For the Record, fiction can reveal as much truth as fact. In this rousing novel by Regina Jennings, she plays with the themes of disguise and deceit, truth and justice, to uncover messages about faith and love. Set in Pine Gap, in the 19th century Ozark mountains, this tale seems innocuous on the surface, but its meaning is serious.
Betsy “just couldn’t stand to let a mystery be. Not when there was a chance on her figuring it out.” When Joel, the new deputy, arrives in Pine Gap, Betsy becomes his shadow, wanting in on the action he incites in town. He also becomes material for a series she writes about his alter ego, “Eduardo.” Betsy’s there at the train station to tell Joel where the boarding house is, and there when it isn’t accepting new guests. She’s there when he gets his “horse” and as he trails the Bald Knobbers, a self-appointed band of justice-seekers filling in for the former inept sheriff. The Bald Knobbers think the town doesn’t need a new sheriff. But when Doctor Hopkins’ farm burns down, Joel, the Bald Knobbers, Betsy and her nephew Scott, sneakily tagging along, all go after Miles Bullard as the prime suspect. Young Scott gets caught up in the fray and Betsy and Joel join forces to save him.
It is as easy to approach the Pine Gap gang as a cast of whimsical characters as it is for Betsy to turn Joel into “Eduardo.” The prose gallops along, dotted with colorful metaphors. “Joel felt like he was at the bottom of a rust-colored sack, surrounded by these mountains. At any moment someone might pull the drawstring and the sky would be swallowed up from view.” “His eyes traveled to her lips, and somehow his expression became that of a starving man sitting inches from food he couldn’t eat.” The people are charming in their quirky scooginess. The Mayor says to Joel, “do what you want, Mr. Deputy. You won’t find people who care less than here.” These characters and their antics serve as a backdrop for the primary drama, a love story between Joel and Betsy.
The biggest mystery to be solved isn’t who burned the farm, or how to save Scott, but how Joel and Betsy will get together. Betsy’s stories about Joel/Eduardo do earn her the money she hoped they would, but they incriminate Joel as well. His past in Texas, as suggested in the stories, comes to haunt him in Pine Gap. Regina Jennings uses these lovers’ secrets to reveal everlasting truths about God’s love. “Sometimes God can only work with us when we’ve come to the end of our efforts,” Mr Sanders, the defunct boarding house owner, tells Joel after Betsy advises him to go back to Texas and settle his affairs before returning to her. “And what a paradox to find that because you loved someone, you had to send them away.” Joel and Betsy’s love flourishes when they set each other free to listen to God’s work in their lives.
Regina Jennings manages not to make her book into a moral lesson. She weaves messages of faith into the plot. I can easily relate to the characters as they discern where to leave off trying to fix things and rely on some outside help. However, I do not relate to Betsy at the end. Is her love for Joel at the expense of her writing? It is unclear whether being together means she can’t also do what she loves. I learned from her website that Regina Jennings is a busy mother, teacher and writer. I hope her example shines through in this novel; I wouldn’t want readers to get the impression that divinely inspired love, especially for women, means sacrificing creative expression and independence.