship. You may think that would be a boring courtship to read, but it makes their interactions and moments of tenderness all the more endearing.
The best part of their relationship is that it doesn’t take center stage in Across a Broken Shore. Though there are elements of it that are definitely fodder for relationship drama (his being a rambler or the fact that she’s Catholic and he’s Protestant-ish), they never threaten to take over the focus of the novel, which is centered firmly upon Willa’s career and future endeavors. Yes, their relationship is an important part of this novel, but it’s more of a “nice to have” than a “need to have,” giving Willa the space she needs to be an independent woman.
Speaking of independent women, the absolute best part of this novel is the lineup of headstrong, fiery women. In addition to Willa, Across a Broken Shore introduces Cara, Willa’s best friend and confidante, and Doctor Katherine Winston, the woman who really sets the entire story in motion.
Cara is Willa’s foil; she’s outspoken, outgoing, and vibrant around anyone and everyone. She supports Willa and encourages her to follow her dreams. Though she’s the most effervescent character in the novel, she also struggles with following her passions and achieving her dreams. But she takes from Willa as much as she gives. Their friendship is one that most of us aspire to have in our lives.
Though I love Cara and Willa, Doctor Katherine Winston is probably my favorite character. She’s very much a mentor figure who’s patient but tough, kind but firm. She feels incredibly real and like someone you wish you had in your life to help guide you on your way. Like a caring older sibling, perhaps. Her invitation for Willa to join her as an assistant demonstrates just how well she’s able to read others and anticipate what they need.
And Willa? Though she’s beholden to traditions, she strikes out on her own and is headstrong in moments where her family (or reminders of her family) are not around. She’s far from perfect, but she acknowledges her wants and needs, weighing those against her obligations and morals, and works to make everything fit together as best she can.
There’s a little something in each one of these women that we can all empathize with and relate to. They’re the heartbeat of this novel and what make it such an unforgettable read.
Across a Broken Shore is an effective historical fiction novel that’s impossible not to get drawn into. From the realistic and relatable characters to the well-drawn setting of San Francisco in the 1930s, it’s a world that’s easy to imagine walking around in.
If you’re looking for an engaging coming of age story that’s set in a time period not often explored and features lovingly-crafted, independent female characters, definitely give Amy Trueblood’s Across a Broken Shore a read.