Wildest Dreams by Rosanne Bittner was first published in 1994 and has been reissued by Sourcebooks this month. Other readers will probably say this book is not a romance novel, and they'd kinda have a point. It's not a romance novel like the ones being published today. It's not the story of a courtship. No, it's the story of a couple, and the journey they go on together over the course of 25 years. Hell, the hero and heroine are declaring their love and getting married within the first 50 pages here. So what does the author do with the remaining 510 pages? Oh man, what doesn't she?
Lettie MacBride's family is leaving St. Louis to escape their memories. A prosperous family, the Kansas-Missouri border conflict leading up to (and during) the Civil War has taken its toll. Lettie paid the highest price, surviving a rape that left her pregnant with her now toddler son, Nathan. Ironically this conflict gives the family the perfect lie to tell in order to protect Lettie - her husband died as a result of the border conflict. However they know they must leave Missouri if there is any hope of Lettie and Nathan having a normal life.
Luke Fontaine is heading west to escape his own memories. His father, a successful businessman, never let Luke forget that he believed he was a bastard - a product of an affair his unfaithful, now dead, wife had. With a belly full of anger and resentment, plus more pride than any one man should probably have, Luke is determined to make something of himself. To show his old man that he has worth. And his dream? To settle in Montana, acquire a ton of land, and be a cattle rancher. During this time Montana is still largely unsettled, with dangers not only from Indians and outlaws, but from the elements as well. He has no plans to drag a woman along for the ride, and then he meets Lettie. He falls like a ton of bricks, and before the reader has a chance to catch her breath, he's convincing Lettie to marry him.
Even with knowing the history of the romance genre, I would still classify this story as more saga than romance. And like all sagas, the reader has to give things time. The reader has to be patient. The author is setting her stage. She's introducing her characters. She's painting the landscape. And honestly, nobody really does this better than Bittner. When she's firing on all cylinders, she's a master at it. I have never set foot in Montana in my life, but Bittner took me there. I heard the relentless wind. I barely survived the ungodly winters, and yet I saw the beauty as well. It's easy to see why Luke becomes obsessed with making something of himself in Montana, and it's easy to to see why ultimately Lettie cannot imagine being any place else.
I also deeply appreciated that the author doesn't sugarcoat the reality of what settling the American west must have been like. This is a harsh, desolate place the author gives readers. There is no law. There is no civilization. Yes, the men had to be strong, but the women had to be stronger. It took a lot of guts to be a woman trying to make it out west. A lot of guts. Because of that, readers shouldn't expect a lot of unrelenting happiness in this story. It's a story of actions and consequences. Luke does things, makes choices, and there are consequences. Consequences that effect Lettie, consequences that effect their children. Bad things happen to good people in this book. People get sick, people get hurt, people die. The author doesn't break the cardinal romance rule - both Luke and Lettie live - but no other character is sacred, including some of the children.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Indian romances were extremely popular. Contrary to current popular opinion, not all of them sucked eggs. Bittner is the one author I've read who consistently delivers interesting Native characters. She doesn't make them one-dimensional and she doesn't give readers noble savages spouting pseudo-New Age psychobabble. Even in this book, where it would have been so easy to paint some of the Sioux characters as completely villainous? She avoids that. Even when they do things that aren't very nice, as the reader you understand their choices. It's not all "white man bad Native man goody-goody." All of the characters in this story are both good and bad. Plus nobody, nobody can write outsiders quite the way Bittner does. She gives readers one in this book, albeit in the form of one of the secondary characters.
Now, is this a perfect book? Well, no. I'll be honest, the writing is more than a little lumpy in spots - especially in the early chapters. Also, after a while it does get tiresome that every man seems to fall in love with Lettie on sight, and there were some story lines I enjoyed (Lettie's son Nathan) more so than others (pretty much anything involving son Tyler). But with a book like this one? It was so easy for me to let go of the elements that didn't work for me. Why? Because Bittner gives me a saga. She gives me a soap opera. She gives me a big, sweeping, rip-roarin' western. People, I'm going to be blunt. Books like this aren't being published in the romance genre anymore - and it's a damn cryin' shame. Yes, it's in trade paperback. Yes, the digital price is going to run a bit higher. But you know what? Buy it on principle. Buy it because this is what we used to see in the romance genre and aren't getting anymore. Buy it because even with its faults, it's still a damn fine story - a story that will stick to your ribs after you finish it. No, it's not perfect - but you know what? I'm pretty OK with that.
Final Grade = B+