Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

(This review contains some mild spoilers.)

I wanted to love Erin Bowman's Vengeance Road.

I am a child of the West, daughter of generations of pioneers (raised, as you might expect, on Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey). My grandmother's father, born in 1887, lived to be 101, dying just after I was born. Though I don't remember him, my childhood was filled with the rhythm of the stories he passed down, among those from many other close relatives--mountain men and trappers; children who grew up in covered wagons; farmers and ranchers and one great-uncle who broke out of the Texas Rangers' jail (mostly to say he'd done it).

I'm excited that Westerns are coming back into fashion. I was especially excited about Vengeance Road, because it sounded good--and, well, look at that cover. I'm shallow about beautiful covers.

I could not love it, sadly, though it had some positives. The first and foremost reason I could not love it was because the dialect is very wrong. The Western dialect, which I grew up speaking as a "first language," may sound uneducated to outsiders, but it has its own consistent internal grammatical rules. It also has a powerful and beautiful storytelling tradition--which does no good unless you understand it.

Dear authors: Please do not write in a dialect with which you are unfamiliar unless you are going to make a SERIOUS effort to familiarize yourself with it.

Read books written by people who either speak the dialect natively, or who did their research well (ideally the former). Watch movies for which the same rules apply. Listen to stories being told by people who speak the dialect. (This website is a great resource for that.) While you are doing those things, pay attention. Then, once your book is written, get beta readers who speak the dialect. They will tell you what you've done wrong so you can try to fix it.

The Western dialect does not consist of misspellings and incorrect grammar. No one in real life has ever said, and I quote: "I's gonna said rude." We might say, "He done it" or "I seen him leave" or (in the older, pioneer generation) "He taked a bath." We would never say "I's gonna said rude." It makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.

Beyond the dialect issues--which, I'm sure, bothered me more than most--was the lack of real consequences. I enjoy some ruthlessness--True Grit is a classic, of course--but early in the book, Kate's quest for revenge leads her to kill an innocent person. Though it is technically in self-defense, due to a misunderstanding, the man is no less dead.

This is mentioned a few more times throughout the book, but it has no real consequences, and Kate still gets her happy ending--unlike the dead man. It's that lack of consequences, rather than the ruthlessness itself, that bothered me about that particular plot point. If a heroine is going to essentially mow down bystanders in her quest for revenge, I like to see that followed through.

Then there was the treatment of Native Americans. It could have been worse--Liluye, the Apache girl, had little interest in helping the white people, and was definitely the lead of her own story in her own mind--but it was stereotypical overall. "Indians" were presented as the violent, faceless bogeyman for much of the story, and once they appeared as individuals, Liluye and her people fit the shallow "at one with Mother Earth" stereotype you see in movies like Pocahontas.

This isn't to say there weren't positives. Kate's brutal, ruthless pursuit of "justice" (actually revenge) was sometimes compelling, and might have been more so had her actions been followed by real, permanent consequences. Kate's act of saving Liluye's life would usually have led to the tired, ugly old trope of a person of color who is blindly devoted to serving the white main character, and though the treatment of the Apache characters was tired and trope-y in nearly every other way, it was refreshing to have Liluye go, "Forget this, I owe you people pretty much nothing." There's one moment, between Kate and her love interest, that demonstrates consent in a very healthy way. And toward the end of the book, there was a twist I very much didn't see coming.

What killed the story for me was: The lack of consequences (for Kate), the stereotypical Natives, and the clumsy attempt at Western dialect, which at its best absolutely glows in storytelling.


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