Autumn Sky is one of those books that doesn’t slide comfortably into any genre. There isn’t enough interaction between the main character, Alaina Lund, and any of her male friends or eventual husband to classify the novel as a romance. There’s little or no mystery or suspense. There are psychological elements, but they aren’t developed and the story certainly isn’t funny. I suppose it fits the parameters of historical fiction better than any other genre, though the time period (1910) is not critical to the story, which could have taken place in any rural community during the first half of the twentieth century. Readers who find genre fiction a little on the fluffy side may find Autumn Sky a better fit as a literary novel.
Alaina’s greatest passion in life is helping her father care for his apple and pear orchard farm east of Sutter Creek, California. All of her hopes and dreams center around her father and the trees. The summer she is eighteen, her world is turned upside down when her father tells her he is hiring someone to help with the trees and she must work inside with her mother and sisters. The father lays the blame for this decision at her mother’s door, just as he feeds the perception that his son is lazy because James would rather work with horses than trees. When her father has a heart attack and dies, her confrontational relationship with her mother explodes. She knows that with the hired man and her brother’s help she can run the farm, but her mother wants to sell the farm and return to her wealthy, city-dwelling family. Grief and a clash of wills drive both women into a kind of insanity. Finally the mother promises that when Alaina marries she will give the deed to the farm to Alaina’s husband, a promise she has no intention of keeping. This sets Alaina on a wild campaign to find a husband without any regard to the potential husband’s feelings or whether she even cares for him.
A good portion of the novel surrounds Alaina’s relationship with other family members. She adores her father and barely tolerates her mother. She is eighteen and the oldest of four children. Her brother, James, is sixteen, her sister, Eleanor, fourteen, and the youngest child is nine-year-old Kathryn. Alaina considers her mother cold, aloof, and unreasonable, her brother lazy, and Kathryn a spoiled, treacherous little sneak. The only sibling she gets along with is sweet, hardworking, peacemaker Eleanor.
When Alaina is banned from working beside her father in the orchards, a young man, Nephi Erickson from Utah, is hired to take her place. Alaina is furious and goes about learning household chores with little grace and no goodwill. She blames her parents’ decision that she should learn more feminine skills on her mother and the hired man. She exhibits a great deal of intolerance and rudeness toward them both. At first it is easy for today’s modern woman to sympathize with the restraints placed on Alaina, but as the story proceeds there’s a growing sense that Alaina and her mother are a great deal alike. They are both obsessed with living their lives in accordance with their own narrow, stubborn views. Both are self-centered, seeing life only as it relates to their own chosen path. They both make empty promises and they both consider themselves above certain other people. Neither one shows any real concern for how her chosen path affects others.
Bigotry and intolerance play a role in Autumn Sky. There’s a thread of insanity and obsession that runs through the book as well, beginning with Alaina’s frequent neurotic dreams. Alaina’s mother exhibits a bigoted intolerance toward a new family that moves into the neighborhood because the mother is divorced and remarried. She also clings to a snobbish social superiority over her husband and first three children because of her privileged background and their failure to see how having rich relatives makes her views superior to theirs. Alaina condemns the hired man for his religion without knowing anything about Mormons. Neither parent nor Alaina are tolerant of James’ love of horses, and Alaina is hateful to Kathryn. Toward the end there are glimpses of the mother that show her as more loving and human than Alaina knows, and leave the impression the daughter is destined to repeat her mother’s mistakes.
A few gospel points are discussed in the book, but they have little or no impact on Alaina and she increases her dislike of the hired man because he gives her father a copy of The Book of Mormon and spends time discussing the gospel with him. There is some comparison of views concerning the nature of God and life after death, but they aren’t central to the story (though they may establish points to be expanded on in a future novel). This portion of the book serves to broaden the reader’s view of Eleanor and made me wonder if the author is planning a spinoff featuring Alaina’s sister.
Not a lot of information is given concerning Nephi Erickson other than that he left Utah because the manifesto broke up his family and his father chose to remain with his first wife rather than with Nephi’s mother. We also know that there are hard feelings between Nephi and the first wife. In addition, we know he has deep feelings for the Church, is a hard worker, and loves Alaina as irrationally as her father loved her mother.
Sears’ strengths show in how well she develops her scenes and how well she portrays her chosen time period. However, she is strongest in her character development. There’s an element of drama in her writing that is similar to watching a play unfold on stage. Even with her attention to character development and her ability to set the stage, there is a sparseness to her writing that leaves more questions asked than answers given. The action taking place between the lines is perhaps more significant than what she actually tells us. I’m looking forward to her next story and can’t help wondering if we’ll get Eleanor’s story or if she’ll follow self-absorbed Alaina into a Mormon household headed by a rejected second wife, partnered by a husband she doesn’t love and has barely come to like, and immersed in a religious culture she refuses to tolerate.