Thursday, March 27, 2008

Whiteout Conditions

It was dumb luck that I was about halfway through Snowbound by Janice Kay Johnson when the RITA finalists were announced and I noticed the book was up for the Best Contemporary Series award. I'll admit it, I wasn't feeling it. At that point I was around the halfway mark and the only reaction I could conquer up was "uneventful, but pleasant." Then I got to the second half.

Fiona MacPherson is a teacher at an exclusive private school. She's driving eight students back from a "Knowledge Champs" competition when they run into a blizzard. The road they're taking through the Cascade Mountains is quickly becoming dangerous and Fiona can't see a thing. Luckily, one of her smart-aleck students notices some tire tracks, and recalls that they're near Thunder Mountain Lodge - where his family has vacationed in the past. Turns out the smart-aleck is right, and the merry band proceeds to collapse on John Fallon's front porch.

John is a veteran, injured in Iraq and discharged from the National Guard thanks to a bum leg and a facial scar. However the war hasn't left him just physically scarred, and he's "checked out" of his former life as a mechanical engineer to operate the lodge. He was looking forward to the solitude that the early blizzard promised. Now he finds himself with a pretty, young teacher and her eight teenage charges. To say he's not entirely pleased by this turn of events is an understatement.

I'm going to be honest here, the set-up didn't quite work for me. For one thing, I didn't see the logic in John not wanting to be around people, yet buying a lodge and taking in guests. I mean, if he wants hard work and solitude, why not just buy an isolated cabin, split wood and start an Internet business to support himself? The fact that he chooses to become an innkeeper, when he wants quiet and solitude, makes about as much sense as saying, "I don't like kids so I think I'm going to open up a daycare center!"

The first half of this story is pleasant. John and Fiona are immediately attracted to each other and the teenagers provide angst and drama to keep the plot moving along. It's nice, but nothing to get excited about. Where Snowbound really shines is after the blizzard is over and the Knowledge Champ team leaves the lodge. Fiona and John are left trying to feel their way around their budding attraction, communicating via e-mail, and even seeing each other over the holidays. What is left for conflict is John's memories of Iraq and his unwillingness/inability to communicate them to Fiona. These are very emotional chapters, and when John finally reveals his feelings of guilt to Fiona it's heartbreaking stuff. I found this story very topical, and wouldn't be surprised in the least if the author either 1) knows an Iraq veteran or 2) talked to some. There's a lot about this aspect of the story that rang true to my ears. (Take that for what you will. I've never been to Iraq, and don't know any veterans, so all I'm going on here is my "gut.")

So what we have here is a pleasant, so-so first half and a dynamite second half. I have a lot more of Johnson's HSRs in my TBR, and I'm certainly not dismayed by that fact. Would this be worthy of a RITA win? Hard to say since I haven't read the other nominees in this category. That said, while it didn't personally rock my socks, it was a pretty nice read.

Final Grade = B

No comments: