I hate writing reviews of middling books. I’m sure anyone who writes reviews on a regular basis will know what I mean when I say that reviews of books that are simply ‘okay’ are often the hardest to write. Anna Schmidt’s Trailblazer, the first in her new Cowboys and Harvey Girls series, is one such novel, perfectly innocuous, but ultimately predictable and rather dull. The writing is proficient. The protagonists are… nice. The secondary characters are nice. The villain is eeeeevil. But the plot – which doesn’t really get going until the second half – is one cliché after another, and the romance is lukewarm at best.
The eldest of six children, nineteen-year-old Grace Rogers has just been accepted to train as a Harvey Girl, the young women who work as wait staff at the expanding chain of hotels and restaurants opening up at railway stops and in small towns across America in the second half of the nineteenth century. Her six month contract will give Grace a taste of independence and will also mean she can send money to her parents, whose Missouri farm isn’t doing as well as it should be.
Once her training is complete, Grace is going to be stationed at the Harvey hotel in New Mexico, and on the train journey, she meets a handsome young cowboy named Nick Hopkins – who, it turns out, is also based in New Mexico, where he’s the foreman at the Lombard Ranch. Mindful of the fact that Harvey Girls must be of high moral character, and that being seen interacting with a stranger could be detrimental to her reputation, Grace tries not to have too much to do with Mr. Hopkins, no matter that he puts himself out to help her.
Nick has a clear plan for his future, but after he meets Grace, he starts to wonder if he could – and should – make some changes to it. He wants to start a ranch of his own and has purchased some land, but although he wants a wife and family, they aren’t on his immediate ‘to do’ list. First he has to pay off the loan, build a house and purchase stock… but surely he could do all that with the woman he loves by his side?
Over the next few weeks, he and Grace start seeing each other regularly; her position as a Harvey Girl doesn’t mean she can’t walk out with a young man as long as her behaviour is above reproach – and soon, she and Nick are planning to get married as soon as her contract comes to an end. They meet each night, but while they begin to explore the physical attraction between them, they are both mindful that taking those explorations to their natural conclusion could risk Grace’s career and they hold back. But when Nick’s boss asks him to go to California for a month on business, he and Grace realise that they can’t bear to part without having made love and Nick, being an honourable chap, arranges for them to be married before he leaves.
This is basically what happens in the first half of the book – we meet the two Harvey Girls who befriend Grace, (I am guessing they will be the heroines of later books in the series), follow Grace as she learns her new job and watch as she and Nick fall in love. Or rather, watch as we’re TOLD they fall in love. There’s a note of discord struck when Jasper Perkins, a banker and man of high-standing in the community sets his sights on Grace and makes clear to her that refusing him isn’t an option, but otherwise this first part of the book is mostly set up for what is to come. Without giving too much away, it’s easy to see that Perkins is going to be a rather large fly in the ointment for Grace and Nick in the second half, and readers are then slapped with one cliché after another as Perkins’ machinations cause the couple a whole world of trouble.
I had no idea who the Harvey Girls were until I read this book and did a little reading of my own, and I was glad to learn about them and that they are now regarded as true pioneers of the American West. I enjoyed the glimpse afforded into the workings of the establishments at which they worked, and the relationships the author developed between Grace, her friends and their colleagues. The romance, however, is less successful; I never felt there was much chemistry between Nick and Grace, and as characters, they’re both pretty one-note – perfectly nice but not especially memorable and lacking in depth and complexity.
The plot which revolves around the so-very-evil Perkins is hugely predictable, and because there’s no doubt about the outcome, there’s no dramatic tension to the story. I’ve heard good things about this author and I may give another of her books a try at some point, but Trailblazer was a disappointment and I really can’t recommend it.