CLASSIC REVIEW: Savage Thunder by Johanna 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.