Without Words, by Ellen O’Connell

1 Aug
Cover for WITHOUT WORDS, by Ellen O'Connell. Silhouette of a man on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat, shot from the back. Farther from the viewer, a white woman wearing a vaguely late 1800s gown with a floppy had. The background is open sky with some clouds. Quote: "First the bounty hunter changed her life. Then he stole her heart."

I’d like to blame Whiskey’s review for this one–but the truth is, I bought it back in December 2014. Was it on sale? Probably. Why I bought it? I honestly can’t remember, except that I know that Kristie J is very much a fan of the author (she has reviews both at her blog and on GoodReads), and that Wendy the SuperLibrarian reviewed another title by the author (“both of their families should be shot, dismembered and sent through a hay thresher”. OH.)

Reader, beware: violence, threat of rape, trauma, whorephobia, “blood is thicker than water”; the theme of this novel seems to be that there are a lot of horrible people in the world, and that there are a lot of people who aren’t actively evil, but who are content letting those terrible people do inhumane things to those who can’t defend themselves.

Without Words, by Ellen O’Connell

The Civil War has ended, but the damage left behind will take decades to heal–where it actually does. For some families, the “war between the states” was a war between brothers, fathers and sons, abolitionists and their hometowns, and the resentment doesn’t ever end.

In some families, being assholes just comes naturally.

I used to love Westerns uncritically (but then, I used to love a helluva lot of things uncritically), and there are some writers who have done the dynamic above really well (see footnote 1). This book tries, but it just doesn’t get there.

Here’s the summary from the author’s website:

Bounty hunter Bret Sterling kills Rufus Petty, thief and murderer, less than ten feet away from a frightened, half-starved woman. Rufus should have surrendered. The woman should have kin to help her. But Rufus went down shooting, and the woman has no one. Bret figures by the time he finds a safe place to leave Hassie Petty, he’ll earn the five hundred dollar reward several times over.

Hassie doesn’t mourn Rufus, but the loss of the ten dollars he promised her for supplies is a different matter. The bounty hunter gives her nothing, takes everything, ties the body on one horse and orders her on another. Afraid if she defies him, he’ll tie her down tighter than Rufus, Hassie mounts up and follows the icy-eyed killer.

Mismatched in every way, the sterling man and petty woman travel the West together, hunting thieves, deserters, and murderers. Wary traveling companions, friends and partners, lovers, Bret and Hassie must decide what they want, what they need, and the price they’re willing to pay for love.

Bret is the abolitionist oldest son of a Southern plantation owner in Missouri. When the war started, he traveled far to enroll in the Union Army, so that he “would never face anyone he knew” across a battlefield–including Albert, the middle son, and “the best of us”, who of course served in the Confederacy (and died of dysentery).

After the war, his father and youngest brother William demand that Bret “pay for his betrayal” by financially supporting the whole family until their land–which they still own! unencumbered!–can be made profitable again, which, natch, will be harder without slaves. So Bret has spent the better part of each year, six years in a row, travelling the country as a bounty hunter, and sending most of his earnings to his father.

Army deserters, train robbers, murderers; dead or alive, it doesn’t matter, his family needs the money, and he ‘owes’ it to them to earn large sums of money. By the time he finds one Rufus Petty over an open grave, Bret is a pretty grim man.

Hassie Petty lost her voice in childhood after an accident that damaged her larynx; later, due to a series of misfortunes, she ended up married to an alcoholic man several decades older than her, living in squalor and slowly starving. When Bret shows up at the gravesite, she has no one, and nothing but a few gallons of whiskey, a sill, an old horse, a semi feral dog, and a growing sense of desperation.

Bret realizes that if he leaves Hassie where he found her, she’ll likely finish starving to death, probably also be raped by her late husband’s whiskey buyers, and so he drags her to town, hoping to find a decent way to, essentially, dispose of her–dump her with the local preacher, find her a job, something.

And lo! the local hotel needs a hardworking maid, what could be more perfect. So Bret leaves town, on his way to collect his bounty, but his horses loose a shoe (or three) a few hours away. So back to town he goes, only to find that the hotel owners have sold Hassie to the local brothel.

After some righteous anger and the attendant fireworks, Bret decides to take Hassie with him to the homestead of his good friends Gabe and Belle, who are decent and respectable people, living near decent and respectable men who may be interested in marrying Hassie, even though she isn’t very young and can’t speak.

This is a good beginning! Yes, I was bothered by the choice of having the prostitutes practically relish the opportunity of offering Hassie up for rape to whoever pays, but whorephobia is a known genre romance problem, so I sighed and kept going.

Sadly, things just went down hill from there.

The pacing is uneven as hell, grinding almost to a stop in a couple of places..

At about the two-thirds mark, there’s a big climactic moment that has been set up for a while. The action is good, there’s a real emotional punch, there’s a resolution of sorts between our couple. It’s a natural stopping point that would have worked well.

Instead, there are almost a hundred more pages of story devoted to Bret’s terrible, horrible, no good family.

Hassie grows from a numb sense of fatalism (of course Bret will offload her to his friends, who in turn will marry her off as quickly as they can, and of course what else is there for a woman who can’t support herself or speak to make her wants known), to someone with the gumption to save Bret’s life.

Unfortunately, she soon reverts to someone who follows Bret’s lead, even when it makes her miserable, even when she knows it’s a mistake for both of them. It takes the whole dysfunctional family plus would-be-rapist brother-in-law for Hassie to rediscover her spine.

(The constant threat of rape, higher for Hassie since she can’t speak, is a through line of this book)

As for Breat, we see him being good at his work from the beginning. He’s observant, and he makes the effort to pay attention to Hassie’s needs beyond food and safety (even as he tells himself to keep his distance). He’s ruthless with criminals and assholes, generous with everyone else, and unfailingly kind to Hassie.

He also lets his family treat him like crap over and over and over again, as if he had in fact killed his other brother and deserved to pay penance forever–instead of, I dunno, following his conscience. Worse, even after William tries to rape Hassie, Bret’s determined to live within miles of them.

In the end, after he learns that William and their father tried to empty his bank account, on top of all the money he’s been sending them from the trail over the course of “the season” (of manhunting), Bret ~compromises~ by deciding they’ll live far away, but that he’ll visit his family a few times a year.

Because his father is “misguided” and because “family”.

I am never impressed by that argument, I’m really not impressed by it here.

There are other things that bothered me about this novel, but those would have been relatively minor quibbles if the Sterling family saga had not been there.

This book would have benefited greatly from the services of a good, ruthless content editor, because there’s a decent plot buried here, and there are the bones of two pretty decent characters.

Without Words gets 6.50 out of 10

* * * *

1 Lorraine Heath penned a masterpiece of this subgenre in Always to Remember. I must re-read it soon, hopefully review it, but in the meantime, here’s SuperWendy’s review. Please note that Wendy has always been a much more critical reviewer than yours truly, so when she sings a book’s praises, that book has earned it.

4 Responses to “Without Words, by Ellen O’Connell”

  1. SuperWendy 06/08/2022 at 12:33 PM #

    Oof. The farther away I get from the one book I read by this author the more irrationally angry I get – namely because she can obviously tell a compelling a story but for the love of Jebus – find a very critical critique group, a ruthless freelance editor – SOMEONE! to tighten it all up. Then I think about all the well-written westerns that have died on the vine in Romancelandia and…baggage I haz it.

    Anyway, the hero’s “family” would probably push me over the edge on this one. Romancelandia has a biology problem overall – it’s totally OK to cut off family if they’re toxic as hell. Let’s lean into that more.

    • azteclady 06/08/2022 at 1:11 PM #

      The “good people never turn on their family–even when their family is toxic as fuck” trope was established long ago, and, generally, the genre struggles with boundaries, so it’s no shock it’s still around.

      But lord, I’m so tired of it.

      There are MILES of writing space between, “let your family filet you and roast you over a low fire” and “be a callous asshole who abandons all family feeling”, why do so few people write there?

  2. whiskeyinthejar 06/08/2022 at 1:46 PM #

    I like seeing group efforts to convince people to read/add to their tbr!

    Yeah, the tacked on Bret’s crappy family felt wonky added, why I rounded down when I rated. There were too many chances for Bret to say “Enough!” and I totally agree after dick Will tried raping Hassie, that should have been the stop moment. I don’t mind if characters have to emotionally work to standing up for themselves but Bret never really had that enough moment, Hassie pretty much made that choice for him.

    • azteclady 06/08/2022 at 7:43 PM #

      TBR Challenge: it’s mostly a conspiracy to read more, working as intended

      Bret’s family: his insistence to go visit them, including Will, just feels fucked up. Like, if the author needed to give Bret the full martyr streak, there were other ways. She could have just said that Bret agreed to raise a fixed amount of money, and that he was hoping to earn enough this season to feel free to go on with his own life (and then, the book could have ended after Hassie saved his life).

      Ah, well, it is what it is, but when I say I’m not impressed, it means that’s the first and last book of hers I’m reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: