Molly O'Keefe to thank for making me read Sawbones by Melissa Lenhardt. Having recently discovered the Timothy Wilde books by Lyndsay Faye, and knowing my squee-worthy love for them, she asked me if I'd read Sawbones, a fairly recent release from late March. I hadn't even heard of it, but it looked really interesting and voila! Work had it. So I put myself on the holds list and it landed on my Kindle in time for work-related travel. I didn't read this book, I inhaled it.
I'd classify Sawbones as historical fiction with romantic elements. The publisher calls it "Outlander meets post-Civil War unrest..." which just makes me want to find the publicist responsible for that and punch them in the throat. This is a book that will not be for everyone, but dagnabit if I didn't fall into this story fast and hard. I was so immersed in the setting, so invested in the characters, I'm starting to think I need to spend more time reading historical fiction.
Catherine Bennett is a doctor in New York City and has been framed for murder. She really has no other choice than to run. The dead man is the husband of one of the society wives' she treats and her alibi is a resurrectionist. Being a woman and a doctor is enough for most people to think the worst of her, so with the help of a childhood friend and a local madam (Catherine treats whores as well) she heads west with the vague notion of settling in California. Taking the assumed name of Laura Elliston, she and her maid find themselves on a wagon train heading to Colorado. However the story of a female doctor turned murderess in New York City is hot gossip, even out in the frontier, and Laura finds that she can only hide for so long - even as she finds herself filling in as a temporary doctor in a remote Army outpost.
This is a hard review to write because 1) I loved this story and 2) Darn near everything I want to say about it is a spoiler. So I'll try my best. This is very much a History Is Ugly book. There's a lot here that I think many of my regular blog readers will have a hard time with. First, this is a violent story. People die, and in brutal ways. Bad things happen to Laura (boy howdy do they...). Secondary characters that we actually spend a decent amount of time with end up dead. Women are raped. And while I wouldn't say these moments are the most graphic I've ever read, they're plenty graphic.
I also suspect that some readers will take issue with how Native Americans are portrayed in this story. The book is set in 1871, so right at the peak of the Indian Wars that found General Sherman (yes, the scorched Earth let's burn down Atlanta during the Civil War Sherman...) working to quash Indian raids. Most of the characters in this book (including the heroine) have strong, non-PC, opinions on the raiding Indians and an Indian raid is one of the more brutally violent chapters in this book. There's also the belief that eradicating the buffalo would be a more "humane" way of dealing with the "Indian problem" than warfare - a view that the hero (more on him in a bit) thinks is a grand idea. There is a moment, later on, where a conversation takes place that maybe the Indians are raiding because they've been corralled on to reservations, their women and children are starving to death, and the US is, once again, not honoring signed treaties. But for the vast majority of the story Indians are raiding, killing, raping and taking captives. The other side of that coin, the "why," is only given that brief moment of lip service.
I belong to the Ugly History Happened and We Shouldn't Try to Rewrite It Camp. So while all of the above did make me squirm in my seat a bit? I appreciated that the author didn't try to whitewash over some of the more unsavory elements of American History. But I can appreciate that not every reader is going to want to submerse themselves in this dark, violent, and oftentimes unpleasant world.
The romantic elements come into play about halfway through when Laura finds herself falling in love with an Army Captain whose life she saves. By that point she's living in the remote Army fort, still concealing her identity, and finding that her past is quickly catching up with her. For his part, Captain William Kindle also has his own dark secrets and pretty soon all those secrets come home to roost. The romance is extremely well done in this story. It's a slow, gradual build and by the time Laura admits her feelings for Captain Kindle I firmly believed that yes, these are two people who genuinely care about each other. It's one of the better drawn romantic storylines I've read in a while and it's....not found in a romance novel.
There is also some mystery to this story but to be blatantly honest - it was the least well-done aspect of this otherwise enjoyable story. It's all fairly obvious and about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The author is basically laying down loaves for the reader as opposed to bread crumbs. But by this point I was so well immersed in the characters, so riveted by the saga of the story, that the obvious mystery elements didn't bother me all that much.
Given the saga-like pace of the book the ending did feel a bit rushed to me, but it does end on a somewhat positive note, although there's still obvious challenges ahead for Laura and Captain Kindle. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger so much as it ends in a way that as the reader you know the story isn't over yet. Blood Oath comes out in August and frankly that cannot get here soon enough for me.
I recognize this isn't a story I can universally recommend to every reader I know, but my reaction to this story, how dire my reading mojo has been for the past year, and the fact that I was riveted so completely by this tale means I'm not going to apologize for loving it as much as I did. I had originally thought I'd rate this a B+ because as much as I loved it, it's not like there aren't flaws here. But damn, I want to go back and fall into this world all over again. A B+ just won't cut it.
Final Grade = A-