Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sawbones by Melissa Lenhardt

Rating: WARTY!

"She came to sit by the bed of a dying man despite her own infirmary." ("infirmity" was needed here. The guy was already in the infirmary!)
"Is so, you give them too much credit." ("If so" was needed here)
"I hear a great many things people do not intend me to her." (intend me to "hear" was needed)

Sawbones is perhaps not surprisingly, a common title. Don't confuse this one with Sawbones by Lawrence BoarerPitchford, which has some similarities, or Sawbones by Catherine Johnson which is a rather different kind of story, but set in a similar period, or with Sawbones by Stuart MacBride, which is a completely different kind of story. Frankly, given the way the main character is treated, and in rather graphic detail, the title for this one perhaps should have been Sabines!

Set in the early 1870's (as near as I can gauge), this tells the story of Catherine Bennett, a prideful and prejudiced medical doctor who had a modest but thriving practice in New York City until she was made (by the victim's wife) the scapegoat in a murder. Fearful that she will not get a fair trial given the wife's powerful connections, she takes a rather cowardly way out and flees to Texas posing as one Laura Elliston, and making her way via Austin to a wagon train heading out to a newly-founded town in Colorado.

She never makes it out of Texas. After a savage attack by Kiowa or Comanche (it's unclear), she finds herself the sole survivor and also in charge of a wounded cavalry officer who came with his men belatedly to the rescue of the wagon train. It's rather sickeningly obvious from this point on that she has her love interest. That was one of my problems with this novel: events are telegraphed so far in advance that it's no surprise what happens to her and therefore no spoiler to give it away.

Another issue was that it's in first person which is the weakest and most irritating voice in which to write a novel, and it's completely unrealistic in this case given what brutality the author forces on this woman at the hands of men. It's simply not credible that she could tell this story the way she does. Initially, it made sense what happened to her, given her gender and the period in which she lived, and I was appreciating that this was a strong woman and looking forward to learning about her, but that rapidly fell apart after she ran away from the crime she never committed. From that point on she became not stronger, but weaker and more stupid, and the sorry plaything of a cavalry Lieutenant, subsuming her entire self to him.

Her protestations of moving on alone in her desire to be a doctor were so vacuous, especially given that you knew they were never going to happen, that I felt I was reading a young adult novel at this point. I'd have actually enjoyed the story if she had gone on alone, but we have to have all of our women validated by a guy in these tales don't we, otherwise how can she be a real woman? Her credentials as a doctor were called into question when she kept rambling on about "...trying to staunch the flow of blood" when she really meant "stanch," which is something that young adult writers of today do not know, but which a doctor would have known back then.

The male interest is Lieutenant Kindle, presumably because you could read him like an open book. He ought to have been named Lieutenant Nook (as in nookie) given his overbearing and single-mindedly physical approach to her. At one juncture, she outright tells him 'No!' (in one form or another) on four separate occasions and still he will not leave her alone. The fact that she was partly drunk and emotionally compromised offered no barrier to this guy whose name, we're told, is William, but which ought to be Dick. He sickened me with his non-stop pressing of himself upon her.

Having saved his life, you'd think this would have made him offer some respect, or show some deference, but instead he seems to have fallen victim to some early form of Stockholm Syndrome and he stalks her until 'she can't refuse him anymore', and has his way with her. The relationship at this point had become so co-dependent that it turned my stomach and I almost quit reading. But they get it on in a library, so I guess this made it okay for him to become a tenant of her Wildfell Hall. When they discuss "Laura's" previous sexcapade, Kindle actually has the hypocrisy to say, "He took advantage of you."! I am not making this up. But "Laura" is a hypocrite too. After repeatedly dissing and dismissing men, she says, “I refuse to believe men do the things they do for no reason other than they can.” Why would she say that when she's made is quite clear that she thinks they're the lowest of the low anyway?

Yes, this is the book "Laura" was reading, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I had to question this. The novel came out in 1848, so it seems highly unlikely that it would have found its way into a library in a remote (and new) Texas fort by 1870 or so. Who knows? Maybe it's possible. This is fiction after all, but I found it even harder to believe that the "reading room" at this remote fort would have been so well-stocked with books that "All available wall space was taken up by floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with books." While the US was quite literate (if you were white) by the 1870's, it beggars belief that a library in a remote fort in The South would be so well stocked, especially so soon after a (not so) civil war.

Purely because of her work on saving Kindle's life, "Laura" is made the acting head physician at Fort Richardson in North Texas, where Nook, er Kindle, is based. This is definitely not where she imagined her life would take her, and especially not into his own house where she lodges upstairs on the pretense that he's more safely out of the way of infection in his own room than he is in the hospital, and she can take care of him. The hell with the rest of the patients! How bizarre is that? What about their risk of infection?

Bizarre is how this novel struck me, time after time. At one point "Laura" visits the bakery in town "...where a fat woman was setting out loaves of warm bread." What? Yes, you read it right. Why was it necessary to describe this woman as fat? Well this was a first person PoV, so we can take this as "Laura's" bigoted attitude to everything and everyone, but all this served to do was to make me dislike her more. Another problem I had was with her blind hatred of American Indians. In a way, it was understandable that she should have some PTSD from her experience, but her hatred was so rife and raised so often, it became quickly obvious that the next thing which would happen would be that she has an interaction directly with the Indians, and that it would not be a pleasant one.

This marked the second point at which I felt I really needed to ditch this novel. It was only, it seemed, the unintentional humor which was what kept me going at this point. For example, "Laura" thinks this of the overly amorous Kindle: "It'll give you the big head." I'm sure what he was doing to her did give him a big head, but I really didn't need to know that! Obviously she didn't mean it that way, but this phrase was just so in the wrong place.

"Laura" simply doesn't seem to understand men. She repeatedly downgrades men to nothing save vain idiots, then she falls for Kindle! What's worse than this though, is that at one point she thinks this of another army officer: " It beggared belief Wallace Strong would prefer an ignorant dreamer like Ruth to a strong, intelligent woman like Alice." Why would she think this given how often we learn of her opinion that the men around her are exactly that shallow? It made no sense for her to have this opinion given everything else she's expressed about men, who were evidently only one step above 'them dad-blamed redskins' to hear her talk and think.

She isn't very smart either. She repeatedly fails to appreciate how precarious her position is even when someone other than Kindle is obviously stalking her. This is another episode of telegraphing exactly what's going on, but it takes "Laura" forever to figure it out. I'm usually bad at this, but even I figured out exactly who this guy was long before she did.

Our doctor isn't above slut-shaming either. Of a prostitute, she thought this: "She would lay with multiple men out of wedlock but she would not swear on the Bible. It always amazed me where people drew their moral line in the sand," and this was from a woman who wanted to be treated like a man, yet who has no problem being subsumed as " Mrs William Kindle" when discussing marriage, and who herself has already had one lover 'out of wedlock' and is about to take another? I simply did not get her character at all. It seemed like the more I read, the further she strayed from the woman she appeared to be when the novel began, and none of this straying was into interesting, engaging, or even pleasant territory.

The oddities kept on coming. At one point Kindle is teaching Laura to shoot, a sadly clich├ęd way for a writer to get her main male character up close and personal with her main female, but the issue here that I found interesting was the plethora of bottles which were available in the middle of nowhere for her target practice! We're told the soldiers out on this patrol are allowed a tot of whisky each day, so no doubt some bottles came from there, but unless they're getting drunk each night, I doubt there would be crates of bottles for her to shoot up. Maybe they actually were getting drunk each night. This would certainly account for their poor performance during what happened later. It would not account for how you can tie someone to a horse when you "...rode through the night without stopping." Those Indians certainly do have powerful medicine!

At this point I did quit reading. There wasn't much left to read, but to be honest I could not bear the thought of reading any more. I wish the author the best of luck, but I cannot recommend a novel like this one.

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