Cowboy Christmas
by Catherine Palmer, Lisa Harris, and Linda Goodnight; historical (2004)
HeartQuest, $10.99, ISBN 0-8423-8120-1


Cowboy Christmas is all about Jesus, cowboys, and love. That is to say, this is an inspirational historical romance anthology. Of the three stories here, one in indescribably vile beyond words, one is above average, and one is borderline ridiculous but still readable.

Catherine Palmer's name is in the biggest font on the cover but her story A Rancher's Heart is just plain vile. It is illogical and the premise is nothing more than misogyny masquerading as religion. Picture this: a year ago Victoria Jennings was a proud and haughty daughter of a wealthy man. Then the father dies, leaving behind a mountain of debts and forcing Victoria to become pretty much a slave to her landlady. The landlady doesn't pay her and overchanges her on rent, but Victoria actually stays with her for a year. Then, when she learns that her father's ranch and all have been sold, she decides to go back there and find employment with the new owner. Why she doesn't do this earlier, I just cannot fathom. Even better, she approaches the landlady's husband, who is kind to her. He learns from her that his wife hasn't paid Victoria her wages in two months, so he gives her that money and tells her how to go back to her father's ranch. How nice - Victoria won't have to suffer all this while like Cinderella if she has the spine to talk to her landlady's husband and ask for some money to go home! One year. Boy, Victoria must have believed that the more she happily suffers, the better the chance she has to star in that upcoming movie Virgin On A Cross.

Her father's ranch is now owned by the man she once refused to marry, Jesse Conroy. Ms Palmer claims that Jesse is an examplary Christian, but as is often the case when the one who trumpets the most about his virtue ends up being the nastiest freak in town, Jesse is vile. He immediately wants to throw Victoria out even after hearing her sad story. Um, isn't charity a Christian thing to give to a fellow person in need?

The rest of this story sees Victoria trying to earn Jesse's forgiveness because she once didn't want to marry him. Yes, you read that right. There is something very wrong with the entire premise of the story, where Victoria blames her pride and arrogance for her current misfortune and spends the rest of the book trying to get Jesse to forgive her. I have to laugh when Victoria thinks long about how her father's gambling debts took away the life she once knew dear only to then announce fiercely that her father was blameless, it is her own sins that God is punishing her for! And then she feels so guilty for once spurning Jesse. Why? Is it a sin to actually say no to a man?

This story is just plain ridiculous in my opinion and Ms Palmer in full sobriety then uses Victoria's plight to completely debase Victoria into a perverted kind of martyrhood that feels more disturbing than right to me. I've always believed that regardless of anyone's religion, a good person should have an innate sense of what is right or wrong. In this case, Jesse is just plain wrong to treat Victoria the way he does, especially when Victoria is clearly in need of psychological help for her masochistic martyr tendencies. The characters in this book are using Christianity as an excuse to behave like psychologically disturbed human beings just as Ms Palmer is using her religion as an excuse for her horrifyingly bad plotting here.

But if Catherine Palmer's A Rancher's Heart is vile, Lisa Harris' Undercover Cowboy is an above average read. Cole Ramsey is a Pinkerton's agent who goes undercover as a farm hand at Aaron Covington's ranch. Aaron is suspected to be the mastermind behind the mysterious acts of sabotage taking place in the neighboring ranches. He does not expect to meet and fall for the daughter Abigail. Abigail is in a phase where she is suspicious of all men since her last beau turned out to be a criminal with blood on his hands. Cole in this case is lying to her and worse, he is trying to find evidence that her crippled father is a criminal, so how would these two ever reconcile their differences at the end of the day?

This could have been a painful big secret story were not for the fact that Abigail is a pretty reasonable and intelligent heroine and Cole is a very appealing hero who wants to do the right thing. While this is an inspirational story, the characters are nontheless universally recognizable as good people with upstanding morals who deserve their happy ending. Cole's tormented background and the resolution of this story aren't anything new as far as the Western historical romances go, but the characters interacting and behaving like a romantic couple of wonderful people make the story refreshing and enjoyable to read nonetheless. There is a healthy maturity in the pragmatic way the two characters look at the differences between them even as they try to overcome these differences.

Linda Goodnight's The Outlaw's Gift is fundamentally flawed in that while the outlaw hero Seth Blackstone is a very appealing (if unoriginal) character, the heroine comes off like a not very bright but very impulsive creature. When this story begins, our heroine Raven Patterson has just shot the family dying dog to put it out of its misery and is now determined to bury the dog. As she tries to dig a grave for the doggie in a patch of hard ground, a buzzard comes to take a bite out of the dead doggie. Raven flies into hysterical dementia and actually flings herself over the corpse of the dead doggie to protect it from the naughty buzzard. I love dogs, mind you, so am I evil to be cackling out loud to that scene?

Seth Blackstone witnesses this "touching" scene and advises Raven to dig by the river where the soil is softer. Raven flies into an irrational snit because she doesn't like any man correcting her. Seth is an outlaw who is trying to find the people that have incriminated him (he is, of course, innocent of those heinous crimes they say he did) while Ms Goodbye tries to get me to believe that Raven is a responsible heroine by having Raven take care of her siblings after the death of their parents. Raven is, however, a heroine who is purely visceral - she keeps jumping to conclusions or exaggerated fits of drama whenever any problematic situation occurs. Seth, compared to Raven, is a more appealing character because he comes off as a good adult man. There is a vast gulf of maturity between the heroine and the hero in this story that don't bode well for the happily ever after unless Seth likes babysitting his wife 24/7.

Cowboy Christmas has one bad, one good, and one story that's right inbetween the other two stories. At least it's pretty democratic in a way, I suppose.

Rating: 55


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