This isn't normally the kind of book I read, leaning toward the old west and romance, but it was told in such a sweet and realistic way that I was able to overlook my reservations and enjoy it as a story about life in the old west rather than as a romance. The author puts to shame so many other YA writers who think people fall in love instantly ('instadore' as I call it). She even has a love triangle - after a fashion - going on here without making it farcical and ridiculous. YA authors could learn a lot about how to write realistic romance from reading this, and some of them sorely need an education if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem.
Another draw for me was that Fred Harvey's girls were a really thing. I have a distaste for novels that are titled after the fashion 'The ______'s Daughter' or 'The ______'s Wife', labeling these women like this one does, as though they're a possession of Fred Harvey. It's an annoyance, but this is how they were known back then. Harvey really did have a chain of restaurants tied to the railroad network, where he (or rather the girls he hired) served fine food quickly; it was not the same as the larded, calorie-laden, obesity-driving fast food we eat today! These restaurants had a good, solid reputation, and the girls were highly trained and had standards imbued into them, so they were considered a 'catch' by the men who encountered them. Consequently, many of them got married and made good matches, but there was a penalty for those who quit their job before the year's contract was up: they had half their year's wages docked.
This story is about a fictional girl named Bonny who is looking for a better life and when she sees Harvey's ad in a newspaper looking for girls to go out west and work in the restaurants she sees it as a chance to earn money to buy her mother a new porch for the farmhouse, so off she goes. She travels alone initially, and we have the trope of her running into someone famous - Horatio Alger in this case - which seemed a bit much to me. This was a more civilized time and traveling alone not so bad, if a little scary for her, but after she pairs up with another girl heading for the same life she has chosen, things look up. At first she feels a bit lost and homesick at eh new restaurant, especially since it's so new it hasn't even been built yet. Food is served in some converted railroad cars, but soon she's working the job without a second thought, and meeting men.
Will is the railroad telegraph operator, but soon he moves up to become a representative of Fred Harvey's with regard to a new trade that he and Bonny helped originate: selling Indian crafts and wares at the restaurants, which turns into a profitable sideline. It's so successful that Will is soon coopted into setting-up an Indian camp at the upcoming Chicago world's fair, but when measles strikes the Indian village, Bonny's other acquaintance, a doctor named Joshua, comes to the fore. Bonny doesn't feel especially drawn to either of these men, although Will seems to occupy her thoughts more and more since she's become such good friends with him and he's a real gentleman.
Seeing her two closest friends happily marry two very different guys - one a wealthy rancher and the other a poor, down-to-Earth gold prospector yet to strike anything, Bonny is stuck wondering if she's expecting too much in waiting for her idealized man to put in an appearance, and whether she ought to take Joshua or Will more seriously or at least quit giving either the inadvertent impression that she might be seriously interested in them.
I really enjoyed this novel despite it being a bit out of my usual fare, and I commend it as a worthy read.