On page 245 of Alice Duncan’s book, I finally realized why, in other books, the Tortured Hero holds such great appeal. His unusual neuroses might make him a risky choice to carve the Christmas turkey, but they also lend his character complexity, or an illusion thereof.
A defter touch is needed to create arresting individuality in a man who knows no greater trauma than the indignity of working at an ostrich ranch. Such does not grace the pages of Cowboy for Hire, a sweet story about two people who walk a pretty smooth path to reach an unremarkable happy ending.
The aforementioned eminently stable guy is Charlie Fox, a cowboy who’s been drafted into acting in a Western film. It’s 1905 and the movie industry is in its infancy, so Charlie is skeptical of the honor. However, he’s mighty sick of those ostriches, and the paycheck will fund his plans to establish a cattle ranch. Even dandier is the prospect of wooing his co-star, the beauteous Amy Wilkes, but her superior demeanor quickly alienates him.
Amy isn’t actually a snob; she’s just insecure. The daughter of impoverished missionaries who died when she was seven, Amy has been raised in comfort by her aunt and uncle, but is haunted by memories of deprivation. Determined to secure the wealthy lifestyle so casually evinced by patients at her uncle’s spa, she has made an art form of propriety, and has an engagement to the wealthiest banker in town to show for it.
However, her plans goes awry when one of her uncle’s patients, an alcoholic actor named Huxtable, decides the best way to seduce her is to cast her in his next movie. Though doubtful of the propriety of her decision and the inelegant company she’ll be keeping, the prospect of personal wealth lures Amy from the straight and narrow. She accepts the starring role.
Amorous Huxtable doesn’t take kindly to her rebuffs, and it’s the film’s villain, straightforward Charlie, who awakens the feelings she should (but doesn’t) have for her fiancé. As the rigors of primitive film-making dissolve the crew’s reserve, Charlie and Amy have an increasingly difficult time resisting each other, and Huxtable’s pique takes a nefarious, and potentially deadly, turn…
One can’t blame Charlie for misconstruing Amy’s behavior; she is, initially, thoroughly dislikable. He caters to her narrow-minded prejudices by playing the ignorant, uneducated simpleton. To Amy’s credit, she slowly realizes this and revises her ideas about the world. By the conclusion, she is winning and thoroughly human, even though some of the leaps she takes to reach that point seem uncharacteristically large.
Charlie, however, switches into simpleton mode as a charade, then gets stuck there. His basic decency and handsome physique constitute the extent of his charms, and all we are told of his past, on notorious page 245, is that it is “completely unremarkable” and full of “humor and happiness,” as though a stable childhood were adequate explanation for his lack of emotional depth. His single instance of personal development occurs when he realizes his feelings for Amy, though the romantic thought that tripwires it - “She’d be better occupied in keeping house and raising kids than in making movies” - appalls me. Of course, each reader must judge for herself whether this sentiment would make her go all warm and gooey.
With Charlie and Amy melting in predictable increments, the burden of creating conflict falls on Huxtable. His shenanigans are so uncreative that they annoy the lovers and the reader, who wishes Charlie and Amy would just ignore him so he’d go bother someone else. When his childish malevolence transmutes to something more deadly, it happens so abruptly, and for such unclear reasons, that it seems forced.
However, it’s always refreshing to discover an author who believes “history” did not end in 1899. Too, early motion pictures provide a fascinating array of romantic possibilities. However, aside from a repetitive device in which the characters exploit the nature of silent film to abuse each other through a forced smile while the camera is rolling, Cowboy for Hire makes little use of the technology. I hope Ms. Duncan will explore it more fully in the next three books of this quartet.
-- Meredith McGuire