Vengeance Road

Some people enjoy Westerns.  Some people don't.  Some people just don't care.  I'm usually in the latter category.  The only "Western" I've watched over and over is North to Alaska which is really more of an ... Alaskan (???) comedy than anyone actually riding horses to save the day and shoot bandits et cetera.  In my (extremely poorly-taught) Native American History course that I took in college, we watched The Searchers as an example of racist portrayals of Native Americans.  I really hate that movie--not because it's a Western, but because of the message it sends.  After that, I figured most Westerns weren't really for me.

Westerns as books aren't as popular as they used to be,either.  Really, the only ones I know of that are big names are the ones by Zane Gray and the hilariously explicit Trailsman series (bow-chicka-wow-wow!).  And YA Westerns?  I can count the ones I know of on one hand.  And by that I mean straight-up Westerns, not alternate-reality Westerns or dystopian future Westerns or anything like that.

So when I saw that Vengeance Road was going to be a good ol' horse-riding, desert-crossin' Western, I was intrigued. Plus, that cover art is amazing.  I wanted so badly for this to be amazing, and yet ... it wasn't.

Now, I know a lot of people have a lot of love for this book, and I want to clarify that I don't think it was by any means a bad book.  It was really, really good in the beginning.  However, it was a book that tripped up on certain plot devices that seem almost mandatory in a lot of newer fiction.  In the end, I felt dissatisfied and slightly disbelieving and a teensy bit angry.

I touched on this in a previous post. but there are precious few girls in literature (note: not just YA literature: all literature) who achieve something or better themselves without also getting a guy or being motivated by a guy.  While Kate starts out full of fury and vengeance, she's brilliant.  She seriously has no mercy.  The idea of marrying stiff-shirted Morris, the dry goods clerk, is anathema to her.  "The thought of being confined to town--standing behind a grocer's counter or waiting at home for a husband to return--is stifling."  And why should Kate settle?  Her Pa's ensured that she can more than take care of a homestead herself.  She's a crack shot: "I can fire a rifle as good as any other man. 'Parently I can kill another just as dead too.  I don't see why I should act like I can't just 'cus it ruffles everyone else's feathers."

Returning to her homestead one day, Kate finds her father hanged in the mesquite tree and her house in flames.  A posse of men flee the scene, and Kate wounds one of them.  With nothing to stay for, she heads into town to track these men down.  Finding the wounded man in a privy, she tries to figure out which gang was responsible.  Turns out Morris, Kate's would-be-intended, led the posse straight to her pa, but that's all she learns.  That's not enough  " 'Now for the love of God, lower that damn pistol.'  'All right,' I says.  And I do.  Right after I shoot him through the skull."  Dang, girl.

There is the requisite girl-dressed-as-boy montage, after which Kate follows her Pa's instructions to "go see Abe in Wickenburg."  With a hefty dose of revenge on the side, of course.  After arriving in Wickenburg, Kate finds out that Abe is dead (rats), but he did leave behind three sons and a daughter.  Kate calls herself Nate and pretends to be a boy in order to ride out with the two eldest sons.  She's found a letter from her Pa, explaining that he knows the location of a cache of gold in the Superstition Mountains, and that's why she's reading this letter, and that she shouldn't go after his murderers.

I'd like to just point out to all the dads and moms out there that as soon as you tell someone, "Don't go after my killer," THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOUR CHILD IS GOING TO DO.

Anyway, there's a long sequence where Will, Jesse, and "Nate" ride off to Tucson, and they argue pretty much the whole time.  Jesse, who has a permanent squint, also has a Tragic Background, told to Kate on the sly by his brother.  Once in Tucson, they locate the members of the Rose Riders, the meanest, toughest, rootin'-tootinist gang in the Wild West, and hatch a plan to catch the leader by cheating him at poker.  This plan requires that Kate (whose gender is now known thanks to a gunshot wound to the shoulder and the requisite ripping-open-of-the-shirt-oh-my-goodness-he's-a-she!) dress in a prostitute's Sexy Dress and have Jesse ogle her breasts while they try to carry out a hare-brained card-counting scheme.

Spoiler: it doesn't work.  What it does do is set the saloon on fire, thus allowing Kate to make a gallant rescue attempt for an Apache girl trapped in the building.  A little rooftop parkour later, and the three are on the road again, except now Jesse's really mad at Kate because she lied to him.  I spy with my little eye ... a romance!

As it also turns out, the girl from the fire survived and tracks them down.  She says she owes a debt to Kate for saving her life, and Kate engages her as a guide through the mountains.  Liluye refuses to assist people who will "dig in Mother Earth's body for [gold].  To do so will bring Ussen's wrath and awaken the Mountain Spirits."  Because she really needs a guide, Kate lies and says that no one in the party wants the gold, although the two boys are plumb crazy for it.

Thus begins a journey into the mountain that is punctuated by Liluye's Magical Indian (this is the Native American version of the "Magical Black Person" who so often shows up in white literature) skills, like figuring out that Jesse has the hots for Kate, or walking silently in order to catch quail with a net, and finding paths that no one else can see.  Meanwhile, Kate persists in offending her by calling her "Lil" and not "Liluye," which I guess we as readers are supposed to find "funny" and "a part of Kate's stubborn character" but that just comes off as insanely rude and insensitive.

Then some Very Bad Things happen (confession: one of them totally shocked me, so good on you, Erin Bowman!  I did not see that coming!) and Jesse is wounded.  Kate drags him into the Apache camp and begs them to save her sort-of-boyfriend, even though by dint of having a homestead, Kate is a participant in pushing the Native peoples off of their own land and sending them to reservations.  Hypocritical much?  Kate always worries about being attacked by Apaches or ambushed by Apaches, but when push comes to shove, she just wants to take, take, take from them because her OMG BOYFRIEND is DYING.  Thanks to Magical Native Medicine, Jesse is healed, and the two ride off to their final confrontation with the Rose Riders.  Then there's a PLOT TWIST that was actually pretty decent when first revealed, but the main character involved didn't act in a believable manner.

But then there's a Happy Ending and stuff, and we're supposed to believe that Kate and Jesse, who have bickered, screamed, and generally fought their way across the desert, suddenly find themselves engulfed with passion for each other and almost get down together.  This scene has been praised as a good example of consent--Kate asks Jesse to stop, and he does--but in the next breath she wonders if she's missed out on something if she doesn't have sex before she dies.  "Suddenly I realize this mighta been my only chance.  This is a thing I ain't done, and for the first time in my life I think I might want it, only I pushed it away 'stead of grabbing it by the horns."

I'm sorry, what?  Sex is a part of human existence, but unlike reality TV would like you to believe, it is not the end-all-be-all obsession of every person on this planet.  There's other stuff, like survival, or ambition, or spirituality, that people can be obsessed with.  Seriously, dying a virgin is like one of the least horrible things that could happen.  I mean, you've died, so that's pretty awful, but the virgin part is no big deal.  Dying while being ripped apart by a velociraptor?  Horrible.  When I read Kate's thoughts on the matter, though, I immediately thought of the excellent discussion of sex and your first time in Clueless, where Cher, who's seemingly a total airhead, points out that she's not going to sleep with someone just to say she did.  It's her body and her choice.

At first I was all:

but then it felt like Kate was being way harsh:

The ending of the book petered out like a stream feeding into a desert.  It was just ... not there.  This strong girl that we met at the beginning just rides her horse home after killing a bucketload of bad dudes and starts homesteading again.  Rebuilds the house, gets fancy flooring, and just stays there.  I expected more something.  Kate knows what she can do now.  So how do you just go back to ranching or growing crops?

What really, really killed this for me was the inclusion of the male love interest.  If this had just been a solo girl revenge story, or if we could have had a mentor situation going on like in True Grit, then I would have been more inclined to think this original and fresh.  But once again, this self-contained, self-sustaining woman gets all tingly because some y-chromosome carrier happened to get in her way.  Plus, the amount of bickering, insulting, and lying that goes on between the two teens is above and beyond even the opposites attract story frame.  I mean, if I were Kate, I would never be able to harbor romantic feelings for someone who abandoned me in order to rob me.  Yep, that Jess is a real winner there.

I don't want girls or guys reading this to think that they need someone else to "complete" them or to finish their story.  You can write your own story, be it a story of vengeance, like Kate's, or something with a bit less blood.

Bowman's commitment to her character's accent was quite commendable, and although it's not as strong as, say, Saba's in Blood Red Road, it still takes a bit of getting used to (and I'd imagine more so for those whose first language is not English).  But she stuck it out and as a result, each character had a good, strong voice.  I like that.

There was one other thing that bothered me a bit, and I mentioned it earlier: the Magical Indian role of Liluye.  Bowman did show her as a strong, self-willed, snarky character, and that was great!  But I didn't feel that she really added any diversity to the cast of characters.  Liluye made cryptic predictions, saw things no one else could, and made ominous warnings about taking gold from the earth--which I feel like I've seen in old-timey Westerns over and over again.

So there was good and not-so-good in this.  The beginning was very strong, and I loved Kate's single-minded fury.  But then the guys showed up and kind of ruined everything.  I just wanted ANGRY WOMEN WITH GUNS AND HORSES.  Is that so much to ask?

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


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