Emma Browning, who runs a boarding house in 1896 Little Hickman, Kentucky, can fend for herself, having grown up as the motherless daughter of Ezra, the longtime town drunk. Emma’s childhood has left her without much use for religion, so when Jonathan Atkins, who attended the same one-room schoolhouse as Emma, returns to Little Hickman as the town’s new preacher, Emma is reluctant to rent him a room. When Jon does Emma the favor of hauling Ezra off her premises, though, she relents. Jon decides to redeem what appears to be the hopeless case of Ezra, Soon, he sets his sights on the soul—and the heart—of the prickly Emma.
MacLaren writes in a lively, engaging style, with a welcome dash of humor, and her characters have depth and heart. Especially near the end of the book, her people tend to lapse into jarringly modern lingo such as “role model,” and the author sometimes spells out the psychology behind her characters’ actions more than seems necessary, but these are minor flaws in an enjoyable and moving novel.