Long Way Home
by Janis Reams Hudson, contemporary (2001)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-6923-5

Duncan Malone is finally free after seven years in prison serving for a crime he actually did commit - he murdered the man who sexually assaulted his mother. He didn't mean to, but he got carried away by his fury and - oops, one dead bastard on his way to fry down below. Unfortunately, this dead bastard was one of the most powerful men in the small town of Washita, Texas, and Duncan went into the slammer as a result.

He comes out to find his life in tatters. His family farm has been sold to a Virgil Lewis, and his mother is in a state of depression in a special Home. Poor Duncan has nowhere to go. No one is willing to offer him a job at the risk of offending the town banker, the latter happens to be the son of the man Duncan murdered.

Except Franki Taylor, a no-nonsense, feisty waitress whose uncle is Vince Lewis. She needs someone to work on the farm. No one wants to do it, because she was carrying the illegitimate child of Bobby Simms, the said town banker. Her existence is a pain in the butt for the very married Bobby Simms, and he wants her out of town. But she wouldn't cave in to the man who lied to and then dumped her like that. Yet, if she couldn't find anyone to help her uncle and the farm, she may as well pack her bags.

Duncan asks for the job, and Franki hires him. Can anyone say "trouble brewing"? Especially when Bobby comes into the picture?

I was reminded of LaVyrle Spencer's World War II era novel Morning Glory when I read the back synopsis, which is why I picked this book up by the way. I need something different from the usual cowboy-in-smalltown yarn, and Long Way Home more than satisfies. It discards the shallow comparisons to Morning Glory soon enough. Franki is an amazing heroine who admits that hey, so she made mistakes before, but screw you if you dare to judge her for it. Sassy, fun, and strong-willed, she is more than a perfect foil for Duncan who needs to slowly rebuild his self-esteem. Likewise, Duncan may have baggage, but when the story could have dragged into a mire of self-pity, Franki puts her foot down.

In the end, when Duncan wants to walk out for her own good, boy, she throws up a tantrum that has me laughing and cheering. She practically states that if he walks out, fine, don't expect her to sit in a corner and cry.

I could do without the excessive reparations the author makes for Duncan - yes, Duncan deserves the happy ending he gets, but the excessive ending (things almost get back to the way they started) seems unrealistic. Never mind, I'm just being picky. The author writes lovely, warm banters between Franki and the people she loves so well without going overboard and sounding corny. There's the cantankerous Ada who hides her soft mushy side under her acerbic wit, there's Vincent whose gruff protectiveness over her niece is adorable (and yeah, Ada and Vincent have a thing going on), and of course, Duncan's tender interactions with a mother who doesn't even know he's there are beautifully done.

This is a tale of small-town life with strong people trying to survive despite having problems thrown their way. The villain is a bit overdone, as are the baddie town folks, I admit, but I adore Franki and Duncan and their family. Their love takes time to grow but how heartwarming it is indeed. No corny cowboy nonsense, no secret babies, and this time it is the hero, not heroine, who tries to piece together his past. Long Way Home a beautifully written tale that doesn't play with cookie-cutters. Its wonderfully real and likable characters keep me reading, laughing, and crying. Yup, this is a keeper alright!

Rating: 92

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