Desert Isle Keeper
The Devil You Know
Jo Goodman writes stories with such heart. Her characters honor themselves and the people around them and deal with the world from a position of emotional stability and maturity. With a sure hand and masterful writing, she effortlessly immerses readers in the time and place of her stories and holds us there from the beginning to the end. In the midst of emotional drama, she shows us flashes of humor revealing that while her characters are in earnest they don’t take themselves too seriously. It demonstrates a resilience of character that is very much a part of the people in her stories. It is my belief that she is, currently, one of the best western romance writers in the industry.
This Gun for Hire (review here) was the story of Quill McKenna, the son of a preacher and a lawyer turned lawman. The Devil You Know is the story of his wastrel older brother, Israel, who is forever being rescued or worried over by Quill and their parents. Some people respond to a strict, punishing childhood by becoming rule abiding, and some by rebelling. Israel was the rebel, a confidence man, in and out of trouble, until he ends up almost dead on Willa Pancake’s land.
Willa, the daughter of a drunken father, is working herself to the bone running a ranch with the help of two hands. She handles all problems and crises with an assurance that commands everyone’s respect, including her sassy, younger sister’s.
The Pancakes have conducted a multi-generational feud with their neighbors, the Barbers, about a stretch of border lands including water rights to a lake. At one point in Willa’s childhood, she was sweet on Eli Barber, but both sets of parents were horrified and separated the kids. Willa grows up with a haunting secret; Eli with a grudge against her and still in love with her.
Israel’s introduction to Pancake Valley precipitates a series of events that tear open the simmering tensions between the Pancakes and the Barbers.
Right from the start, Israel maintains that he’s a bad, shiftless and untrustworthy man. And yet, the Pancakes trust him and believe he is capable of goodness. And slowly he rises up to their expectations and goes beyond. He starts believing in himself, in his ability to put his past behind him, and in his fortitude in forging a new life for himself. All is not hopeless. This was the best aspect of the book for me – this slow unfurling of Israel’s trust in himself.
And then there’s the humor…
“That kiss lasted for a good long time. I was not counting, but I have an uncanny sense for it, and I would put the duration of that kiss somewhere between the time it takes Cutter to get thrown from the new mare once he’s seated in the saddle and the first eight measures of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring played at a moderate tempo.”
”I understand why you were asking, and I certainly hope you do not mean to crow or strut or beat your chest. I liked the kiss just fine, but maybe for all the practice you’ve had, I should’ve liked it better.”
Willa and Israel start out with an attraction, an uncanny ability to be in harmony with their thoughts, and their united partnership approach to ranching. From there, their relationship blossoms into certitude, confidence, and emotional and sexual love despite their past issues and despite their current problems. Trust is a wonderful thing between a couple and it’s wonderful to see it blossoming on the page.
This is a suspenseful story. There’s the thread of Israel’s train journey into Jupiter, CO and the consequent journey to Pancake Valley of which he has no memory. And then there’s the threads relating to Willa’s and Israel’s secrets. It was with a lot of pleasure I read how competently the first mystery thread is resolved in the second half of the book with foreshadowing in the first half. I was likewise pleased at how they disclose their secrets to each other. There isn’t any hint of deliberately (and inanely) keeping them from the other. They reveal them when they have trust in the other person and when they feel ready to do so.
If I had to pinpoint a recurring theme for this book, it is trust. Trust in themselves and trust in each other.
If I at all had a quibble over the story, it was with the part towards the end when Israel is reunited with his brother, Quill. I understand that for Israel’s character to be fully redeemed in a romance, this reunification is important. However, I would’ve hoped for less predictable, less sappy behavior from the two brothers and their wives.
But this little tremor in the otherwise melodious playing of The Devil You Know is eminently forgettable. The story, on the other hand, is unforgettable.