The First Time
This was the first romance starring a Mountie that I’ve read, and I liked it enough to wish there was much more of it. The historical setting is well-depicted, and the characterizations range from good to exceptionally fine. A fairly standard gentleman-meets-wild-child setup is enlivened by unusual details and a fresh outlook.
The story is set in 1874 Canada. Just after Colin Fraser receives his medical degree, his faith in medicine and in himself is shattered by his fiancée’s accidental death. Eager to escape his pain, he signs on with the newly-formed Royal Canadian Mounted Police without revealing his medical background. The Mounties’ primary mission is to stop the illegal sale of whiskey to the Indians. To this end, Colin spends a month in a notorious bootleggers’ camp. While he is there he becomes attracted to Maggie Hayes, whose life has been shaped by her status as a bootlegger’s daughter.
Colin reports back to the Mounties, who conduct a successful raid of the camp. Maggie, believed to be wounded, is delivered to Colin, whose medical training has been discovered. In fact Maggie has typhoid, and Colin nurses her for several weeks. As she recovers their bond intensifies despite such obstacles as their different social positions and Maggie’s loyalty to her father.
I really appreciated the way that the story was driven by the natural consequences of the characters’ interactions, not by artificial villains or contrived squabbling. This is a villain-free book, but it is not without conflict. Everyone behaves decently according to their own standards, and the conflict arises when those standards disagree. Many books would also generate heat by having law-abiding Colin trying to control Maggie for her own good, or having Maggie rebel against all hint of authority. Instead, everyone in the book recognizes that Maggie can take care of herself, and better yet, Maggie’s behavior generally confirms that belief.
Maggie is a decent character. She isn’t one of those urchin criminals who never repent. Eventually she comes to accept the consequences of her actions. However, she’s generally outshone by Colin, who is sometimes an extraordinary hero. His character is deeply informed by his medical training and his ambivalence towards it; he worries about the arrogance of playing God, often ponders issues of immortality, and his first thought staring up at a shotgun is to wonder exactly how it will affect his anatomy. His role as a doctor also allows several very endearing exchanges with Maggie. Maggie asks him innocent questions on indelicate topics and Colin The Trusted Advisor is compelled to answer even as Colin The Suitor blushes.
Colin is definitely a blusher, partly because he, like Maggie, is a virgin. Therein lies my biggest disappointment with the book. It’s called The First Time. Both characters quiver with anticipation looking forward to their first time. So you might think that when they finally do the deed, we’d get to see the first time, in as much detail as most other romances. Instead the event is curiously downplayed. I felt very cheated, not because I wanted to see the mechanics of the act, but because I missed the sense of emotional discovery and connection.
The absent first time was one of many things shortchanged by the brevity of the story. In particular, a longer format might have enabled greater exploration of the complexities of Indian-Mountie interactions, which have a glossed-over feel. Also, the interesting historical details of the original Mounties dry up during the second half as the romance takes over and the action disappears. At 320 pages, this is not a terribly short book, and, at 320 pages, it still received a grade of B. But had the book been somewhat longer and contained that missing love scene and more of that history I so enjoyed earlier, The First Time would have been all the better.
Since this book is the first in a series, it’s possible that some of my concerns will be addressed in later installments. The next two heroes were introduced here and I’m eagerly awaiting their stories. If you’re looking for a short frontier story with well-developed characters, I recommend giving The First Time a chance.