The Taming of Jessi Rose
by Beverly Jenkins
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79865-4
****
One of the best things about The Romance Reader is that its reviewers are fans of the genre. I am no exception. Most TRR regulars know I have two favorite authors who share the same initials: B.J. It's Brenda Jackson for contemporaries and Beverly Jenkins for historicals. My cards are on the table, so let the review begin...

The Taming of Jessi Rose is Beverly Jenkins' sixth novel. It is the stuff that Saturday morning television of my childhood was made of. The Taming of Jessi Rose is a back-to-basics Western. The plot is very familiar. Greedy land grabbers are at work. But their plans are thwarted by one lone holdout. The bad guys try money, threats and sabotage to no avail before finally they stoop to murder. The rancher is killed and his family is left to fend for itself until they surrender or until a tough guy with a heart of gold shows up to save the day.

The Taming of Jessi Rose is set in the Black township of Vale, Texas, in the late 1880s. Dexter Clayton is killed during a stampede on his ranch. Before he dies, he's able to tell his daughter, Jessi, the name of the bushwhacker who shot him in the back. But Dexter's killer is never brought to justice because the hired gun and the sheriff are owned by Roscoe Darcy, land grabber and all-around sleaze. Jessi Clayton and her young nephew are left to hold off the bad guys alone...until Marshall Dixon Wildhorse springs Griffin Blake from the Kansas State pen to help them.

Dix Wildhorse (Don't you just love that name?) is a Black Seminole marshal and the hero of Jenkins' fourth novel, Topaz. Griffin Blake was briefly mentioned as the younger brother of Jackson Blake, a secondary character in that novel. "...Griffin was a true ladies' man, but he was also a notorious outlaw. There were warrants for his arrest from Kansas to the Pacific..."

Griff reluctantly agrees to help, particularly when he learns he'll have to be deputized and wear a badge. "Boils will break out all over my body." But, itís either go to Texas or serve out the remainder of his sentence in prison. Jenkins' vivid description of the conditions underscore the wisdom of his acceptance of Dix's offer.

However, when Griff shows up at the Clayton ranch, he finds Jessi perched on the roof holding off a group of Darcy's interlopers. She is less than pleased to meet him. Despite his presence on her side of the dispute, she knows he is still an outlaw.

Jessi: They sent me a convicted criminal to help catch an unconvicted criminal?

Griff: That about sums it up.

Jessi: What were you in jail for?

Griff: Train robbing. Mayhem...

Jessi: Then if they were going to send me someone for protection, don't you think it should've been a gunslinger?

Beverly Jenkins has infused a predictable plot with strong main characters and great secondary characters. It is in her Westerns that Jenkins allows her sense of humor to shine through. A set of not-so twin brothers provides much of the comic relief in this story. Although the plot line might the familiar, the author makes the story her own by providing subtle shading and bold contrasts. She is not afraid to color outside the lines of her well-worn canvass.

What emerges is a very visual narrative that brings back the days of the old TV Western with one important difference: Beverly Jenkins' inclusion of the African-American presence in the West. (As always, a bibliography of sources is listed for further reading. I've been told that book clubs have been formed around the historical sources in Jenkins' work.)

The Claytons can trace their family history in Texas back to the early 1800s when a slave escaped from Louisiana and made his way into the state. Another ancestor fought in the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas revolution and was rewarded with the land that is now the Clayton ranch.

Griffin Blake's character is drawn as a Robin Hood-type figure. It is through his relationship with Jessi, we see the metamorphosis of a hardened Jessi Clayton to a blooming Jessi Rose Clayton. It takes a man who has spent years in a penitentiary to release the woman imprisoned by her life experiences. He teaches her to laugh and experience the simple joy of a sunrise. In Jessi, we have a somewhat different Beverly Jenkins' heroine. She is still sassy, strong and sensual. However, she's also older and experienced.

A certain amount of sadness accompanies the end of a Beverly Jenkins novel. Like Christmas, her stories come but once a year. The Taming of Jessi Rose was definitely worth the wait.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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