Romancelandia is no stranger to controversy, but the most recent dust-up over a Rita nominee finalist where the heroine is a Jew and the so-called hero (see I’m not biased or anything) is a Nazi in charge of a concentration camp, has really caught my attention. A lot of people have said all the things, but here are the two most relevant to me, and to why I am FINALLY starting this blogging category, which for lack of a better term, I am calling my “Shame Files”.
AztecLady over at Her Hands, My Hands has a nice explanation of the entire situation and links to more information, and she’s much more succinct and precise than I would be if I tried to unpack the whole thing the way she did. But we’ll just say that I have so many issues with the premise of the novel, from the power differential, to the genocide and the idea that everything is forgivable, to the religious aspects.
And then Wendy over at The Misadventures Of Super Librarian wrote this really pointed piece about how we as romance readers need to take a look in the mirror on this issue of the power dynamics, because the genre as a whole and in its various parts, is rife with this issue. And she is absolutely correct.
So I had been contemplating starting up my Shame Files segment for a while now. Not because I am ashamed to read or enjoy these books, but because I am always vaguely ashamed and reticent about recommending these books, even if they are on my re-read list. And the reason that I am ashamed to recommend them or discuss them, is that there is that problematical power dynamic and elements of non-con, and I liked it and forgave the hero any way.
So, here are your warnings: there will be spoilers in this review, and in any other in the future tagged Shame Files, because I can’t start unpacking the issues and my actual opinions without actually talking about what happened. There will also likely be non-consent scenes of some sort discussed, because I can’t think of anything else I’d be reticent to recommend over. Also, I am aware that when it comes controversial subjects, there isn’t always a good way to stay on the side of explaining and critiquing rather than sliding into justification, particularly when it comes to something as personal as reading preferences. I’ll do my best, but that is really all that I can do.
This book is available at OpenLibrary, all the usual disclaimers apply.
The Touch of Fire was originally published in 1993, so more than 20 years ago, so perhaps it isn’t entirely fair to use this book as my first example, but since It was my first example, it is what I am using. Once upon a time I glommed Linda Howard, and there were a ton of firsts for me in her works. This one counts as the first book I can remember reading a non-con scene and not being revolted and feeling like my stomach was turning over.
So for me to start unpacking this, you need to know a little bit about our main protagonists. It is the late 1800’s, and our heroine, Annie Parker, is a DOCTOR. She is almost 30 years old, she’s never been married, and when she grew up she wanted to be a doctor, and so she did it. Despite all the jeers and put downs, she went to Geneva Medical College and pushed through and became a doctor. And then when people in larger cities wouldn’t go to her practice, she moved west until she found a wild and rowdy mining town without a doctor, and she opened her practice there. Because being a doctor is who she is. She had fortitude and gumption.
Rafe McCay is a murderer on the run from the law and with an enormous bounty on his head. He’s killed people and expects to do so again. And then when he is injured by a shot from a bounty hunter, he ends up in Annie’s practice and when she informs him she needs long-term care, he kidnaps her. He holds her at gunpoint and actually kidnaps her. He drags her out into the wilderness, embarrasses her modesty all over the place, makes her sleep nearly naked in his arms, basically has complete control over every aspect of her life, is very pushy for physical intimacy, and then the first time they have sex, it is in a way I’d consider very dubious of consent even if it weren’t for the kidnapping, only since he was her captor it was so much worse.
So why wasn’t I completely appalled by this character, why did I find him a hero at all, even a “redeemable” one? Yep, this is where the unpacking comes in. For one thing, we spend a ton of time in Rafe’s head, so we know that he was pushed into this and that he was innocent of the thing that started this chain reaction. We also know how he feels about Annie, how fascinating he finds her and how he wants her and respects her. Annie however doesn’t know all these things, however, she does see how he has cared for her and protected her (yes he put her in this situation in the first place, but he isn’t as bad as he could be) and that there are inconsistencies in the whole situation. She is of course also wildly attracted to him, and she was attracted even before he kidnapped her, so I think that also helped keep me from completely repudiating Rafe. And she even admits her attraction to Rafe. Was she stupid to fall for a man showing her the behavior he already had shown? Yes, I’d say so. However, the other thing that I think kept me on board with this one, is that in all other ways Annie is such a level-headed and rational person, so when she says she wanted him, when she seems OK with their encounter, I feel comfortable taking her word for it.
Did it take away the awful power dynamic? No, that still existed up til that part of the book. So for the first half of the book, we are still working the captive/kidnapper scenario, even when they begin their sexual relationship. The other thing that worked in this book’s favor, in my opinion, is that this dynamic finally changed, a bit after the half way mark, that power dynamic dissolves and they become partners with the same goals. That certainly, by itself, doesn’t make what he did forgivable, but it does smooth out the rough edges of continuing a relationship, and as I said before, the heroine whose opinions I have already learned to trust, was fine with the whole thing.
So that handles the unpacking business. The rest of the story focuses on Annie and Rafe’s growing relationship, a real relationship between partners, and then getting to the bottom of the mystery that set Rafe on the run and getting it all resolved so that our heroine and hero can have their happily-ever-after, which definitely includes Annie going back to being a doctor. That part of the story was interesting and exciting.
Suffice it to say, I do enjoy this book very much, it remains on my re-reads shelf, and I do acknowledge the problematic elements, but I enjoyed the book in spite of those elements, and maybe even at times because of them. Because reasons, but your reasons may not match mine. So, will I start recommending this book in future? I am not entirely sure. It really is quite a bit of baggage to unpack, but I think I am going to try, with the caveat that I will certainly mention that there are problems, and maybe a bit about why I thought those issues were mitigated or ameliorated.
I am also going to try to do more of these types of posts, but I have a feeling poor Linda Howard and old school Jayne Ann Krentz, may be getting the bulk of such critiques as they are the authors I have loved the longest.