Sherri 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.