Kathleen Coskran, writer and teacher, has appeared in several anthologies and her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist’s Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
by Mary E. Trimble (The Gambia 1979-81)
Treble Heart Books, $13.50
Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67)
Tenderfoot is set on a ranch in western Washington during the days leading up to the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Author Mary E. Trimble certainly knows the terrain and the language of ranching and riding, and the reader takes pleasure in learning how to saddle a horse, the unforeseen perils of crossing a muddy creek on horseback, and other intricacies of life on a ranch. By the conclusion the novel becomes a page-turner because you do want to know exactly how the tenderfoot, Corrie, will survive the mess she’s in.
The back cover describes Tenderfoot as a romantic suspense novel. It certainly has both romance and suspense, but the two threads are parallel rather than intertwined until the last predictable sequence of events. Perhaps that is my quarrel with Tenderfoot. Both the romance and the havoc caused by the eruption of the volcano are predictable from the first chapter. Trimble’s opening author’s note describes the death and destruction following the eruption, and she precedes each chapter with a paragraph from the local small town newspaper describing that day’s seismic activity on Mount Saint Helens. So the reader knows the characters will somehow be affected by the volcano. But the chapter by chapter news blurbs have little relation to the events in the chapters they precede or the lives of the characters. The heroine makes a couple of camping trips to the mountain, but those trips, like the blurbs at the beginning of the chapters, feel tacked on for the purpose of the dramatic ending rather than integral to the story.
The romance is an example of the lady doth protest too much. Corrie is attracted to J, the rancher, he to her, but she states repeatedly that she doesn’t want a relationship, says it to anybody who will listen, including J, yet she pines for him, thinks about him, and dreams about him in virtually every chapter. This yearning and remonstration begins early in the book and never changes until the dramatic conclusion 200 plus pages later when, as expected, they finally admit their passion for each other.
Trimble offers facts about Corrie — she’s a travel writer, she’s often lost, she’s divorced, she’s published a novel and wants to write about the country, but the reader sees little to back up these facts. Other than making a few notes, she doesn’t write. Late in the book somebody says she is pretty but that is all we know of her appearance. She has a daughter in college so is probably in her 40s, but she often acts like a younger, more naïve woman.
When she gets lost on the way back to the ranch from an evening gathering, she pulls into a tavern parking lot to turn around, her truck dies, and she is afraid to go into the tavern to ask for help or to use the phone. The place is open, and there is no evidence given that it’s rowdy or dangerous. Inexplicably she leaves the borrowed truck in the parking lot and walks back the way she came, several miles in the dark on an unfamiliar highway. Which is where this reader lost patience with her — a travel writer who is afraid to go into a bar and ask for directions? A travel writer who is always lost? She cries a lot too — or is brought to tears — perhaps because of the trauma of her divorce, but the reader has no idea of that trauma. He left her? She left him? The ex does show up for an unpleasant scene midway through the novel, but, even with references to his infidelity, the reader has no sense of her past history with this man.
Tenderfoot is a fast read with most of the story communicated through dialogue, much of which fails to advance the story or deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters:
“You have company? You sound a little rushed.”
“Oh. Sorry to bother you.”
“No, no bother.”
“Okay then. Friday morning, around 8.”
“You bet. See you then. Let’s talk later about what to take.”
Dialogue like this is believable, but adds nothing to the forward movement or deepening of the narrative. In the example above her ex has arrived unexpectedly, and they are in the middle of a tense conversation when the phone rings. Rather than give this blow by blow of an uneventful conversation, Trimble could have used the interruption to deepen the tension:
Corrie turned her back on Earl and picked up the phone. “Yes, Kevin,” she said. Earl stopped pacing to listen. “I’d love to, Kevin,” she said. When she turned back to Earl, he was ashen. He demanded to know who the fuck this Kevin was; he mimicked her saying “I’d love to;” he ranted the way he loved to rant, and she let him rant. She never said a word, not a word, but she was shaking with relief. It was over, really over. This chapter, the Earl chapter, in her life was closed and thanks to his tantrum, she knew that was just the way she wanted it. A movement outside caught her attention . . .
This self-published novel is attractively printed, but is, perhaps, an example of the perils of self-publishing — a promising story without the benefits of a demanding editor. Trimble isn’t trying for literary fiction, but coaching from an editor who believed in the book could guide an obviously competent writer to get the book in her head on the page.