The Last Renegade
Can an author be great if they keep writing the same thing over and over again? I wrestled with this while I was reading Jo Goodman’s latest western. I never miss a new one – I love the sardonic, offbeat humour, and the fact that she doesn’t treat readers like nincompoops. In these regards and more, The Last Renegade is a cut above both the average western and the average Jo Goodman. Nevertheless, I’m aware that a sameness is creeping into her books that can’t be just waved away as, “Oh, it’s Jo Goodman’s style.”
The Last Renegade still provides all the hallmarks of a Jo Goodman historical: Full historical immersion, little internal cogitation, characters with wry and twisted senses of humor, and heroines who have no compunction whacking the heroes on the head, or vice versa. This all suits me to a tee, especially the bit about internal cogitation – I’d really rather not follow every thought as it streams out like a live Twitter feed and, unfortunately, transparent, bulky writing seems the norm rather than the exception in many romances.
But coupled with the positives are some downsides to Jo Goodman’s books. She went through a period of subjecting her heroines, or people around her, to horrific sexual abuse (which made things really depressing), and the villains’ motivations were nothing short of cartoonish – We Are Evil, Hear Us Roar. Not to mention the writing, which sometimes went from elliptical and subtle to confusing. Making your readers think is one thing, confusing them is another.
What sets The Last Renegade apart (slightly) is that these extremes are tempered, and the good and bad are balanced. We still have an independent, intelligent heroine – Mrs. Lorraine Berry, who runs the Pennyroyal Saloon in Bitter Springs. And we still have an ordinary hero, Kellen Coltrane and self-confessed black sheep traveller. We still have lovely, prickly exchanges that acknowledge the simmering attraction (without, I might add, reams of mental lusting). And we have a lovely small-town western setting that, through the tiniest details, reminds me that, yes, I’m in 1888 Wyoming.
However, the plot is much more intriguing compared to other books. The novel opens on the train, when a stranger staggers into Kellen’s compartment, his guts hanging out. He calls himself Nat Church, after a famous fictional hero, and just before he dies he points Kellen in the direction of Bitter Springs and Lorraine Berry. Upon his arrival, Kellen quickly realizes that a) the Widder Berry is very attractive, b) she had hired Nat Church to rid the town of the Burdicks, a family that owns most of the town and has terrorized the people for years.
There’s lots we don’t know, and lots the characters don’t know, but everything is revealed in timely yet suspenseful fashion. The characters are particularly compelling: As villains go, the Burdicks are very good, a family of one patriarch and three sons whose overweaning arrogance and ambitions are very believable. There are two boys who steal the scene every time they appear, and I dare you not to laugh when Finn explains the etymology of his name. And of course, beneath it all is a romance that makes absolutely perfect sense.
The Last Renegade isn’t a DIK because, well, as much as I like it, there are some tiny flaws (lagging pace, mistimed chemistry, etc.) Besides, I can’t award Desert Isle Keeper status to a book that is, as I’ve spent paragraphs explaining, fundamentally unoriginal, albeit elevated in quality. And here I’m reminded of an article I read once about Jodie Foster. The writer said that as brilliant an actress as she was, she pigeonholed herself, and her abilities, by constantly taking the roles of strong, forceful women. She was good, but until she stretched herself, she would never be great. Can that be applied to authors? I leave that to you.