Wagon Train Sisters
Here, dear readers, is a short list of things you would be better off reading instead of Wagon Train Sisters: The back of a Mr. Bubble label. An outdated encyclopedia, cover to cover. A Bazooka Joe comic. And, last but not least, the pull tag on a pillow.
The novel starts promisingly enough. Sarah Gregg is part of a caravan driving from Indiana to California, alongside her newsman father Frank, anxious asthmatic mother Luzena, her tragically plain younger sister Florrie, her henpecked brother Hiram and Hiram’s spoiled, self-centered wife Becky.
The sudden disappearance of Florrie changes everything for the clan. Luzena insist on abandoning the wagon train to look for her youngest, and during one of those searches Sarah bumps directly into Jack McCoy. McCoy is a known scoundrel and card sharp, but he defends her from his associates, and with his partner, Ben, escorts Sarah back to her parents. After a little bit of friendly bonding with her folks, Jack and Ben agree to escort the family all the way to California, meeting with the wagon train and driving their oxen after Hiram suffers an accident.
Soon enough, Sarah and Jack are trading deep secrets and bonding, and Jack is staring at Sarah’s hips with less than chaste ideas in mind. As often as Jack tries to leave and get on with his life, fate conspires to throw them back together, ultimately landing both of them in the mining fields of Gold Creek, where Sarah meets with success and grows to love the rough town. Unfortunately, her family’s fortunes take a downturn and they decide to pull up sticks again and move on. Will Sarah have the strength to stay behind and make it on her own? Will she and Jack find a permanent space for their love? And will the missing Florrie ever surface again?
Let’s just say that Funk and Wagnall’s revelations are more spellbinding than the ones the novel offers up. The hero and heroine are bland. Sarah has a couple of layers to her and is amusingly flawed with streaks of gossip- mongering, but for all of her insistence that she wants to hang out with miners and live in a dangerous camp her ambitions remain shockingly boring throughout the novel. Only Sarah would look at a place like Gold Creek and think “gee, I think I’ll open a pie shop” – right next to the gunfight victim and behind the old brothel (almost literally). As for Jack, he’s yet another hero with a past, but aside from his drifting there’s very little of the scoundrel about him. From the first he’s instantly willing to throw aside his own ambitions for Sarah.
Their romance is, sadly, bloodless and develops in fits and starts. For example, less than ten pages after meeting Jack, Sarah’s suddenly sharing with him the dark secrets of her previous marriage, secrets she hasn’t previously revealed even to a blood relative. This kind of insta-bonding deflates all true narrative tension, and their commonality doesn’t extend much further than the bedroom. The author tries to fix this with a handful of mildly explicit fade-to-black sex scenes, usually immediately followed by some gunplay or life-endangering stunt. Nothing works. In fact, during the last quarter of the book when Sarah is presented with an enormous dilemma and she starts thinking obsessively about Jack instead, one wants to press her mute button.
The supporting characters aren’t terribly interesting either. You will want to punch Frank at least once before the book concludes and Luzena is amusing, but everyone else fades weakly into the background. Ben is a cipher who only exists to poke Jack in the ribs about his crush on Sarah, and Hiram and Becky could easily be replaced by signs reading “henpecked” and “witch”. When Hiram later says he loves Becky, the audience can only wonder why, and when he grows proud of owning a gambling establishment where men rush his sister while shouting ‘a woman!’ one is liable to cross their eyes in disdain (note that in this book’s skewed morality, prostitution is the worst sin in the world, but owning a gambling parlor where people act like gun-wielding lobotomized Muppets is considered a character virtue). And then there’s the mystery of Florrie, which bears a painfully ludicrous conclusion and served up with a dose of treacle so big Michael Landon would be envious.
The book’s worst point glares like a diamond in the sun: an unsettling undercurrent of racism. While such notions coming from the mouths of its PoV character makes some historical sense, the narrative voice delivers observations in a manner that’s artless and jarring. The treatment of Chinese and Asian characters, who appear as either pidgin-speaking victims of ridicule, gangsters or pimps, is particularly appalling. The only exception is Anming, a prostitute Sarah protects, who gets to speak perfect English in trade for a tragic backstory and allowing Sarah to play white savior for her. The author clearly thinks Sarah’s making strides for progress when she defends some Chinese customers from the racism of some white clients, only to have her think of the Chinese men as ‘strange looking’ in their outfits and have them spout things like ”pay dollah, wantchee catchee pie” (a direct quote). Ms. Kennedy has no excuse for such poor taste, and trying to paper over it with an ending filled with tolerance and love is like following a strip show with a Bible reading. I’m not even including several jaw-dropping revelations involving a ten year old version of the hero and a prostitute he admired, or the possibility that the villain is keeping the children of his prostitutes to…but I’ve said too much. Let’s just say her Native American characters, who appear to drink firewater and serve as a source of nasty rumors, get off easy.
All in all, Wagon Train Sisters would make an excellent doorstop. Or a fine trade-in at your local used bookstore. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to get back to my comic. Oh Bazooka Joe, you delightful scamp…