The cardinal rule of good storytelling is, “Show, don’t tell.” Reading Buffalo Valley, the fourth installment in Debbie Macomber’s Dakota series, I got the feeling that I was being told the story, not shown it, and my reading experience suffered because of it. Moreover, a good part of the story was told in awkward flashbacks and stilted dialogue, and I found very few of the characters likable or believable.
Vaughn Kyle comes to the small South Dakota town of Buffalo Valley. He has two reasons for visiting, one personal, the other job-related. First, he wants to meet Hassie Knight, the mother of the dead man who was his namesake; Vaughn’s mother was engaged to Hassie’s son before the young man went to Vietnam and never returned. Hassie has been sort of an honorary grandmother to the younger Vaughn, sending him letters and birthday cards over the years. Now, fresh out of the Army, Vaughn uses his connection to Hassie to mask the fact that he’s running a reconnaissance mission for Value-X, a large discount chain that wants to open a store in the town. Vaughn’s almost-fiance Natalie, a business-only, hardnosed type, is in charge of the deal, and to please her Vaughn agrees to travel incognito to scope things out, even before he’s officially hired by the company. It’s a simple, done deal, right? Wrong. On his arrival, Vaughn begins to question whether Value-X should come in and spoil the picture-perfect little town; worse, he starts to question his loyalty to Natalie, especially after he meets Hassie’s young pharmaceutical assistant Carrie Hendrickson.
Divorced pharmacy student Carrie lives with her parents and unmarried brothers. They’ve sold the family farm to run Buffalo Valley’s hardware store, and she knows that if Value-X moves in, her family will lose everything. When the handsome stranger shows up in town, Carrie’s immediately attracted to him. Carrie’s wary of making another mistake with her heart, but Vaughn seems like such a decent, honest guy, and Hassie seems to approve of him. Who knows? This could be the one for her. Hey, maybe he could even help to keep the Value-X folks from coming in and ruining their perfect town!
It takes about two seconds to make the connection between the fictional Value-X and the real-life Wal-Mart. No subtlety there. In addition, I found most of the characters and characterizations overly simple, bordering on the simplistic. Vaughn is a stereotypical good boy who’s being led astray by the evil lure of money, but all he needs is the love of a good woman and a reminder to Use The Force For Good, and he’ll be back on the straight and narrow. Carrie couldn’t be any more squeaky-clean if she were a freshly washed window, and as a character she’s just about as transparent. Main Street and its arteries are populated by a predictable, by-the-numbers set of “quirky folks” who all share a common love of their town, and are in a quandary as to how to stop the evil Value-X corporation.
The so-called moral dilemmas the characters face are so black-and-white that there’s never a smidge of suspense about how things will turn out. Did I for one second think that Vaughn would throw away his chance at a real relationship with Carrie and go back to that money-grubbing witch Natalie? What would Carrie do when she found out about Vaughn’s involvement with Value-X? Matters were so cut and dried that I never once got the feeling that any of the overly virtuous characters was forced to make a real choice, because there was no real choice; the only attractive choices were the “good” ones.
What really got me in this book is the fact that so much of the action takes place off the page, as it were: things happen but the reader doesn’t get to see them, only hear about them afterward through characters’ thoughts, or the stilted dialogue. Worse, a good chunk of the book deals with stuff in the past, both immediate and distant. Hassie ruminates over the events surrounding her son’s youth and death, Carrie thinks about past events in the lives of her family and friends and the town, Vaughn remembers the fun things he and Carrie did earlier that day. Too many “had been’s” and “had done’s” and “had seen’s” for my taste – by the end of the book, I’d had enough!
The only spark of interest this book held for me – and it was only a spark – was the idea of a reunion between Vaughn’s mother and Hassie. How heartwrenching it must be, in real life, to see the woman your dead son was supposed to have married, now with another man and a grown son of her own. Yet even this potentially touching scene got short shrift. The reader sees only part of it, and there’s nothing approaching any kind of catharsis for either the characters or the reader. Aside from having a rushed feeling to it, the ending was also another instance of “told, not shown,” and I closed the book with a sigh – not of happiness, but of frustration. If you’re dying to read all the books in Macomber’s Dakota series, you may like this book, but as a stand-alone read it certainly did not work for me.