When Miss Bates re-started reading romance eight years ago, she combed AAR’s reviews for titles. One of those was Kathleen Eagle’s nearly-DIK-status The Last Good Man, a romance novel about a heroine living in the after-math of breast cancer treatment and a torch-carrying hero. The details about the heroine’s illness were raw and realistic and Miss Bates thought the novel honest and worthy. The romance wasn’t half as interesting, the least memorable aspect of the book. When an Eagle category became available, Miss Bates wanted to give Eagle another try to cement what she thought of her writing and the stories she tells.
In the South-Dakota-set Never Trust A Cowboy, Eagle tells the story of a signature Lakota Sioux hero, Delano Fox, and heroine, Lila Flynn, who shares a cattle ranch with her father, Frank, stepmother, and stepbrother. Her stepbrother, Brad, meets cow-hand Delano at the local watering-hole and hires him. But Delano is not an itinerant cowboy: he actually works a mysterious, Miss Bates would say vague, law enforcement job catching cattle rustlers. Brad, it appears, is running such an operation out of his step-father’s ranch. While Delano investigates the rustling, he gets to know Frank’s daughter, Lila. Lila lives by herself in the house her grandmother left her and has little to do with her father’s new family. She runs a daycare centre out of her barn, as well as what appears to be a lending library. The chemistry between Del and Lila is immediate and potent. But what of Delano’s secret mission? And why does Lila isolate herself on the ranch? Why is she withdrawn and sad? Nevertheless, the attraction between them, peppered with banter, burns strong.
Miss Bates’ response to Never Trust A Cowboy was similar to The Last Good Man: this romance novel is better in its parts than as a whole. She can’t fault Eagle’s novel for egregious anything; it’s a case of how a writer’s voice doesn’t work for a reader, this reader anyway. Miss Bates’ initial impression, from the first few chapters, was positive. Del and Lila are gentle, ruefully humorous characters and carry a quality rare in romance but attractive to Miss Bates: humility. Their physical attraction is subtle, but palpable. There’s a great story-thread involving Lila’s missing dog, Bingo. Del makes it a point of looking for him and when he finds him, takes care of him in a special way. The heroine and hero’s nurturing, loving, but not naïve ways, of caring for animals and children, points to their decency. Decency and humility, coupled with intelligence, make for appealing character qualities. Eagle is also a deft hand at eking out her characters’ personalities, qualities, and back-stories. There’s no info-dump, no telling instead of showing, to use schoolmarm terms. What went wrong for Miss Bates amongst these narrative riches?
She’s not proud to admit that Eagle’s romance novel felt dated. Firstly, the hero and heroine were so idealized and the villains so caricatured and easy to foil that Miss Bates grew bored. There are moral lines, Miss Bates believes, that can’t be crossed in romance, that leave characters irredeemable, then there’s black-and-white good-guys-and-villains that give a romance novel the feel of a silent reel like The Perils of Pauline. The setting and mood of Never Trust A Cowboy were also “off” for Miss Bates: while Del rides off to various spots on the ranch to find a cell phone signal to contact his superior in the FBI, that scrap thrown to the contemporary world is the only one. Eagle’s novel, though contemporary, feels like it’s set during the Depression. This may be part of the problem for Miss Bates: it’s more important to Eagle to convey her idealized hero and heroine’s values, as embodied in an idealized past, than achieve subtlety in characterization. Those values, because Eagle wants to express what she identifies as Del’s Native-American perspective, result in an idealized portrait, a reversal of the John-Wayne-Western as the bad-guy-Indian and heroic-cowboy. This is a perspective we need more of, absolutely, and Miss Bates welcomes it; however, when characters are one-dimensional? That’s problematic too, or at least it is to Miss Bates. (Or it could be that Miss Bates’ urban-angst-post-modern-world is clueless about South Dakota and things really are Depression-Era-like?) If you’re looking for nuanced, fresh portrayals of Native-American characters, Miss B. sings the praises of Sarah M. Anderson’s titles, A Man Of His Word and A Man of Privilege.
The two storylines, cattle-rustling mystery and Del-Lila-romance, don’t meld convincingly. Eagle seems to pick one up and run with it, drop it, and pick up the other. The cattle-rustling thread loses its momentum as the central conflict. Del and Lila’s romance, because they are so lovely and loving and decent, no conflict between them at all. Eagle tries: setting up a wounded back-story for them to overcome, but it never convinced Miss Bates. There wasn’t much at stake in keeping them together, or asunder: Miss Bates lost interest. Their compatibility was determined from the get-go: there’s an HEA, but the journey to it has to have significant pot-holes to keep reader interest.
Lastly, Miss Bates surmises that her disappointment in Never Trust A Cowboy involves the foregrounding, or lack of “backgrounding” of narrative ethos. Miss Bates would say that, by definition, the romance-narrative is one that takes its stand on the side of the reconciling, comedic conclusion: forgiveness, integration into society, prodigality redeemed, conflict overcome, personal demons put to rest. Love trumps necessity in romance. (Again, Miss Bates argues for the HEA being essential to romance.) As a result, romance cannot withstand the foregrounding of the author’s ethos/agenda: it crumples under the weight of agenda because it is heavily agenda-ed itself? And Miss Bates leaves that as a question to ponder in your comments, dear readers.
Readers may readily (hee hee, punning again, MissB) enjoy Eagle’s Never Trust A Cowboy; therein, Miss Bates found only “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Kathleen Eagle’s Never Trust A Cowboy was released by Harlequin on December 16th, 2014. It is available in your preferred format at the usual vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.