Thursday, October 1, 2015

Digital Review: Hillbilly Heaven
Truly, I do understand why the historical romance sub genre is littered with Dukes.  It's the exact same reason why billionaires are currently overrunning contemporary romance.  Call it escapism. Call it the quickest and shortest route to Fairy Tale Land.  Whatever.  Romance readers love Dukes and I don't see this ever changing.  Ever.  And hey, I've been known to like a Duke or two in my day.

But what I really like?  Are historical romance characters that could have possibly fallen out of my family tree.  To put it nicely?  Salt-of-the-Earth, working class sorts.  To put it another way?  Hillbillies and Rednecks.  Scarred Hearts by Bonnie Dee takes place in the Kentucky hills just after World War I, right before Prohibition kicks in.  It's a book not without some issues (and red flags for some readers), but was a breath of fresh air for me all the same.

Samuel "Shadow" Robeson is the baby brother in a clan of disreputable characters.  To give you a small taste of how disreputable, one of Shadow's brothers is "slow" because Daddy got violently drunk and threw him down the stairs when he was little.  He's got another brother who likes to torture small animals and harass women.  Shadow's chance of getting away from this band of miscreants came with World War I.  Unfortunately, he got sucked back into the family when he returned from France with a bum leg and a missing eye.  His brothers are looking to take over the family's moonshine operation, and against Daddy's wishes - expand the operation.  They see Prohibition looming and want to position themselves.  Shadow is the only one in the family that can make a moonshine that won't pickle your insides, so he's the one in charge of the still.  He keeps his head down, talks as little as humanly possible, and dreams of the day when he can get the hell away from them.  Then he goes and does a fool thing like falling in love with Lettie Calloway.

Since her Mama died, Lettie has been on her own and trying to live down her reputation.  Mama was essentially the town slut and when Lettie was younger (way young) - she got her head turned by a married man. 
But all those things she'd done were in the past now.  She'd stopped dallying with boys when she realized those few minutes of feeling good weren't worth the whole lot of feeling bad that came later.
Even though Lettie's legs have firmly been closed for a good long while, nobody in town lets her forget - and it doesn't help that she works at the local watering hole slinging whiskey.  She spends just as much time dodging grabby hands as she does serving up biscuits and gravy.  And she tries as much as possible to go unnoticed by the Robeson clan - a hard bit of business to do given that they're moonshiners and she works in a bar.  The one bright light?  Shadow.  He's quiet.  He's circumspect.  And he's nothing like his vile brothers.  She likes him and he seems to like spending time with her - to the point where he actually starts talking.  It doesn't take long before the spark ignites and they start making plans to get the hell out of the hollow.  But can they get away before his family gets wind?

I have a soft spot for heroines like Lettie.  Women who made bad choices, are trying to right the ship, but can't seem to get past their reputations - whether they were earned or not.  Lettie's reputation was mostly earned, but it was a path she started down when she was young, naive, and was fool enough to believe the sweet words that an older man whispered in her ear.  Shadow is the perfect foil for her.  Sweet, tender, quiet, and not the sort who would hold her past against her.

The story, the dialogue, the setting - there's, to put it bluntly, a strong hillbilly vibe going on, which I suspect will not work for some readers.  The biggest pitfall I think will be the fact that Lettie is 19.  Which means that married man she hooked up with?  The other men that came after?  Do the math.  Lettie was pretty darn young.  We are talking 1919 Kentucky.  In hill country.  14-year-olds getting married and having babies wouldn't exactly have been uncommon.  That said, I can recognize that Lettie's past and her age are going to be stumbling blocks for some readers.

There's also the matter of Shadow's brothers, who are vile.  They do make very credible villains.  From the oldest boy who wants to use the family's moonshine business to drag the clan into respectability (he has aspirations to run for political office), to brother Tommy - the torturer of small animals and women.  It's Tommy who serves as the biggest threat to the couples' happiness, and brings about the second bit of problematic elements in the story that could be a bit much for some readers (Spoiler Alert: He shows up at Lettie's cabin, snaps her cat's neck, and almost rapes her.  Meanwhile, another brother, seeking revenge, carves his mark into Lettie's skin using a switchblade. /End Spoiler)

Which probably makes you wonder how I could possibly like this story.  Well the romance is actually really sweet, and sprinkled throughout are some pretty steamy sexual encounters.  Lettie isn't stupid and realizes that getting pregnant is the last thing she wants to do.  I liked that this was a conscious thought for both characters.  Even Shadow, who isn't experienced, recognizes that pregnancy would be....not a very good idea.  I love historical romance, but even I give the side-eye to heroines who hop into bed without nary a thought of consequences - especially when back in those days an out-of-wedlock pregnancy basically ruined a woman's life.  So Lettie and Shadow find other ways to have some fun (Yay! Reindeer Games!), before they succumb to temptation and Lettie begins employing mountain herbal remedies and vinegar douches to get the job done (Sorry if this offends folks - but we're talking social history so....OK, I'm not sorry).

It won't be a book for everybody, certainly.  Hillbillies. The villains. It's very backwoods country.  But I enjoyed it all the same, and am glad I stumbled across this particular unusual historical.  Worth a look the next time you find yourself burnt out on taffeta and ballrooms.

Final Grade = B


Nikki said...

When I hear "hillbillies" the theme song from Deliverance starts playing in my head. I appreciate the review, but just no. Not for me.

azteclady said...

I have yet to read anything by Ms Dee that I can't enjoy. Thank you for the review, Wendy, this merits a closer look (when I can find some air to breathe!)

Lori said...

Thanks for letting us know about this book. In recent years I've developed a bit of an allergy to dukes*, and have been wishing for more historicals about the non-titled, so this sounds really intriguing.

*FWIW, I really dislike the argument I've heard many times, from many people that historicals focus so much on the titled because back in the day money and a title were the only way for a person to have much if any agency and therefore are practically a requirement for a good HEA.

Miss Bates said...

I read this book to The Scene when Shadow's brothers show up and ruin all. I really liked the novel up to that point. I thought it was well-written; I loved the setting and atmosphere. I loved the protagonists too. BUT That Scene was not one I could read through, or past. I was sad to DNF, but I did.

Wendy said...

Nikki: A million years ago I was in a Best Buy and saw the Dueling Banjos / Deliverance soundtrack on CD. My immediate reaction was WHY?!?!?! Why would you want to voluntary listen that that?!?!?!? That soundtrack is the stuff of nightmares.

AL: It does have problematic elements (see my spoiler and Miss Bates' comment) that I suspect will be dealbreakers for some readers. I wasn't always wild about the authorial choices Dee made, but by and large I enjoyed the story.

Lori: I dislike that argument as well. I refuse to believe that everyone in poorer circumstances is absolutely miserable in life. Does it make like harder? Yes. Are you doomed to be miserable? I refuse to believe that.

Miss Bates: Which is ultimately why I put the spoiler in my review - I knew it was going to be dealbreaker for a lot of readers.

The minute the brothers were introduced early in the book I suspected we were in for an "unpleasant scene" at some point - but even though I was braced for it? It was still REALLY, REALLY hard to read. Honestly I think the only reason I got through it is because I knew a happy ending was coming and I conditioned myself over the years with reading some truly grisly suspense. But, yeah. This was a hard book for me to wrap a final grade around.