Francesca ”Chess” Standish is no Scarlett O’Hara, but that’s only because the heroine of Alexandra Ripley’s From Fields of Gold does not have her own miniseries yet, and the heroine of Ripley’s Gone With the Wind sequel, Scarlett, does. Other than that, these two Ripley belles of the Old South ring strikingly similar in their generic heroic qualities: Both are independent-minded, both intelligent, both more outspoken than ladies of their ilk are supposed to be and likely ever were. Chess, thin and plain and stripped of the wealth her family had before the Civil War, marries Nate Richardson as a business proposition rather than a love match. Later she proves to be a wise and prudent partner in her husband’s growing tobacco empire (hence the gold in the title). What with one predictable romantic plot twist and another, she is awakened by the ministrations of a British lover and proves to be a passionate babe, not at all the grim workhorse she is first suggested to be.
Chess is, in short, a postbellum superwoman, a Martha Stewart of the Old South. She is also a bore — yet another empowered heroine created for today’s female audience of empowered book buyers. Psychological correctness deadens this story as much as political awareness. Although when it comes to that, I’m surprised Ripley even dared to stake the family fortune on a substance as politically iffy as tobacco. (Nate, be assured, hates the smell of the stuff.)
As with any historical romance worth its gold-embossed cover, From Fields of Gold is sprinkled with little cigarette stubs of well-researched information — about childbirth, about corsets, about cholera, etc. In such a sanitized setting, however, the details fail to suggest a real sense of place or time. And liberated Chess fails to convince me that she is anything more than a marketing pawn. C-