Monday, January 13, 2020

Review: Ride the High Lonesome

I love historical westerns, and yes, I'm self-aware enough to recognize that the sub genre is problematic. While westerns, be they contemporary or historical, have celebrated somewhat of a rebirth, riding on the coattails of the small town contemporary boom - I've always preferred the darker and grittier westerns.  Westerns where the main couple tends to be in peril (a lot).  Possibly because even if the author doesn't implicitly spell it out, the reader is confronted with the problematic nature of the sub genre - even if it is only found in between the lines of the text.

Ride the High Lonesome by Rosanne Bittner is the start of a new series set post-Civil War in "outlaw country" where men make their own law and live by a code (be it good or bad - the lines blur an awful lot).  Kate Winters lost her husband in the war and left Indiana to travel to Oregon to live with her brother-in-law's family.  However, the wagon train she is traveling with is attacked in route, and Kate is the only survivor, hiding under the rubble of a destroyed wagon.  She emerges to find her fellow travelers dead, with no supplies, no horse, and no idea where the heck she is.  So she starts walking and happens upon a band of men stringing up another man to hang him.  They're going to steal the guy's cattle, and would have taken his horse - accept the horse fights back, they decide to not dally, and take off with the herd.  Kate still has no idea where she is, where the nearest town is, but she needs that horse and the meager supplies still strapped to it.  That's when she notices the hanging man isn't dead.  Yes, she's desperate - but she's not a monster.  Plus, she has no idea where she is. She weighs the odds and cuts him down.

Luke Bowden is a might cranky. Naturally our boy wants his cattle back, his money back, oh and to put a bullet in every one of the men who tried to murder him by doing a piss-poor job of hanging him.  He doesn't need a woman along for the ride, but he's also indebted to her.  Plus the outlaws are more than likely heading to the nearest town to sell off the herd - so he can deliver her to civilization and get his revenge.

What follows is a road romance with all the trigger warnings you can possibly think of.  Nobody is writing westerns like Bittner anymore (if they are, please leave me suggestions in the comments section!).  Over the course of this story you have Luke almost dying by hanging, Kate nearly getting raped twice (well, multiple times really since the second instance would have been a gang rape...), and more dead bodies than I can keep track of: 5, 6, 7, 8?  I lost count.  It's a western set in a violent time, with the shadow of the Civil War shadowing everything.

I can roll with all of this, even as I recognize that the violence in the plot will be a sticking point for some readers.  No, my issues with this book are entirely based on writing and characterization.  The dialogue is stilted at times and the writing falls into repetition.  Kate is a heroine that's hard to get a bead on.  I started out loving her.  She's vulnerable, but recognizes that shit has to get done - or else she's going to die.  She's a "good woman" but she saves a man from hanging, fights off her would-be rapists, and is pretty brave in the face of getting stranded in outlaw country with her only help being a man she needs to trust, but doesn't know if she quite can.  But then she's also a former Civil War nurse who doesn't do much to doctor up a bullet wound she receives until Luke rides in at the 11th hour to save her.  She also turns clingy and needy which I "get" but found annoying compared to those times when she sucks it up and barrels through a situation because she doesn't have much choice.

Luke is your prototypical Alpha western hero who lives by a code even though he skirts around the edges of the law when it suits him.  He takes no issue with killing a man, but only when he feels said man does something to warrant it.  And he's bound by honor to protect Kate because she saves his life.  But, and wouldn't you know it, he was also done wrong by a woman so he's got trust issues, and at the end he does something for no other reason than to "test" Kate's faithfulness that had me wanting to find the nearest cast iron skillet and beat him over the head until he was bloody and unconscious.  Frankly Kate sticking by his side, saving him from hanging, and practically mooning over him in the final chapters should have given him a clue. No, this thundering jackass has to "test" her some more.


So where does this leave me?  I was sitting at a B- for most of this book.  It was slow in spots, the repetition got repetitious and the dialogue was a bit stilted for my liking - but it was fine and frankly nobody writes westerns like this anymore.  But for as brave as Kate is over the course of events in this story, there's an underlying thread of Rescue Fantasy and adherence to traditional gender roles which were hard to ignore because there's zero subtlety.  Kate Is Woman, Ergo Luke Protects Kate Because He Is Big Bad Man.  Kate Stares Lovingly As He Rides Away and Sits Her Ass On Shelf To Pine.

Luke's "test" and Kate simply resigning herself to a life of lonely waiting while he rides off with vague promises to return put a bullet between the eyes of that B-.  Yes, there's a happy ending and yes, I'll read the next book in the series, because of course I will.  Why?  Because nobody else is writing westerns like this anymore.

Final Grade = C-


Unknown said...

I too have a soft spot for Westerns (despite their problems), and I thought Amy Sandas' "The Gunslinger's Vow" was pretty good (it came out last year maybe? and is the first in a trilogy). It has a lot of the classic old school Western stuff - attempted rape, high body count, Manly Man On A Revenge Mission - but it also subverts some expectations. Example: heroine initially comes off as ridiculous, but she slowly reveals herself to be very competent.

Wendy said...

I too have read that one! I ended up liking it - despite some pacing issues and the heroine's uneven characterization (her competent moments were AH-MAZING! Her ridiculous moments = eyeroll). I didn't continue on with the trilogy because I'm not a huge fan of the Eastern Lady Goes West trope, but I do want to read more Sandas.