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CLASSIC REVIEW:  Savage Thunder by Johanna Lindsey

CLASSIC REVIEW: Savage Thunder by Johanna Lindsey

This classic review is by The Fallen Professor who is a former literature academic who now runs her own freelance business and indulges in whatever the hell she wants to read. She’s especially fond of historical and paranormal romances, though she won’t turn her nose up at a good contemporary. Visit The Fallen Professor at her blog.

Savage Thunder Johanna LindseyDear Ms. Lindsey,

Colt Thunder was my first lover.

My relationship to Savage Thunder is long and complicated, and intimately tied to my reading life, so this review is long, long, long; it also contains a good dose of nostalgia.

 

Part 1: The Memory

 

Sometime during my senior year in high school, I found myself alone in a coffee shop; it specialized in artisan fudge, which is why I was really there (my love for coffee didn’t start until college). The fact that I was alone is important, because what happened next would never have taken place had I been accompanied by family or friends.

I was in the middle of making a life-or-death decision (almond or marbled fudge?), when I noticed a rickety book rack next to the counter, stuffed to bursting with paperbacks for sale. Front and centre, I saw a thick volume with the intriguing title of Savage Thunder.

And yes, it was the original cover, which looked like this:

[PLACE ORIGINAL COVER HERE]

And yes, I believe that’s Fabio in black hair dye.

This was my chance. I’d been to friends’ homes and noticed shelves full of books sporting such covers in their parents’ dens and living rooms. I’d sneaked peeks at them, and knew what they were about. I’d even formed part of a circle of classmates who had passed around an old battered copy of Judy Blume’s Forever… Not strictly a romance novel, I know, but the closest I’d come to one; I’d been smitten by Michael, and my heart broke for Katherine. And I wanted more.

But it was a risky move. I grew up in a literature-loving household; was currently enrolled in Advanced Placement English; and had by then decided to become an English major. This book felt, for lack of a better or gentler expression, as though it should be beneath me. And yet, I really, really wanted to read it, even knowing I’d feel the need to hide it in the deepest reaches of my sock drawer. In a rush of adrenaline that I still remember more than twenty years later, I snatched up the book, placed it face down on the counter, and paid for it along with my fudge. I know, what a combo platter, right? It seemed like the quintessential lonely girl special.

And I guess I was, in a sense. I was bookish and shy, and would eventually go on to take an arranged date to my prom. But loneliness is not what drew me to Savage Thunder and romance novels in general. Neither was the sex; I was introverted, but not sheltered. Looking back, the one word I can use to describe this fascination that I had is desire. I was intrigued by the courtships described in romance novel blurbs, and especially by the earthshaking attraction that seemed to erupt between hero and heroine.

To think that someone could desire me so fiercely, seen from the awkward high school social scene that was my daily environment, seemed unreal. And, while I can’t say that I modelled any one of my later relationships on what I read in these books, I probably did unconsciously use that image of focused desire as a touchstone at times.

But I digress.

Part 2: The Novel

So here we are, Ms. Lindsey, finally getting around to discussing your novel.

As I suggested in the beginning, I have mixed feelings about your book. On the one hand, it’s an irresistible read that I’ve returned to regularly over the years; every time I pick it up, I realize that I have many passages memorized. On the other hand, there are aspects of Savage Thunder that make me incredibly uncomfortable. So I’ll try to address both of these sides in my discussion. I’m going to leave out a detailed description of the plot, because I don’t want to give too much away and this is already going to be long.

First, I need to tackle the title, which I’ve always disliked because I couldn’t see a reason for it. At first glance, it sounds innocuous: a reference to severe weather patterns? We have much savage thunder in summertime where I live. But then we find out the hero’s name is White/Colt Thunder, and that he’s a “half-breed” because he’s part Cheyenne, and… huh? Is that really the reference you want to be making with the title? There’s certainly plenty of racism directed at Mr. Thunder throughout the novel, but not by the “good guys” (mostly… more on that later), and I don’t understand why the title should seem to reflect their mindset.

And, although the book’s reissue has changed the cover art, I have to say that the original cover made me grit my teeth because it didn’t seem to reflect the characters at all. Jocelyn would not have been caught dead swooning at Colt’s feet in that fashion: this is, after all, the woman who at one point takes off on Colt’s horse and leaves him stranded to cool off after an argument. But it’s a cover typical of the era the book was published, and nowadays the Fabio-ness of it is campy enough to simply make me smile.

So now that we know who our hero is, I come to my next point of discomfort: the American Indian romance hero. And here I must confess that, aside from an ill-advised foray into the magical land of Cassie Edwards’ cardboard warriors (I read Savage Fires right before Smart Bitches reported on Edwards’ alleged plagiarism), Savage Thunder is the only novel I’ve read in this sub genre. So please take my comments as those of a largely inexperienced reader in the field.

There’s an aspect of the race conflict in Savage Thunder that I do appreciate: as someone of mixed heritage, Colt is aware that he fits in neither here nor there, and much of his personal battle comes from his need to find a place in society (or, as he does for much of the novel, to stay away from it). He’s been the Cheyenne warrior; he’s been the passing-for-white ranch hand (with near fatal results); and by the time he runs into Jocelyn he’s decided to make sure his Cheyenne half is visible enough to prevent misunderstandings, while at the same time embracing many of white society’s trappings (mainly evident in his lightning-quick gun skills). He wants to make sure people know what he is, so that the events detailed in the Prologue aren’t repeated; but at the same time he’s ready to defend himself in the way of the society that rejects him. Challenge Colt Thunder and you’ll likely die in the ensuing shootout.

This tension between his Cheyenne and white heritage makes for a very compelling hero, especially once he begins to be romantically pursued by someone who doesn’t seem to care about his mixed race. As an aside, during my very first reading of Savage Thunder, I was also studying Wuthering Heights, whose hero, Heathcliff, is also (though one wouldn’t know this from most movie adaptations) described as being of mixed or indeterminate race. Though Colt’s story thankfully ends much differently than Heathcliff’s, the parallels made Savage Thunder that much more interesting.

However, I also have some issues with the race aspect. I have to admit that these developed over years of rereads, since at first Colt was just exotic and rugged for me (just as he was for Jocelyn). As I mentioned, there are many racist comments directed towards Colt, mainly from characters with whom we’re clearly not supposed to sympathize. Mainly. Because we also have passages like:

“If he had come across her six years ago, he would have simply ridden off with her and made her his. But he was ‘civilized’ now…” (Colt’s POV)

“He was so damn unpredictable when the Indian side of him was dominant. Billy needed to pacify him and quick.” (from the POV of Billy, Colt’s white half-brother)

“Riches had no meaning for someone like Colt. He still lived off the land just as he always had. Jessie had failed to civilize him in that respect.” (Billy’s POV; Jessie is Colt’s white half-sister)

“‘Do you know what would happen to you if I had found you then? This – and a helluva lot more. We not only raped white women, we made slaves of them.’” (Colt to Jocelyn)

This spills over into the love scenes, which are passionate but sometimes border on violent. There’s a first kiss given as quasi-punishment, and the first sex scene is preceded by Colt’s surrender to his “primitive side”: “despite his single-minded determination, he forced himself to give her one last opportunity to escape what he could no longer control… ‘Scream now, Duchess, while you’ve got the chance. You won’t get another.’” Um… swoon? There’s also an exotic sex scene, on horseback. Even when I first read the book and had never been on a horse, it sounded silly; now, as a seasoned rider, I can confidently say: “WTF!?!” and “Owieowieowie!” But again, the clothes-ripping and carrying off to bed are typical of many Old School 80s romance novels.

However, this left me wondering whether the characterization of American Indian characters always falls towards the same tropes of (1) possessive treatment of the heroine with culture as justification; (2) someone whose “primitive instincts” need to be controlled in the presence of a virtuous (and white) heroine; (3) a disdain of material goods and deep love/understanding of nature; and (4) the previous three points being what makes this type of hero sexy for the heroine (and, by extension, the reader). The fact that, in the final scene, Colt is described as looking “less Indian” (not the actual quote) when he proposes to Jocelyn just reinforces the stereotype for me: she has managed to somewhat tame his “savage” side.

Again, I know this type of alpha hero is very much the product of the times, and in this sense Colt falls in line with the dukes, rakes, pirates, and other macho, macho men. The problem for me is that his personality can’t be separated from his race and culture: from the title, to the way friends and enemies move around him, to his own confessions of “primitive” urges, Colt sometimes comes across as one big (albeit drop-dead gorgeous) walking stereotype. Add in the fact that romances in this sub genre, are written by (from what I’ve seen) authors from outside their characters’ culture, and things become even more complicated. On the one hand, romance novels with racial diversity are always welcome; on the other hand, to what extent are we romanticizing cultures whose realities we might not fully comprehend?

And here I’d like to ask a serious question: What makes American Indian heroes (or, less commonly, heroines) so attractive for readers that there’s an entire field of romance writing devoted to them? Unlike the decadent, wealthy sheiks that are also a staple of romance novels, the Native American romance hero belongs to a group ostracized and persecuted in the time period these books usually cover (and the present-day reality for many is not much better).

I’m sorry to have started with what I didn’t like about Savage Thunder, Ms. Lindsey. I was taught, when learning to write critiques, that I should point out the good aspects first, before heading into the negatives; obviously, I have failed here. But I wanted to get these points out of the way, because the love story at the heart of this book is really terrific.

What I liked most about the courtship is that it’s Jocelyn doing most of the pursuing. Sure, her initial reasons for chasing after Colt are fairly superficial (the argument for needing to lose her virginity seems frankly ludicrous to me); but she realizes early on that she’s fallen hard for him, and refuses to give up or let him demean himself and think himself beneath her. As an introduction to romance novels, she’s a stellar heroine-guide: without taking away from the hero’s alpha nature, she leaves him speechless over and over with her courage and skills. Jocelyn is in the vein of Jessica Trent from Lord of Scoundrels, although Jessica is even more badass in my opinion.

And Colt? Oh, Colt Thunder. As someone tweeted in reply when I mentioned I was doing this review: “Colt Thunder is so good.” Indeed he is. He’s of an alpha variety that I’d run from screaming in real life; but he also gives credit where credit is due, and does not turn a blind eye to Jocelyn’s knowledge of horses, or her skill with a gun. For all her extravagance and easy use of wealth, she’s willing to rough it with him during their camping journey to Wyoming, and he acknowledges her bravery in this. He’s also someone who’s been hurt in horrible ways throughout his life, and has lost much of his Cheyenne family to white society’s greed for gold. But still, he lives among them, and has retained a strong code of ethics that allow him to let someone who had insulted him to the point of triggering a duel to run away without receiving a bullet to the back.

For these reasons, plus a plot that always keeps me turning the pages (and believe me, I have it well memorized by now) and secondary characters that are well fleshed out and sympathetic (I love Vanessa and Angel), Savage Thunder remains a much beloved book in my collection, all reticence about stereotypes aside.

If you’ve made it this far, Dear Author readers, I thank you! I wish I had a prize to give out.

And now it looks like I need to think of a grade for this book. It’s a difficult decision, because I haven’t done any grading since my teaching days, and even then it wasn’t my favourite part of being in the classroom. But here goes. My misgivings about the book would put it at about a C; but its redeeming qualities (great characters, smoking-hot chemistry, the fact that it’s been a memorable part of my reading life since the year it was published) would put it at an A. So in all fairness, I’ll have to average my mixed feelings and give Savage Thunder a B.

And yes, the line “Because I’m going to lay you on that bed and fill you with my flesh” still makes my knees weak.

 

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Intrigued by this review? Have a book of your own that is a favorite? Dear Author has an open invitation to anyone to write a review of a book that is at least twenty years old, published in the 1990s or before. You can love it or hate it but it stuck with you for a reason. Share with the rest of us your classic romance review by emailing [email protected]
 

CLASSIC REVIEW: Skyscraper by Faith Baldwin ©1931

CLASSIC REVIEW: Skyscraper by Faith Baldwin ©1931

As we move farther and farther away from the origins of romance, I find myself growing nostalgic.  There were some great books published decades ago (and some terrible ones). I thought it would be great if our community of romance readers and authors could offer up some reminisces themselves to a collection of classic romance reviews.

The invitation is open to anyone to write a review of a book that is at least twenty years old, published in the 1990s or before. You can love it or hate it but it stuck with you for a reason. Share with the rest of us your classic romance review by emailing [email protected]

 

Our first entry is from Vintage Reader. You can find her on her Twitter feed here.

Molly B., known on Twitter and formerly in the blogosphere as The Vintage Reader, has been reading vintage romance since her best friend introduced her to the works of both Grace Livingston Hill and Jennifer Wilde in the fifth grade (although Jennifer Wilde was contemporary at the time). She is occasionally startled to realize that the Loveswept books she bought new in the 80s are now vintage.

Lynn Harding, a bright young woman of 22, loves her job researching sales leads for a bank in the heart of a New York skyscraper. She lives in a club for businesswomen, saves her money, and dreams of advancing in the bank. Then one morning, eating breakfast in the building’s first-floor diner, she meets co-worker Tom Shepard.

Lynn and Tom hit it off quickly, but run into trouble when they decide to get married: Tom doesn’t want his wife to work, but can’t swing a household on his $50-a-week salary. Tom and Lynn find it hard to resist temptation, especially after Lynn moves out of the highly supervised club and into an apartment with her friend Jennie, a couture model who also works in the skyscraper.

Tom finally agrees to let Lynn continue working after marriage, but then a new problem crops up: Lynn finds out that her bank is firing married women, because it’s 1931–the beginning of the Depression. Yet another problem comes along in the form of a wealthy older man who sets his fedora for Lynn. “All’s fair in love and business,” he says, and goes about showing what he means.

Can love and business co-exist? Lynn and Tom will have to find out for themselves.

 

skyscraper
Dear Miss Baldwin (as you were referred to on your book jackets, although in real life you were Mrs. Cuthrell),

I first discovered you in 1979, when I came across a copy of The Incredible Year in a Dell edition with an intricate map of New England on the back. It was that map that drew me in, and led to more than 30 years of collecting not only your books, but also other Dell mapbacks–paperbacks with maps on the back that featured crime scenes, floor plans, and glamorous locales I could only dream of visiting someday. Inside your books I found an equally compelling picture of 1930s New York–full of plucky career girls and indolent playboys, caring-but-clueless rich people and sensible spinsters. The conversations were lively, the settings elegant, and the clothes–oh, the clothes! I dreamed that when I grew up I would live in New York and wear a smart dark-green wool suit with a made-to-match hat when I lunched on Fifth Avenue, just like Julie in The Incredible Year, or a cute Alpine sweater and little felt beanie when I went away for a ski weekend, like Cherry Chester on the cover of The Moon’s Our Home (well, okay, maybe I’d skip the beanie).

Because of course, your characters did things like that. They mostly lived in New York, so they lived in brownstones or walkups and they rode the subway or occasionally took a taxi, and they went to movie houses and supper clubs and also, I assume, speakeasies, since your early books take place during Prohibition. It was all very romantic to a 13-year-old who had rarely been out of Tulsa. I’m sorry to say that I often found your heroines a little too perfect, your heroes a little too boring… but I fell hopelessly in love with your New York.

So of course I snapped up Skyscraper when I found it. It’s probably the best-known of your books these days; not only has there been a recent paperback reproduction featuring the nearly iconic Earl Sharwan cover art for Dell–which shows a woman and a building, and notably, no man–there’s also been a reprint with a new cover by a feminist press. When Jane put out the call for reviews of classic romance, Skyscraper was one of the first books that came to mind, so I found it on my shelves and read it again to see if it was as good as I remembered.

It wasn’t; and yet, it didn’t disappoint. The dialogue is snappy, especially Jennie’s slang-laden speeches that sometimes contain racial slurs or various types of innuendo (no n-words, but I still can’t bring myself to type what Jennie calls the maid).

I note that although Jennie is not alone in using anti-gay language, she is the only one who uses race-related words. It seems to me that in your books, racist language is used to make a point about the character using it. That’s why I’ve never bought into the excuse, so often given for vintage books and elderly relatives, that everybody used such language back then. Because as far as I can recall, your “good” heroes and heroines don’t use it. (Stereotyped dialect is another matter, but I’ll address that when I write to you about District Nurse.)

As characters go, I like these. Lynn is awfully perfect, with her “satin cap” of dark hair–you mention that several times–and her unwavering business ethics, but I like her because she doesn’t ever judge her friends, whether it’s Jennie’s attempt at gold-digging, Mara’s giving up her job to follow a faithless husband, or Sarah’s youthful affair. I think Tom is one of your most interesting and likable heroes, although his tendency to fly off the handle is annoying. It is nice that he learns to control it by the end of the book, at least. Jennie is a fabulous character, far more complex than the typical Bad Girl With a Heart of Gold. David Dwight, on the other hand, is fairly tepid–not appealing enough to be a real threat to Tom and Lynn’s relationship, but not evil enough to be a very convincing villain. In one scene, he actually shows Lynn his etchings, which was already a cliché by 1931 (according to Wikipedia, a resource that would have saved you a lot of trips to the library–not that I think that’s necessarily a good thing), so I’m guessing you meant that as a joke about his character. Rest assured it stands the test of time.

The clothes are, as usual, beautifully described, and a search on Pinterest (another time-saver in 2014, although I suspect you’d see it as more of a time-waster) yields all sorts of lovely pictures of clothes and hair just like Jennie’s and Lynn’s.

Your descriptions of the city, the office, and everyone’s apartments are so thorough they make me feel like I lived through the Thirties in New York–but the attitudes you write about make me glad I didn’t. I think you might be happy to know that modern men don’t usually mind if their wives have jobs, but I think you might be sad to know that women still make less money for the same work, just as Lynn makes $1900 a year while Tom makes $2600 for what seems like a less demanding job, and certainly one that he doesn’t care about or enjoy as much as she cares about and enjoys hers. I think you might also find it distressing that American society still often judges women harshly over the choices they make in their relationships; while that theme is not as strong in Skyscraper as it is in some of your other books, your heroines don’t seem to have any use for what we now call “slut-shaming.”

Occasionally the plots of your books revolve around conflicts that those of us living 70 to 80 years after your heyday have a difficult time relating to. We modern readers often roll our eyes at Romeo-and-Juliet-style parental objections or easily resolved misunderstandings. While it’s true that the biggest conflict between Lynn and Tom is one of the latter (over, of all things, insider trading), it at least makes sense. Perhaps that’s why Skyscraper has survived while many of your other books have not. Although that knockout cover doesn’t hurt.

Grade: B

Sincerely,

Molly, the Vintage Reader

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