Miss Bates is a coffee drinker, the darker the better; and, with a cup, the more likely she’ll compose a post, or stay up late reading … a romance, of course. Late in the evening, though, when the wind howls and snow hisses against the window panes, she makes a cuppa … and reads a romance novel. The cuppa is often gunpowder green, its furled leaves popping (hence, gunpowder) to a pleasantly aromatic, mildly-flavored brew. Miss Bates can say the same for Margaret Brownley’s historical inspirational romance novel, Gunpowder Tea. Brownley’s romance doesn’t break any molds, or overwhelm. In places, it brought Saturday-afternoon childhood memories watching old black-and-white Westerns on TV, benign-and-amusing-not-the-Injuns-are-evil kind (on the other hand, this is coloured by the fog of memory ’cause the portrayal of Native Americans, until Dances With Wolves, is a problematic one in the black-and-whites, to say the least).
With a light and gentle touch, Brownley manages to bring up interesting ideas: a Native-American heroine (albeit only through her mother) who’s a Pinkerton detective, living as a woman doing a “man’s” job in late 19th century Arizona, another woman running a ranch, men who love, understand, and encourage them, the loneliness of a person who dedicates his/her life to law enforcement, ambition, the struggle to be one’s own person, or to fulfill a parent’s expectations, forgiveness, and the historical reality of a marriage prohibited on the basis of miscegenation. Gunpowder Tea is all of these things and wonderful tea references (even a tea prayer!) and old-fashioned, Saturday-matinée-popcorn-munching entertainment. It bogs down in places … and you mutter “getonwithit” a few times when the romance is subservient to the mystery … overall, however, Miss Bates enjoyed it and she’d say you will too, if your tastes run to light inspirational romance with soupçons of serious.
Gunpowder Tea opens on a humorous scene. In Chicago, Miranda Hunt, under cover at a funeral, fires her gun in the midst of the wake, as she tries to captures a thief preying on the guests … except she misses. Later, in Pinkerton’s office: “He shook his head, his heavy jowls jiggling and his walrus mustache drooping, ‘You shouldn’t have shot the dead man.’ ‘Yes, that was most … unfortunate. But as I explained to the widow, except for the hole in his head and dislodgement of coins at his eyes, her husband’s … uh … condition remained unchanged.’ ” The farce and old-fashioned matinée shenanigans draw the reader in. We soon learn, however, that Miranda takes her job seriously, is eager to please, to advance, has a good heart and integrity. Pinkerton knows this and gives her a special assignment: to “Go West” and seek the Phantom, a notorious train and bank robber, under the guise of answering Miss Eleanor Walker’s advertisement requesting an “heiress.”
Miss Walker, an Arizona ranch owner, seeks a young woman to “adopt” and to whom she’ll bequeath her ranch, ensuring its survival. Miranda arrives at Last Chance Ranch as Annie Beckman, aspiring “heiress,” after enduring a train robbery where she couldn’t break cover to catch the thieves. She meets the ranch hands, discovering that one of them is the handsome blue-eyed thief she encountered on the train! He is Jeremy Taggert, undercover as Brand, infiltrator of the Phantom’s gang, and at the ranch on behalf of Wells Fargo and the town’s bank manager, also looking to catch the Phantom. Suspicion and attraction strike and our narrative is set for farce and fun. Miss Bates especially loved Taggert’s quip to Annie/Miranda, ” ‘It seems you have more secrets than a spinster’s diary.’ ”
Spinsterhood is a thread that runs throughout the narrative and one close to Miss Bates’ heart. Miranda/Annie vowed to remain single and celibate, her dedication and desire to succeed at the detective work she loves more important than any man she’s ever met. As she says to Miss Walker, ” ‘… women have the right and, indeed, the obligation to adapt nontraditional roles if they so choose. That includes remaining single.’ ” Later on, though she’s attracted to Jeremy/Brand, she thinks, “Marriage and family were out of the realm of possibility for a female operative. No man would put up with the demands of her occupation and she could never give up the work she loved so much.” Of course, dear reader, the writing is on the wall: Jeremy/Brand will make her wants things she never has. He is a charming and loveable hero, honest, true, loyal, with twinkling blue eyes, a good kisser, and yet, he never tramples on her, or orders her around. He loves her spirit, intelligence, and respects her detecting abilities. When he finally convinces her to join him in an HEA, he works it out so that she gets to have what she’s embraced as her calling and him and a chance for a family. She gets to have it all … as is only right in our heroine-vindicating genre, whether inspirational or otherwise.
As she’s stated ad nauseum, Miss Bates loves her inspirational fiction, while acknowledging and critiquing it for its sole basis in evangelical Christianity. Gunpowder Tea is in the same vein, but as gentle and interesting in this aspect as in others. Brownley’s narrative does not proselytize, other than by her characters’ example. Annie/Miranda’s faith is a part of her: sometimes it’s strong and holds her in good stead, sometimes she struggles with it. It has a natural “feel” and that is to the narrative’s advantage in Miss Bates’ estimation. Witness one passage as Miranda/Annie considers the tension between the work she loves and her faith: “Hers was a questionable faith. At times she interrogated God like he was one of her suspects. If you’re so good, God, why do You allow so much evil to exist?” Miranda’s/Annie’s faith is not always so heavy-handed. It shows gentle humour when she prays over the tea, or when she asks the Almighty to help her catch the Phantom.
Is Brownley’s a paragon of a romance novel? Does Miss Bates have caveats? It isn’t and she does. Her reservations have more to do with what Gunpowder Tea doesn’t do rather than what it does. She’ll tackle them as micro to macro annoyances. Though ideal in his qualities, our hero, Jeremy Taggert, remains vague, like the Cheshire cat, a charming grin and his blue eyes speaking for him. We never really get to know him as we do Miranda/Annie. And not because Brownley aimed for a mystery-man, “other-ish” presence à la Betty Neels, rather because he remains unformed, not fully fleshed. Miss Bates’ second niggle is a narrative sin. One of the most important moments in a romance is what Miss Bates calls the “it’s-darkest-before-the-dawn” moment that precedes the HEA, when it seems as if our hero and heroine’s relationship is doomed, is moribund. Ideally, this moment arises out of a conflict that involves Character, Not Coincidence. More often than not, as in Gunpowder Tea and myriad other romances, Coincidence rears its ugly head. Miss Bates’ third moue of disappointment is that of a rich topic left unexplored: our heroine is dismissive of her Native American identity. She notes that she is often judged on the basis of her Native appearance, but that is all the commentary that we hear about on this topic … even though she’s a Native American woman doing a man’s job in 1897! Lastly and in a similar vein, when Miranda and Jeremy prepare to wed, there is a last-minute reference to miscegenation laws that would stop their marriage, similarly frittered away by a quick and easy resolution.
There is nothing that says a romance novel owes a debt to any of the issues that may make up the richness of its narrative. Nevertheless, when an author chooses such elements, questions remain in the reader’s mind, or in this reader’s mind.
Brownley’s Gunpowder Tea is still a good read … but could have been a better one, with less attention to robber Phantoms and greater to historical “ghosts” who want to speak their piece. Miss Bates says that Brownley’s inspirational, historical romance is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Gunpowder Tea is published by Thomas Nelson Publishers and has been available since October 8th in the usual places and formats. Miss Bates is grateful to Thomas Nelson Publishers for an e-ARC received via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
What of you, dear reader, what have you read that you thought/felt was a solid read, but failed to explore the issues it raised? Or, is that the nature of the beast in the romance genre?