Desert Isle Keeper
My best read of 2020 thus far comes off like a highlights list of AAR’s recent reviews and tags. Sports romance? Got it. Diverse couple? That too. Feminist heroine desperate to succeed at something bigger than herself? All right here. Plus, Stef Ann Holm’s Honey isn’t just any sports romance, but an historical baseball romance set during the 1901 season. I’m a baseball history nerd, so the idea of a romance being set during the dead-ball era (with its huge stadia, emphasis on pitching and far fewer home runs, spectators actually being able to stand on the field during games, and a generally scrappy vibe that more than shines through in this story) was like catnip to me. The fact that it’s so good, and so far ahead of its time in many ways, is an unexpected treat.
Camille Kennison is unanimously considered the most beautiful woman in her small town of Harmony, Montana; the fact that she’s also among its most intelligent is disregarded by everyone apart from Camille herself and her supportive and encouraging mother. Her father, the local hardware store owner, is a blustering hothead with an ostentatious moustache and a temper to match, who spends his time either a) scrapping with his competition, b) turning down Camille’s sensible ideas for improving the family store, and c) improving/antagonising the baseball team he owns, the hometown Harmony Keystones.
Marriage is not a goal Camille has set for herself. Her father sees her as ornamental, and she’s not convinced a husband wouldn’t just be more of the same. She’s desperate to use her brain and to make a difference, and when she hears her father rant about a former baseball player living on the outskirts of Harmony, one who’s refused all offers to sign on with the Keystones, Camille goes to seek him out, hoping her business acumen will score her not only the man’s cooperation, but a few points of her father’s respect.
After turning his back on pitching stardom, all that Alex Cordova brought with him when he moved to Harmony – apart from memories he’d rather forget – was a friend the townspeople know only as Captain. Captain, who has sustained a serious head injury that has left him incapable of caring for himself, relies heavily on Alex, whose determination to protect and look after Captain is the driving force in his life – which is unclear to Camille when she first approaches Alex with the offer of a contract. Alex has sworn he’ll never play ball again, but the money on offer would help him provide better care for Captain, so he is tempted – seriously tempted. And he’s a goner for Camille the moment he sees her… although he really wishes he wasn’t.
Due to a seriously screwball sequence of events – Camille resorts to some pretty underhanded means to pony up that offer Alex couldn’t refuse – all parties involved only agree to finalise the contract if Camille is named manager of the team, something she never expected and isn’t even sure she wants. Although the Keystones have gained a little prestige by joining the newly minted American League, they are the motley, ragtag bunch to end all motley bunches – and they’re not overly impressed by Camille’s unruffled manners, or the frilly privacy screen she sews to avoid getting an eyeful when addressing the team in the locker room. They scheme to get rid of her, and both her father and Alex are pretty convinced she won’t last. But after a lifetime of dealing with the naysayers all around her, Camille is patient, and there’s no bloody way she’s backing down.
So often in romances, I end up liking one protagonist a lot more than the other, to the point of wishing the author had tried a little harder to avoid making readers wonder ‘why her?’ or ‘why him?’. Not so in Honey. Camille is one of the most terrific heroines I’ve read in ages. She manages to stand firm in her fight to be seen and be recognised, even in the face of some truly rancid prejudice from some opposing players and managers (as Holm notes in her afterword, circumstances might not have been much better for Camille, even in the twenty-first century). But she rises to the occasion, eventually winning her own skeptical players over (including the new star pitcher upon whom she’s developed a major crush…) through sheer good sense and competence. She’s not perfect, however; despite loving the game, she isn’t always certain of what call to make, and it does take her a little time to find her feet. Her unruffled façade also hides an echo of her father’s temper, one she tries very hard to keep hidden even while it seems that every man in her life is determined to try her patience! Her move toward emotional independence, and her realisation that she is chasing the pennant alongside her team for a far deeper reason than her original desperation for her father to truly ‘see’ her, is a pleasure to watch unfold.
Originally from Cuba, Alex was sent to live with relatives in America as a child, and, feeling alone and misunderstood, he sought escape through baseball from a young age. Eventually making it to the majors, he enjoyed the perks of stardom for a few years, until an accident forces him to take responsibility for how he’s lived and everything he’s valued up until that point. He’s not one of those heroes who refuses to commit or acknowledge his feelings due to self-absorption: he wants Camille, and comes to admire her, and the two of them build a real friendship, even while the tension between them is so thick it could be cut with a knife. But Alex refuses to make a further move because he feels his first duty is to Captain, and he thinks bringing a wife into the mix and having to spread himself so thinly between them, would not be fair to either.
How Captain fits into the tragedy that haunts Alex, and his own secondary romance with one of Camille’s old school friends, are two more facets of Honey that only add to its shine (although some of what Captain goes through can be pretty upsetting, both in terms of his past medical care and a few run-ins with people who treat him as though he is mentally ill, with a lack of understanding typical of the era). And while you do have to roll with a couple of the plot points (as the original AAR review points out), there’s so much here to enjoy, especially if you like the trope of a woman striving to triumph over gender prejudice, but on a smaller, nuanced, more personal scale. By the end of the novel, Camille has come into her own, has reason to be as proud of herself as the others around her finally are, and gets the guy in the bargain. There’s a real sense that Alex sees and understands her for who she truly is (and vice versa), which isn’t always a given in many seemingly-rushed plots and characterisations in newer romances.
From the nineties through the early naughties, the Americana romance (not to be confused with Westerns!) really flourished, but as publishing trends seem to have shifted towards Regency-and-very-occasionally-Victorian dukes, it seems to have receded into the background. But there were a lot of gems published while it lasted, and my copy of Honey brought a grin to my face and really earned its place on my keeper shelf.
~ Tina L.
Note: At time of writing, this title is available in used paperback format only.
Buy it at: Amazon or shop at your local independent bookstore
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