REVIEW: Sherri Shackelford’s THE RANCHER’S CHRISTMAS PROPOSAL, Or Love Is Building a Fort Together

Rancher's_Xmas_ProposalSherri Shackelford’s The Rancher’s Christmas Proposal isn’t proposed by Shane McCoy, said rancher; rather, Tessa Spencer, our heroine, proposes. (A more original and interesting premise, but the word “rancher” in a title sells books. And Shackelford’s book deserves a readership.) Miss Bates is guilty of inspie romance assumptions (sadly proving true too often), which she extended to Shackelford’s unlikely pairing of con artiste and rancher. Inspirational romance characterization is one-dimensional: hero and heroine make Christian conversion avowals and Pollyanna-world reigns, making internal and external conflict caricaturish. Shackelford’s previous Prairie Courtships series novel, The Engagement Bargain, though not as fine as Rancher’s Christmas Proposal, contained this complexity of characterization in a sub-genre that sees so little of it.

In 1886 Wichita, Tessa Spencer waits at the train depot, destination unknown. Emmett, her con-artist father, wanted by the Fulton Gang and especially leader “Dead Eye” Dan Fulton, has disappeared. “Dead Eye” spotted her at the diner where she waited tables. Tessa must leave town pronto. A lost little boy (and his ball) sidle up to her. Her response to adorbs Owen is indicative of Tessa’s state of soul and mind: ” ‘Being lost is a lonely business.’ ” Tessa meets Shane, Owen’s father, in tow with Owen’s twin sister, Alyce. Shane needs a mother for his children and a wife to help run his remote ranch. Tessa needs a protector and safe place. Practical reasons for a marriage of convenience. Except for the way they make each other feel. And, once at the ranch, the way they’re awkward and don’t know each other, how set in their ways, and how difficult it is to work out a friendship, much less a marriage. 

Shackelford’s characterization of Tessa and Shane is wonderful. They’re rich, complex, three-dimensional people. Their relationship isn’t easy, not angst difficult, but borne out of their personal histories, temperaments, and vulnerabilities. Hallelujah, the halcyon characters typical of inspirational romance are absent. Tessa and Shane are likable, yet difficult people. They’re willing to compromise; they’re not stupid, or rigid. Compromising is hard because they are caught within their own miserable patterns. Shane is a practical, closed-off man. His father’s abandonment and a loveless marriage left him without the ability to express love, or even know it when he feels it. He’s a man with a deep sense of responsibility who hasn’t known joy: “That was all he’d ever known – work and responsibilities.” He cares deeply about the children, about Tessa; he doesn’t always know how to express it. Note what he says to Tessa once they decide to marry, for practical purposes, of course: ” ‘We’ll figure out the relationship together. There’s no need for love or any of that nonsense gumming up the works.’ There. He’d said it … ‘No need at all,’ Tessa scoffed. ‘Love. Really? I shudder at the thought.’More telling “famous last words” were never uttered! With this endearing humour to Tessa and Shane, Shackelford renders them sympathetic and flawed. A man who can’t express emotion marries, for “convenience,” a woman who yearns to be loved, as Tessa thinks in the opening scene: ” ‘Everyone should have at least one person in their life who minded when they were lost.’ ” Tessa spends most of their marriage feeling peevish and restless. She knows she wants “something” from Shane, but her life doesn’t allow her to articulate it. Bereft of her mother, left to negligent, abusive relatives, the only love Tessa’s know is from her gambler and con artist father Emmett, who made her part of his schemes. His care was expedient at best, yet Tessa loves and remains loyal to him. This annoyed Miss Bates, but Tessa’s motivations made sense. What else had she known?

Tessa is the inspirational to the inspirational romance. A visit to a circuit preacher found her responding if not to all the preacher had to say, at least to a sense she should atone for the wrong she caused others. Tessa’s faith isn’t accompanied by angel choirs, nor is she a zealot. She tries to do better, care for others, and certainly her love for Shane, Owen, and Alyce is endearing without being cloying. She asks for love in return and, when Shane fails to express it, she wallops him with marvelous fishwife nagging. Miss Bates thought Shackelford’s good-old couple bickering and misunderstanding were terrific. Miss B. loved this one of only a few references to God in an exchange between Shane and Tessa: “Shane followed her gaze upward. ‘Does He answer?’ ‘Yes.’ Tessa grimaced. ‘Only His answers are very perplexing.’ ” Shane never purports to conversion and this is refreshing in an inspie rom. Tessa’s understanding of God is of rueful not-understanding and stumbling along as best she can.

Despite the bickering and arguing, Shackelford makes Tessa and Shane’s journey to love and mutual understanding convincing. Heck, maybe it’s all the more convincing because of their peevishness and squabbling. She cleverly uses the same gentle humour to show the joys of connection as she does of disconnection. Miss Bates loved this scene when Shane finds the inexperienced home-maker Tessa, armed only with Bartleby’s Encyclopedia of Household Management (for the mistress of an English estate, which is another great source of the novel’s humour) at her wits’ end:

Shane crouched and peered beneath the blanket. Tessa was sitting with her legs crossed, her fist against her mouth while tears glistened on her eyelashes. He cleared his throat . “How was your day?” He scooted into the fort she’d arranged and let the blanket fall back into place, plunging them into darkness. “You sure you’re fine?” he asked. “No.” Tessa’s voice broke in a sob. “Owen won’t wear pants, and Alyce will only wear Owen’s pants. They knocked over the beans and the flour …  I hate Bartleby.”
“Then I’ll burn his book. I’ll have the boys start a bonfire right now.” “No.” She hiccuped. “I like his recipe for potted chicken.” Clearly she didn’t want her problems solved, which was too bad, because he excelled at fixing things.

What a marvelous scene, showing Shane’s sympathy and love for Tessa, yet still indicative of how he misunderstands her, drawing a moment of connection, but not making it the be-all-end-all to their working things out. Shane thinks he has to fix things when what he has to do is listen to Tessa and share her burdens. Tessa thinks she has to hear Shane’s adoration when what she has to do is read the signs of his love in everything he does for her. This is a wonderful moment, but Shackelford portrays marriage in its one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature. Shane and Tessa fight again, misunderstand again. However, they also build on what they’ve learned of each other, make their way to each other groping in an emotional fog, but with love and humour. As a matter of fact, the HEA is beautifully witty, funny, and poignant, and not only because it involves validating Tessa’s propensity to escape into a blanket-fort. 😉

Shackelford got another minor, but important Miss Bates’ note. She did not succumb to the closed-bedroom-door propensity for inspirational, or sweet romances for a marriage-of-convenience romance narrative. Miss Bates is not averse to love scenes, as her romance reading evinces. However, Shackelford, like Miss Bates, understands that the intimacy of the marriage bed changes the dynamic between hero and heroine. When we are not privy to it, we do not share in the complete understanding of the hero and heroine’s relationship (in which the pleasures of the romance narrative lie). Love scenes may, or may not titillate, and they may or may not be read for that reason by individual readers, but the romance narrative’s purpose and pleasure lie in the reader’s ability to be a part of the hero and heroine’s emotional journey. Closing the bedroom door is closing off your reader from the full emotional picture. Instead, like Shackelford’s Rancher’s Proposal, close that bedroom door to them until the emotional work has been done.

Shackelford’s romance novel is by no means perfect. The plotting has issues. Transitions, especially in the first quarter, left Miss Bates in a head-spin. There were disjointed goings-on as Tessa and Shane embark for the ranch and secondary characters are abruptly dropped, then withdrawn, from the narrative. But Tessa and Shane are lovingly, fleshingly rendered. The faith element is human and flawed, which is as it should be. Please, no angels we are on high, but vulnerable people who make mistakes, misunderstand, snap at each other, yet are, at core, decent and loving. There is nothing truer or more beautiful than to render God’s creatures in their humanity. As for the romance genre, that’s what makes characters memorable, as our Tessa and Shane are. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of The Rancher’s Christmas Proposal, here is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Sherri Shackelford’s The Rancher’s Christmas Proposal is published by Harlequin. It has been available since November 3rd. Miss Bates enjoyed it greatly and encourages you to find it at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.

 

13 thoughts on “REVIEW: Sherri Shackelford’s THE RANCHER’S CHRISTMAS PROPOSAL, Or Love Is Building a Fort Together

  1. Given my pledge not to buy more romance novels from non-autbuy authors until I’ve reduced my TBR, I ‘m not running out to buy this anytime soon, but you’ve convinced me I should at least take a look at this (meaning read the sample when I’m ready to buy more).

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    • Sadly, I think the sample, if it consists of the first few chapters, will disappoint. There’s this disjointed thing going on … and I was thrown right out on my reader butt over it. I couldn’t follow and was frustrated. But I like the opening scene so much that I wanted to know what would happen between Tessa and Shane. Shane in particular starts out all rancher alpha and then turns into quite a nuanced character. I think you might like it. Nothing’s easy here … suspense plot, as always, is a bit silly, but characterization is great!

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  2. Sighs deeply. How do you manage to make me want to read every book you review? I don’t know if I’m going to ever get around to reading this one but I’m going to mark it as something I would probably enjoy. That scene you shared was just lovely!

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    • I didn’t realize I did that! But it’s kinda cool and thank you so much for letting me know. I’m tickled pink! 🙂

      As for that lovely scene, there are quite a few more. And some more difficult ones which do not show Tessa and Shane in a good light. But I had to restrain myself from quoting, especially the HEA; it’s adorable when he promises to help her hide from their children in blanket-forts. There, I’ve gone and done it, quoted, but at least it’s indirectly. 😉

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  3. I’m not certain of the protocol for this, but thank you for your kind review! People often ask me if my husband is the inspiration for my heroes. While I certainly use him as a template, I *do* write fiction. Although I will say that Shane and Tessa’s courtship was probably closest to our own dating relationship. Not that we met as strangers, or that I was the daughter of con artist 🙂 but we simply had different ideas about how love was expressed.

    When I came up with the seed of the idea for this story, I have to admit a lot of the inspiration came from our own rocky courtship twenty years ago. My husband was always trying to *fix* things when I needed to talk, and I was looking for grand gestures of love when he was showing me the proof of his love each day.

    Romance writers know that love isn’t about flowers and chocolates, love is when your husband leaves work early because his mother-in-law has a flat tire!

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  4. Well – I can say that my husband and I definitely make each other laugh, and we certainly don’t always show our best faces to each other!

    I saw Tessa and Emmett as having changed roles over the years. She gradually took over the role of parent. Her loyalty came as much out of love as a sense of responsibility. By the end I think Emmett understood that Tessa’s loyalties had shifted. Emmett was welcome in her life as long as he remained on the straight and narrow–but she was done bailing him out of trouble!

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    • I’m really glad to hear that about Tessa! She was such a lovely character: someone who really wanted to love, and whose blossomed, despite the fort-building, in a family. I think Shane will also keep Emmett on the “straight and narrow” should he try to take any advantage of Tessa!

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    • I liked this one even better, problematic elements at nil. Just a little disjointedness at the start, but I really really loved the protagonists. The relationship portrayal is wonderful and the children naughtily delightful! I hope you enjoy it!

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