A Dime Novel Hero by Maureen McKade
The Details: Historical western romance, Avon, 1998, Out of print, Available digitally
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: It's a western and it's Maureen McKade. I won't tell you how long it's been in my TBR though. Years. I'm not exaggerating...YEARS!
The Review: For those of you keeping score at home, my reading of late has been the pits. I mean, the literal pits. So this month's Comfort Read theme for the TBR Challenge was just what the doctor ordered. I opted for a historical western (a sub genre I love) and Maureen McKade - who has written some amazing books and some ho-hum meh books, but who has never delivered an outright stinker. And boy howdy, I've read some steaming piles of you-know-what lately. A Dime Novel Hero was her second published book and no, it's not perfect. But it's competently, and compellingly, written and I sunk right into the story. I read this in two sittings, practically gulping it down like a man near death from thirst.
Kit Thornton was a motherless pudgy little girl with spectacles whose father didn't have time for her and worse still, didn't "get" her. She loves to read books, take care of injured stray animals, and needless to say is a favorite target for bullies. Then one day wild Jake Cordell comes to her rescue and hero worship quickly turns to puppy love.
Years later, Jake is working as a law clerk in Boston when he gets word his father, a prominent judge, is gunned down by an outlaw. Never close with his father, his mother having abandoned him at a young age, Jake is determined to exact his revenge. He saddles up as a bounty hunter and six years later has finally brought the killer to justice. Now he's back home to claim the family ranch. Except the family ranch is now owned by Kit Thornton.
Thanks to a stipulation in Jake's father's will, Kit was able to buy the ranch and she lives there with her two hired men (both of them "not white" - so that goes over just about as well as you'd expect with the "good townsfolk") and her adopted 5-year-old son. The boy, Johnny, is Jake's. A product of a relationship he had with a saloon girl who Kit nursed in her dying days. But Johnny doesn't know that and neither does Jake. And now he's back in town. Further complicating Kit's life? She borrowed money against the ranch to buy some horses, that loan is nearly due, and Kit doesn't have the money. Oh, and did I mention she's the secret writer of dime novels starring Jake Cordell? Yeah, those books have expounded on his reputation and needless to say Jake's not terribly pleased.
We all know where this is going. Jake has done what he set out to do, which is find his father's killer. However his relationship with his father was complicated and Jake has a lot of unresolved baggage. Kit's books (which nobody knows Kit is the writer) have elevated Jake to this mythic-like hero, when he's really a flawed man. A man that Kit has to pick up off a saloon floor and bail out of jail in the early chapters. But Kit, bless her heart, can't help herself. She's still rescuing strays and her feelings for Jake are complicated. Now he wants to buy back his family ranch, doesn't know she wrote those novels about him, doesn't know he has a son, and doesn't know about her current financial straits.
Sword of Damocles hanging over most of this story because both Jake and Kit are lying to each other by omission. Kit's reasons are fairly easy to understand. I don't necessarily like that she doesn't come clean about little Johnny straight away, but she has her reasons - most of them wrapped up around the mother's wishes and Jake's footloose track record. Jake is one of those complicated romance heroes that runs hot and cold. He's a good guy underneath everything, which is what Kit sees in him. But man, there are times you want to slap him into next Tuesday. Kit is so good, and so giving, and frankly he does her wrong (by omission - but still done wrong) in more than one instance in this story.
This is a romance, so naturally it all works out in the end and there are some really heady emotional scenes during The Black Moment that I actually felt a few tears leak out. That said, this ain't perfect. Kit is the sort who claims she doesn't care what people think of her, but the cruelty hurts her all the same. She's the sort that if she were pregnant out of wedlock she wouldn't hide away for 9 months, and yet everyone in town just assumes Johnny is biologically hers. This is a plot hole the author never explains. The conflict hinges on several Big Secrets and in the end the fact that Kit is the author of the dime novels is dashed off as an afterthought, which is a sign (in my opinion) that there were too many elements being juggled at once.
There's also a few elements that some readers may find upsetting that I feel like need to be mentioned in a minor spoiler sort of way. One of Kit's hired men is black, and the n-word is dropped during one scene by a villainous character who just got done beating up Kit's other hired man, who is half-Pawnee. There's a near rape of the heroine (because of course there is - this is a 20-year-old historical after all) and over the course of the story a horse has to be put down.
But in the end, even with the faults and nit-picks, I really fell right into the story. It's well-written (nit-picks aside), I was invested in the characters, and easily kept swiping left to read the next page. It's nowhere near my favorites by McKade, but it was a pleasant, memorable read that found me in the nick of time. As my reading of late has showcased, I definitely could have done worse.
Final Grade = B-