Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6979-8
Historical Romance, 2005
No Longer a Stranger was previously published back in 1985 as A Loving Defiance. It is also Joan Johnston’s first book. Since No Longer a Stranger is reissued with “only a little revision”, as the author puts it on her website, I open this book with minimal expectations.
To my pleasant surprise, the first half of this book is a very enjoyable kind of campy western romance. It has all the clichés the author can cram in, such as the tomboy heroine who gets away with dressing up like a boy. But there are some depths underneath the stereotypes to give the story some substance. The trouble here is that the heroine, Reb Hunter, is seventeen but when it comes to love, she really acts like a silly side of seventeen. The later half of the book sees internal conflicts popping up in place of external conflicts, and the reader will have to have some patience for the obviously silly antics of an immature girl driving a few conflicts that keep her and the hero Christopher Kincaid apart.
Reb wants to prove herself to be like her brothers and eggs her father to let her make a trek across the Laramie wilderness to take supplies the family mountain man friend Blue. Her brothers usually are the ones to make this annual trip, and this year Reb thinks that she should be allowed to make that trip. Her father lets her go only after her brother Adam agrees to accompany her. At first Reb doesn’t come off as too promising, what with her glibly dismissing her father’s concerns about the Native Americans going on a vigilante rampage after the latest “racial peace talks” went belly up. Thankfully, Reb doesn’t get into trouble and her actions always stay on the reasonable side.
During the trip, Adam and Reb encounter a carriage being attacked by Indians. In their attempts to intervene, they end up with an unconscious man, Christopher, whom they take back to Blue’s cabin. Reb knows how to heal (she is, after all, a romance heroine), so while Blue is conveniently away and Adam decides to head back home to get help, it’s just Reb and Chris in the cottage. Chris overhears some conversation between Reb and Adam and in his grogginess assumes that those two are more than just simple people making a life out for themselves in the wilderness. He is an ex-Union soldier on a mission to stop an idiot from making a muck further of Indian relations, and assumes (mistakenly) that these two may know something about his mission. What he will learn is that he is correct in one thing: Reb is young and foolish enough to simplistically hate all Yankees, as her mother died in a train accident and Reb blamed the Yankee train operator for that accident.
One thing that Ms Johnston does right with Reb is that she never allows Reb to be too stupid. If Reb is foolish, it’s because she is seventeen. She can annoy when she’s being too obtuse about things, but she never makes me want to pull my hair out of my head in irritation. For a hero in a romance novel published in the 1980s, Chris is surprisingly non-toxic. Maybe the author has done some asshole-deprogramming in her revision of this book, maybe not, but Chris doesn’t come off as cruel, just sometimes a little on the clueless side when it comes to dealing with Reb. Then again, who asks him to sleep with her?
The first half of the book has some depths, especially in how Ms Johnston tries to portray the situation between the Indians and the settlers in the late 1800s and also between the North and the South after the Civil War in a balanced manner rarely found in too many (usually pro-South) western romances. The natives aren’t monsters, but they are no saints, and the other side is no monster or angel either. Chris lost his wife in the War, which gives him some rather predictable baggage, but his memories of her are fond and loving ones tinged with guilt. I don’t know if this is a compliment or not, but he is exactly the father that Reb needs to rein her in.
Reb is quite a puzzle. Generally, she is likable especially in how she is no braindead hoyden charging into trouble and needing to be rescued. However, for the most part in the later half of the book, she causes some a number of conflicts between her and Christopher with her immaturity. Then again, what do I expect from a young girl who decides that she is in love with Christopher when she has only met him for a few days and most of the time during those days he was unconscious? Even if I do like her and I try to understand her when she is acting like a childish nitwit, the conflicts between her and Christopher test my patience because they are all the result of the paranoia, selfishness, impetuousness, and immaturity of a little girl who needs to think more often because she jumps to conclusions.
While I find it hard to buy the romance as there is a vast gulf between Reb and Christopher when it comes to maturity, I do enjoy the story. The stereotypes are there and many of the scenes and actions of the characters are straight out of a cliché handbook, but this story is well-written and well-paced to ensure that I get an engaging page-turner even when I correctly predict what will happen next too many times. If you think you have some patience to deal with some of Reb’s more bratty moments when it comes to luu-uuu-urve, who knows, you may find yourself thinking that No Longer a Stranger isn’t too bad.