In the preface to this book, Sharon Sala writes that it is a new and different type of book for her: “Whippoorwill is not a romance, or a historical, or a western, yet it has a little bit of all of the above,” she writes. “I call it a funny, sometimes bawdy romp through the old West.” I respect Sala for trying something new, but I call Whippoorwill a mess.
The book is set in a very romance-novely old West, where all the towns have colorful two-word names: Lizard Flats, Sweetgrass Junction, Mudhen Crossing. There is an overarching theme of redemption and second chances, but there isn’t a unified plot. The storyline wanders through a variety of vignettes, involving several sets of characters. It’s sort of like a series of interconnected short stories, most of them romantic in nature and ending with a declaration of love; but the chapters aren’t divided up in a short-story structure, so you don’t always know which set of characters you’re going to be confronted with when you turn the page.
The common thread is that a real preacher is coming to the town of Lizard Flats, so the various people who fall in love go there to be married when he arrives. Other people who also feel they have need of a preacher gather in Lizard Flats, too. When the preacher arrives, all the multiple storylines coalesce. (In my opinion, one of the big things that happens when the preacher arrives is a spoiler; it’s also boldly announced on the back cover, so if you’re spoiler-shy, you should avoid that.)
The book may be a departure for Sala, but the characters are hardly what you’d call original. They are all instantly recognizable from other western novels and movies:
- The taciturn half-Indian gunslinger
- The taciturn cowboy in love with the boss’s daughter
- Not one but two hookers with hearts of gold
- The drunk who sweeps up the saloon in exchange for whiskey
- The respectable woman who looks down on the hookers and the drunk
- The scruffy gold prospector who talks about his mine as if it’s a woman (think Kirk Douglas in The Man From Snowy River)
- The spunky girl who is disguised as a boy
And so forth. Why, all you’d need for a complete cliché-fest is a TSTL maiden who can’t even gather wood without finding herself in the middle of a raging prairie fire. Oh wait, there’s one of those, too! The party is complete, then. There are a few characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, most notably Baby Boy, whose brothers and sisters all died in infancy. Apparently his parents associated naming their offspring with losing them, so they refused to jinx Baby Boy by giving him a name. Now Baby Boy is seven and has made it known that he wants a name, so he and his parents are on the way to Lizard Flats to have him baptized. I’ll admit that Baby Boy is not a cliché, but I find his story to be totally unbelievable and pointlessly short. What I’ve described in this paragraph is, basically, all there is to it.
The author makes no effort to disguise the grimy realities of frontier life, which is refreshing. The prose is often extremely bawdy, clearly an attempt on the author’s part to be funny. Sometimes it is funny. Sometimes it’s just disgusting, as when the scruffy miner finds gold:
“There was a wide rift in the surface that had not been there before. And something else shone from deep within, revealing itself in the crack like a woman spreading her legs for her man to come in.”
Yuck – and a bad metaphor, too. I suspect that the spunky cross-dresser’s Irish brogue is supposed to be funny (“I’ll be killin’ ye both!”), but it’s just pathetic and annoying. None of the romantic subplots are at all romantic, because so little time is spent on them, and because the characters are all so formulaic that it’s impossible to care about them.
One character makes an attempt to rise above all this muck: she is Letty Murphy, one of the hookers. Letty longs to escape from the sordid unpleasantness of her life (as did the other hooker; really, they’re interchangeable characters for most of the novel). Then a serious problem arises in Letty’s life, and she uses her ingenuity and courage to devise a daring solution. At this point Letty became the only interesting character in the whole novel. I liked her. I respected her. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to her. The novel was looking brighter.
Then Letty experiences a religious conversion. This could have been the dramatic climax of the novel, fulfilling the theme of redemption. But her conversion experience is played strictly for laughs. The episode is told from the point of view of someone else, and Letty looks like a deranged fool. Instead of being an important, cleansing moment in the life of a red-blooded character, it becomes just another silly event in the wacky town of Lizard Flats. Letty is the only character in the book who seemed worthy of a little sympathy from me, and when the most important moment of her life ends up as comic fodder that way – well, that was just depressing.
Indeed, the entire experience of Whippoorwill was a depressing one for me, rather than uplifting and hilarious and redemptive. The dissonance between the way this novel made me feel, and the way I think it was supposed to make me feel, left an extremely unpleasant taste in my mouth. I sincerely hope other readers will enjoy it more; as for me, I’m just relieved that it’s over.