Snarkling Clean

Snarkling Clean- because you don't have to cuss to make fun of stuff. Two dedicated readers discuss romance novels- from what made us weep with joy to what made us want to poke pencils through our eyeballs.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

History Ho Part Four: Westward Ho!

Okay, I know it's been a week. But I can tell you that one-dose Zithromax can kick the unsuspecting butt of any sinus infection who wants to hang on you. It rocks, people! I'm so grateful I'm not sneezing anymore I could literally weep. And those little tablets that release menthol vapors in the shower? WHY DID SOMEBODY WAIT SO LONG TO INVENT THESE, BECAUSE, GOD. I'm buying stock in this company, I swear. Anyway, on to part four.

There is probably no period in history that has captured the collective American imagination like the Wild, Wild West. I'm firmly on that there train, pardner. I LOVE Westerns.

The time period in romances can vary between 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase) to roughly 1900. Most western romances, however, take place from 1865, when the Civil War ended, to 1890, when the modern age started to take over. Funny how that short 25 year span will always be iconic America.

I break western romances into two categories:
Wild West: Bonanza. Gunsmoke. Deadwood.
Pioneer: Little House On the Prairie.

Actual Pioneer stories fascinate me. Fictional Pioneer stories bore me. If you ever get the chance, go to your library and read some of the diaries of pioneer women. The hardships they endured, the sickness, threat of attack and injury, and the rigors of daily life almost paled in comparison to the mind-numbing loneliness and isolation. And many of these women left everything they knew, everyone they knew; their families and friends and all that was familiar and dear because their husbands had a dream. I'll never understand why there aren't more stories of pioneer men who had sudden 'bad accidents' that forced their returns to the civilised East. "Really, dear, I have no idea how that wagon axel broke."

Which is probably why I can't get into fiction about those women. As I've said before, I read to escape; and I don't care what the author's vision is, when I'm giving up my time to read it's all about me. A world where a woman's lot was unending backbreaking labor, with babies coming frequently and dying frequently, where the crop could burn in a drought or be ruined by a storm or be eaten by hordes of ravenous bugs, where a woman was lucky if she saw another human much less another woman for months on end, is not a world I want to visit. Rare is the Pioneer story I have enjoyed- I was always so mad at the man for dragging his family halfway across creation to face all this crap so he could Build Something Enduring I wanted him to get a nasty rash. And since he's never too tired from his own hard work to forego Tea and Crumpets or at least make sure she doesn't get pregnant until there's a darn roof on the soddie, I wanted him to die by the jaws of a rabid raccoon. I just can't root for that hero.

As for the Wild West, there are two kinds of women, and only two- The Decent Lady and the Soiled Dove. Decent Ladies are churchgoing, corseted, buttoned up to their chins, and relentlessly virginal. Even if she's working in a saloon because she must have medicine for her ailing mother or money to send her brother back east, she has never even smelled a crumpet and is therefore still a DL. Soiled Doves are fast; they have not saved themselves for marriage and are therefore beyond notice. They may or may not work in a saloon, but that doesn't matter because you can always tell a brazen hussy when you see one. Occassionally there is a subcategory where a former soiled dove is now a decent lady, but she's usually so old that no one cares what she did back in her 20's. Nevermind that our virginal heroine winds up crumpeting at midnight without benefit of marriage by the end of the book- she's still somehow a DL, not an SD. NOT, I tell you. I guess it's a variant of the old 'it isn't a doll, it's an action figure' argument.

Even DL's have categories. Our heroine is either: The Rancher's Daughter who is trying to keep the ranch going after Pa's death all by herself, possibly even joining the ranch work in men's clothes, prompting the crusty old foreman and the crustier old housekeeper to tell her she needs to act like a woman oncet in awhile if'n she wants to git herself a man. Or, she's The Prissy Easterner who comes out west to write a newspaper or run a store or be a mail order bride, who impresses everyone from the town drunk to the blacksmith to the sheriff to the cattle baron to the Chief of the local native tribe with her grit and spunk. (Hmmm, Grit and Spunk...sounds like a British euphemism for mashed potatoes and gravy.)

Our heroes have categories as well. He is either The Misunderstood Outlaw, The Noble Lawman, or the Lonely Rancher. The first two will fight their attraction to the heroine because their lives are too dangerous to have a woman in it. The Lonely Rancher, and his subcategories Wagonmaster On His Last Trip and Widowed With Children Farmer are always on the lookout for a likely wife prospect. A few things you can take to the bank- they will all have to kill a desperado, they are all very well educated, speaking perfect English even when they were raised by an illiterate frontiersman who peppers his speech with "Wal, I ain't a-gonna git it fer ya" and they all love biscuits. I don't know why light fluffy biscuits are mentioned in every freaking western I've ever read. Guess they need them for the Grit and Spunk. (Okay, my kids are gonna read this now and ask for Grit and Spunk at every opportunity. I've jinxed myself.)

And God above help us all if our hero's a halfbreed. A halfbreed named Wolf. GAH. This is really one plot device that bugs the thunder out of me. It is very difficult to gloss over the way native people have been treated in this country. I consider myself white; and believe me if you saw my legs in the winter you'd agree, but I do have Choctaw and Cherokee ancestors. My grandmother instilled in all of us a pride in our native heritage, and the Trail of Tears was a national disgrace. Though many individual white men kept their word, the government broke every single treaty they made with the tribes, and treated them like trash underfoot while they did it. Still, romance writers love the idea of a man who's not accepted completely by either society, which is strange because most tribes didn't work that way even if the whites did, but in spite of the racism and oppression he faces throughout the book we're supposed to buy the Happily Ever After. No, they will never be shunned by society by virtue of the fact that he killed a bad guy. Yes, she will happily be invited to the town's ladies groups. And yes, of course their quarter Indian children will be fully accepted by the citizenry, playing as equals with the other children and courting their daughters and marrying their sons. Give Me A Break. However, read Catherine Anderson's Cherish for a more realistic treatment. The half-Indian hero is believeable, even if the Quaker heroine is not. Get ready to laugh hysterically when she screams "Oh my protuberances!"

The fact is, women were the single most stabilizing influence on the West. Men blazed the trail, but tent camps became towns when women moved in. They brought churches, schools, businesses, and were a force for change in society when the men married them and settled down. Women did write newspapers, they ran stores, and even became outlaws. Many were elected to public office before they had the right to vote. All this, and good biscuits too.


Blogger Bernita said...

"Grit and spunk"
I love this blog.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous nessili said...

"Grit and spunk" Is that like bubble and squeak? That's one of my favorite British dishes :) I heard somebody once say it sounded like boiled mouse.

(Totally random thought--I just now realized y'all and Bernita have the same blog design. Call me Captain Perceptive.)

Oh please, please tell me said Quaker heroine does not use the word protuberances?! Ack!

protuberance (noun): a speech given in favor of eating Grit and Spunk.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Robyn said...

Actually, Nessili, it is her reaction to learning that two small parts of her body stand at attention when stimulated. I kid you not. That's why it was a no-brainer to add it to the Snarkling Clean Euphemisms.

And I love British food slang. Bubble and Squeak, Bangers and Mash, Spotted Dick...sounds vaguely naughty, does it not?

10:52 AM  
Blogger Bernita said...

Slap and tickle.
Oh, wait, that's not food.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Megan said...

Awesome post! I have enjoyed your "History Ho" series very much.

Grits and spunk, indeed!

7:32 AM  

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