It starts off with a bang: a tomboyish ranch owner’s daughter comes across a man bathing in a creek, mistakes him for a horse thief, and summarily makes him march to the family ranch at gunpoint. She lets him put his clothes back on, but not before experiencing a healthy dose of lust at seeing “the bold proof of his masculinity.”
The first in Joan Johnston’s Sisters of the Lone Star series, Frontier Woman (originally published in 1988) reads like a movie with a slightly overdone sense of dramatic action. Owing to one unprecedented chapter, it is also disturbingly violent.
During Texas’ years as an independent republic between 1836 and 1846, the untamed land is besieged by Indian pillagers and Mexican invaders. In this world swaggers Cricket Stewart, whose ambition is to wear breeches for the rest of her days, horse around with the wolves she domesticated, and basically act tough. She meets her match in Jarrett Creed, the “horse thief,” who is actually a Texas Ranger investigating an alleged spy for the Mexicans. Cricket’s willfulness forces him to claim her as wife and bring her with him on a convoluted mission, which leads to nonstop action sequences.
It’s hard to remember all the things that happened and why; readers will get the distinct feeling that events are meant solely to sustain the relentless pace. But this reader would have better appreciated the book if it featured more engaging characters and deeper emotional insights.
As it is, it’s hard to empathize with the protagonists. Creed was raised as an Indian when he and his mother were abducted, only to be wrenched back to the white world by his indomitable father. Despite this, he seems to have a clear-cut sense of justice and belonging, and finds it oh-so-easy to fall in love. As for Cricket, few things are more grating than a combination of arrogant stubbornness and sheer stupidity in a heroine. When she causes a particularly grisly catastrophe that alters one life forever, she feels fleetingly guilty… and yet she continues to be obliviously defiant and needlessly prickly.
Some plot particulars are also puzzling. The hero and the heroine are presented with several chances to kill the villain, but as an obvious plot device they invariably spare his life. Most befuddling, it only takes two men – Creed and his brother – to decimate a whole band of supposedly ferocious Indians.
Despite these flaws, I would have rated this book as acceptable largely because of Ms. Johnston’s creative sense of drama. But when I read Chapter 19, my first impulse was to close the book and bury it under a pile of clothes in the darkest corner of my closet, or take it to the nearest UBS – anything just so I would never have to see it again.
Apparently, it was a Comanche ritual to subject a female captive to rape by every brave in the band. The chapter-long description of this in Frontier Woman is the single most terrifying scene I’ve ever come across in a romance novel. Reading it compelled me to give this book an F.
Why was that scene in the book? It might be to advance the Creed brothers’ character development as they witness their mother’s fate happen all over again to someone else. It emphasizes the viciousness of the villains and the reality of the danger surrounding the characters. Perhaps Johnston wanted to portray the Comanches as history indicated they were. But there are ways to covey these things without resorting to a mercilessly detailed account of how A, B, and C held X’s arms and legs for the sick pleasure of D and later E, then F, then G (heck, everyone through Z!). While I expect to be transported by a romance novel, I don’t want to be directly terrorized. Whether or not that chapter should have been included is not a question of necessity but one of taste.
The book actually closes with Cricket’s sister being spirited away by a Comanche. This leaves you with a desperate need to find out exactly what happened to her, instead of a pleasurable inclination to read the book. The sequel, Comanche Woman, is out of print, however, and maybe Frontier Woman should have remained that way too.