Mail Order Prostitutes in the Old West: Juliet James’ “Emily”

 At first glance, especially at the cover, and in the second and third chapters, you might think “Emily” by Juliet James is a light read. And it is a gently delivered plot, because of the author’s style (authorial telling). However, as you read further you will be surprised to discover, just as I was, a dark undercurrent running through the mail-order-bride plot.Juliet James Emily Cover

Look at the cover. Would you expect this book to be about a “mail order bride” prostitute ring? Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s about a family of brothers and the brides who arrive to their small Montana town, but beneath this light story a darker story is hinted at.

I should not have been surprised, because in the beginning of this novel, the author started out with a promise of male brutality. The main character, Emily, finds herself witness to a ruthless murder which leads her to run away, the murderer in pursuit.

Yet this scene is quickly left behind as she leaps upon a train and is swept up into her next adventure – true love in the frontier. Emily only reflects briefly on the murder scene, which made me think it was an inciting incident, a clever plot event to get her where she needed to be, and then left behind with her old life.

It was also easy to miss this original promise because of the intrusive narrator. This style of writing takes us into another example of male brutality part-way into the story, but it is so glossed over by “telling”, we don’t really experience it at the level we should.

“‘Good girl,’ he told her, as he began to take down his britches. ‘Now this won’t hurt a bit, and you might even like it…and never speak another word about it…’

Emily was terrified, of course, and frozen from the fear too. She thought of trying to cry out, but even as she had the thought of it, the door flew open and another man set upon Slim Jim, knocking him to the floor…”

The characterization in this novel would be much stronger if James freed the narration from that of “telling” to “showing”. Instead of explaining to the reader Emily was terrified, the author could describe the psychological and social-emotional reactions the character experiences.

Emily cowered in the corner, pressing a plea for mercy out of her trembling lips. Her words hung in the air between them, ignored. A sense of dread crept up the naked skin at the back of her knees, locking her legs in place, as she braced for his attack.

Descriptive reactions serve to draw the reader into feeling the horror of the character instead of just hearing about it.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anton Chekhov

Now the  telling did allow the author to cram in a lot of material and story time into a short book. As well, if an author wants to discuss uncomfortable material but does not want to dwell on it, this is an effective way to holds the reader at arm’s length. 

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Though most of the dark deeds were glossed over,  I personally took a time out to consider the chilling reality of the concept of a fake mail-order-bride operation. Probably because of my history of working in social work, specifically in violence against women.

hearts-west-woman

Imagine young girls raised in the 1800s, arriving by train at small Western outposts
that are barely civilized. These girls arrive with little money, no contacts, nothing but hope, and a letter from a potential husband. They arrive thinking they’re going to be married to a complete stranger (which is scary enough). Soon they find out the man who met them at the station will rape them and put them into service in the local saloon. OR rape them (these girls will likely be virgins based on the time period) and then allow them to meet their husband under a pact of secrecy bought through threats.

That premise is terrifying and these books (there is a series) could have provided a much deeper exploration into the dark side of mail order “briding”. But not with the author’s style which is to narrate the story on a surface level, rarely dipping down into the emotional experience that love, fear, abandonment and crime can instill. However, the author obviously did not want the brutality to be the point of her novel, and in that she succeeded.

Author, James has a talent for pacing and that’s what held my interest, that and the characters, who are likable. The plot events chop along at a good rate, and I found myself turning the page into each new chapter to see what was coming. However, I could also put the book down if I had other things to do because the connection to the character’s experiences was not as strong as it could be.

As a light, quick read with the whisper of a deeper than your average Western romance plot, “Emily” and the other books in this series will keep you entertained through a rainy weekend, and will satisfy readers looking for a light romance.

 

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