Come Home for Christmas by Pat Pritchard
The Particulars: Historical western romance, Kensington Zebra, 2005, Out of Print, Not Available in Digital. Pritchard also writes under the name Alexis Morgan, which is her more active pseudonym these days. Some of her other Zebra westerns have been published in digital (after rights reverted back), but this one isn't one of them (yet).
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: It's a Christmas book and it's a historical western. Of course it was in my TBR.
The Review: And yet another book for this year's TBR Challenge that I should have DNF'ed. Not that this was bad. It's not bad. I've read worse. Believe me. No, I was just indifferent. And I'm not sure if this is the fault of the book, the changes we've seen in the genre over the past 5 years (ALL THE FEELS!!!), or just the general reading funk I've been in for most of 2016. It's probably a combination. Just toss it all in the blender.
Jed Stark is a US Marshal tracking down a teenage horse thief. However once he catches up with the boy (who has been slippery), he starts to suspect something rotten. The boy claims the horse (a prize stallion) belonged to his grandfather, that the man accusing him of stealing the horse didn't "buy" the horse from his grandfather - but stole him then shot the old guy for his trouble. Oh, and the town sheriff is in on it. Doesn't help matters that the boy, Hawk, is part-Native. Jed doesn't have the stomach to drag the boy to the hangman's noose, especially since his story sounds all too credible. So while he gets it sorted out, he takes Hawk to the Johanson farm. Over the years, the Johansons took in a lot of orphans, including Jed, who they thought of like a son. But Jed left as soon as he was able, mostly because he knew he'd never be good enough for the likes of their daughter, Sadie.
When Jed left six years ago it broke Sadie's heart. Her mother now gone, that leaves only her father - who according to the doctor is quite sick and isn't long for this world. Now Jed is suddenly back, after all this time, to leave them Hawk, while he hits the trail again to sort out the mess. But not before Sadie makes him promise to come back and visit regularly. Her father is dying - slowly, but still dying. Having Jed visit gives the old man something to look forward to. However can Sadie's heart stand more of Jed's coming and going?
Hawk's troubles are dispatched of in short order, which leaves most of this book dealing with Jed leaving, coming back, helping with the harvest, leaving again, and then finally settling down to give Sadie her happy ending. The conflict, such as it is, is the standard I Had a Horrible Childhood and I'm Not Good Enough for the Likes of Her. Nothing wrong with this (even if we've all read it a billion times) - but Jed's past is never dealt with in a manner that's more than cursory. It's hard to understand why he feels like he's not good enough for her if the author only turns over a couple tiny rocks and ignores the huge honkin' boulders where the bogeymen are lurking. It all comes off as nothing more than Jed's stupid manly pride standing in the way. Especially when it takes Ole, Hawk and Jed's marshal buddy, Bart, to basically tell him what a jackass he's being. Heroes generally need one secondary character to tell them they're being idiots, but Jed needs three?! It makes him come off as whiny and tiresome (Oh boo hoo! I'm not good enough for her!)
Without a deep dive into Jed's internal struggle, this book felt too long at 350 pages (it would have worked loads better as a Harlequin Historical). I'm not sure if it's because the genre has gone so instant gratification in recent years (More Drama! More Feels! And All in 150 Pages!!!!), or I'm just an old cranky fusspot. Probably a little of both.
That all being said, the world-building here is quite good. I could see Johanson farm. This isn't an inspirational, but the author gives her characters a sense of faith - which many pioneer families had in the 19th century even though it's an aspect that gets glossed over a lot in secular historical romance - and, wait for it, they're immigrants. Sadie's parents are Ole and Olga Johanson. They're farmers. The history behind this historical romance is quite good and Pritchard weaves it all in without beating the reader over the head with The Research Stick.
This is a tortoise romance. While a lot of today's romance is all racing ahead like a hare hopped up on meth, this is the slow and steady style of romance that will occasionally win the race. Ultimately this didn't win for me because I wanted to go deeper into the internal conflict, but it's a quiet read that sometimes, as a reader, you need. Damning with faint praise, but we could all do worse.
Final Grade = C