The Christian historical romance novel From a Distance
(2008) is the first in author Tamera Alexander’s ongoing Timber Ridge Reflections
series of romance novels that share a setting and some characters but are not sequels to one another. Set in 1875 on the Colorado frontier, From a Distance
describes the relationship between an East Coast woman aspiring to be a newspaper photographer and a rugged former Confederate soldier who fall in love despite their many differences.
Before beginning the summary, a quick warning: the novel features the argument that the best way to combat racism is for its victims to “turn the other cheek” as often as possible. According to Alexander, their acquiescence in the face of hatred will eventually wear down the racists around them.
Thirty-something Elizabeth Garrett Westbrook works as a correspondent and photographer for DC’s Washington Chronicle
, one of the country’s premier newspapers. The only problem is that because she is a woman in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, she has been obligated to use a male pseudonym to publish her work. Eager to impress her editor, and potentially earn the right to have her own byline, she sets out to the remote Colorado Territory town of Timber Ridge to capture the beauty of its surrounding mountains and their legendary cliff face dwellings. However, this isn’t her only assignment. In reality, her job is to quietly scout out the area for potential East Coast investors, who would like to develop the land into a resort.
Elizabeth is a headstrong, self-willed woman —which makes sense considering the breadth of her achievements so far and the scope of her ambitions for the future. She is also physically vulnerable, suffering from the same mysterious lung ailment that killed her mother when Elizabeth was a little girl (based on the described symptoms, it’s likely asthma). In order to pursue her dream job, she has been lying to her father, a former Union colonel and current US Senator who disapproves of her work, telling him she is going to Colorado to try to recover her health in its cool, dry air. At the same time, Elizabeth wonders about the path God is asking her to follow. Her relationship with Him is a little rocky, however, since she often just does what she wants, expecting to be blessed for it in the process.
On the way to Timber Ridge, Elizabeth hires a photography assistant, Josiah Birch, an older African-American man who is a freed slave. She needs a helper because 1870s photographic processes involve large, cumbersome apparatuses, glass plates, and volatile chemicals—all quite difficult for one person to operate. As she travels, many people are shocked at the idea that she would work with a black man, but Elizabeth brushes them off. Josiah, when encountering racism, lives up to his “magical negro” stereotype that several readers criticize: He calmly absorbs insults and then dispenses wisdom for the white folks’ benefit. As the story goes on, we learn Josiah’s tragic backstory—he experienced all sorts of horrors during his slave days, and his wife died in the South before she could be freed.
In Timber Ridge, Elizabeth finds a beautiful mountain vista, complete with a huge elk paused in the shot. However, just as she has set up all her equipment, out of nowhere, a man shoots and kills the elk, ruining her photograph. This tracker and hunter is a local resident, Daniel Ranslett, who loves the land he lives on but holds himself apart from the rest of the town because of his psychological scars.
Daniel was a Confederate soldier sharpshooter who saw such horrors during the war that he still has night terrors almost every night. Avoiding other people in order to nurse his pain, he spends his days alone with only his dog, Beau, for company. He and Elizabeth immediately clash. Sensing his wilderness acumen, Elizabeth asks him to guide her and Josiah while they look for places to photograph. When Daniel says no, she is flabbergasted, writes him off as an obnoxious townsperson, and goes about her business.
However, soon enough, Elizabeth ends up in serious trouble after taking a photograph of a dead man that seems to point to evidence of murder. When the town, stirred up about the killing, points the finger at Josiah, the threat of lynching makes the sheriff take action. The sheriff asks Daniel to protect Josiah and Elizabeth by leading them out of town and into the mountains. There, they will be safe, and Elizabeth will finally be able to photograph the cliff dwellings—only Daniel knows how to get to them.
Forced to travel together, Daniel, Josiah, and Elizabeth grow close in different ways. Elizabeth and Josiah develop a friendship, in which he selflessly gives her advice about her life. Daniel questions his racist beliefs because of the way Josiah tolerates and forgives Daniel’s constant bigoted remarks. Elizabeth and Daniel open up to each other about their own lives, with a very slow and non-physical romance starting to bloom.
They learn of a startling coincidence: Daniel almost killed Elizabeth’s father during the Civil War, but, by complete chance, her father was prevented from being at the Battle of Franklin where Daniel’s job was to pick off Union officers. They decide that this near miss is a sign from God.
As readers note, the novel ends very abruptly, skipping over most of the actual courtship between Daniel and Elizabeth, including the proposal scene. Instead, in the novel’s last chapter, they are already married. Moreover, none of the questions or plot threads raised by the rest of the novel are answered. Elizabeth never has to account for her numerous lies and suffers no repercussions for deceiving the entire town about her purpose there. It is not clear whether her photography ever earns Elizabeth her dream newspaper job, or whether she will continue working while married, or whether she has simply given up what seemed to be her entire reason for living.