I've had a hankering for a western historical for some time so Willaful's tweet about The Promise of Jenny Jones reminded me of the sorry fact that I'd left this little gem languishing on Mt. TBR much too long. Maggie Osborne is one of the best writers of western historical romances, and her heroines are always unforgettable and extraordinary — like Juliette Marsh, Clara Klaus, Zoe Wilder (I DO, I DO, I DO) or, my favorite, Louise 'Low' Down ( SILVER LINING) to name a few. Her heroines almost always embark on a journey — be it internal, external, usually both — that renders her changed in some significant way. It's almost always a journey toward self-acceptance as well as a redefinition of the boundaries regarding the way she sees herself and her world. But more importantly the journeys these ladies embark upon is a celebration of all the ways they are different — fierce, smart, strong, determined, proud, self-reliant, independent, trail blazers all — yet they all have a vulnerability at their core that makes my heart ache for each and every one. The eponymous Jenny Jones is all those things and more, and The Promise of Jenny Jones is a book I will hug to my heart forever. It has definitely earned its place on my 'In Case of Fire' shelf. Permit me to introduce to you, Jenny Jones and company.
“Honesty is all I’ve got,” she said finally, speaking in a low voice. “I don’t have family. I don’t have beauty, or a man. I don’t have money, and I sure as hell don’t have a future. All I’ve got to prop up my pride is my word.” Her chin rose. “When Jenny Jones says something, you can bet your last peso that it’s true.”
“So I have been informed.”
“If I don’t have my word, then I have nothing. I am nothing!” She stared hard over her shoulder, watching Marguarita Sanders press the bloody handkerchief to her lips. “Everybody needs something to make them feel good about themselves, even me. Honesty is what makes me feel like I’ve got a right to take up space in this world. It’s all I’ve got. No matter how bad things get, or how low my circumstance, I can always say Jenny Jones is an honest woman. It’s the one and only good thing about me.”(7)
Jenny Jones has been on her own for fourteen years, since the tender age of ten when her mother kicked her out on the streets to fend for herself. She's kept herself fed and clothed by "taking in wash", skinned buffalo carcasses, worked as a roustabout but is currently a rough, tough muleskinner. She's also a "connoisseur of cussing" (her favored cussword seems to be "fricking" since it peppers all her sentences especially when she's very, um, displeased), who doesn't give two tinker's damns if she bathes everyday, who can outdrink, outshoot, outfight any man, and is "acutely uncomfortable around delicate" females. She's blunt to the point of rudeness, is tall and ungainly without a claim to beauty or vanity beyond her "pretty, red hair" which she believes is her best physical asset. Her hands are calloused, often blistered, with ragged bitten fingernails. Jenny can read a bit and and write about as much, but . . . She has an innate curiosity, especially about words and keeps a pocket dictionary in her back pocket because there "was nothing like reading words to settle a fevered brain." Most words are puzzles to her, but some — "connoisseur", "martinet", "al fresco" — "sang to her imagination." Words mean something to Jenny, especially the word "promise."
A promise is sacred to Jenny, not to be taken lightly or irreverently nor ditched when it becomes inconvenient or a pain in the fricking ass as Jenny might say. Like the promise she makes to Señora Marguarita Sanders in a filthy, rat and lice-infested jail cell in Mexico while awaiting execution by firing squad for killing a Mexican soldier who attempted to rape Jenny. A vow she finally and solemnly gives to Marguarita, a pledge to ensure her daughter, Graciela, arrives safely with Graciela's father, Robert Sanders, in California far from the greedy cousins who see the child as an easily eliminated obstacle in order to gain the wealth of her inheritance. In exchange Marguarita, dying of consumption and fearing for her daughter's life after she's gone, will exchange places with Jenny, face that firing squad. Despite reservations and genuine reluctance to swap places with Marguarita, Jenny finally agrees, despite her lack of experience with and outright dislike for children who are, as she tells Marguarita, only "half human" at best.
“There are not words to express what I feel in my heart. Gratitude. Appreciation. Love. They do not touch the surface of what I feel for you. You are the salvation of my heart, which is my daughter. You are the answer to my prayers. You are the mother I give to my child.” (18)
Let me just say that right there, at that moment, near the end of Chapter One, as the two women solemnize their bargain, as Marguarita thanks Jenny, the words on the page suddenly became blurry and smudged. Ahem. Pretty sure Kleenex stock soared while I read this book. One of most emotion-packed aspects of The Promise of Jenny Jones is Jenny's conversations with Marguarita via the brightest star in the night sky over the course of Jenny and Graciela's journey from Mexico to California. Those nightly chats were full of ground gained/lost with Graciela, the wins, the humongous failures, the million and one disappointments, the heartache, the frustration accented with flashes of Jenny's signature humor as well as Jenny's nascent very gradual transformative acceptance and growing love for Graciela.
Ah, yes. Graciela Elena Barrancas y Sanders. A six year old little princess who's never had to lift a finger to do anything, who's had all the love, the hugs and kisses of an adoring mother, who's never had to worry when, or if, she'll eat her next meal. A girl who's been cosseted, protected, adored, trained to be a lady at ALL times, who's already perfected the art of lifting one single eyebrow slowly and scornfully. In fact, she's poles apart from Jenny, as incomprehensible to Jenny as some of the words she looks up in her dictionary. A little girl who's angry at Jenny, who smells bad, who cusses like a sailor, who expects Graciela to do things for herself, furious at Jenny who's alive while her beloved, beautiful, gracious mother is dead. A little girl grieving and burdened with guilt, striking out at the only one who's there, the one most convenient: Jenny. Truthfully, Graciela was a little snot, albeit a grieving one. . . It was difficult to remember the grieving part as bedtime prayers featured Graciela's heartfelt plea for God to "strike [Jenny] dead" and innumerable refrains of "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" These two are constantly at sixes and sevens with each other, like oil and water, chalk and cheese, like matches and gasoline as in this charming exchange.
“You’re ugly and mean, and I hate you!”
“You’re little and snotty, and I don’t like you either.” Jenny found the tortillas and bit into one. Tasty. She chewed and watched Graciela anxiously. What would Marguarita do? What would she say in this situation? “It’s time for you to shut up.” (35)
Yeah. That didn't exactly win Graciela's affection. Most of their journey together is fraught with tension and friction simply because Graciela fights Jenny relentlessly. She whines, wheedles, threatens, cries, pouts, insults, and thwarts Jenny every step of the way for well over half the book, demanding she return her to Aunt Tete, her cousins whom she knows "loves" her. According to Graciela, manipulator extraordinaire, all Jenny needs to do is simply turn around and deposit Graciela back into the bosom of her beloved family. Except there's this measly little thing called a promise, a promise made by Jenny to Marguarita. And Jenny is a woman who honors her promises, no matter what. Something Graciela doesn't understand (but comes to appreciate more and more) as Jenny tries to explain here:
"Here's how it is kid. After you give a promise, see, the person you gave it to is out of the deal. It's just you and the promise. If you keep the promise, then you're somebody. You did right. But if you fail, then you might as well stick a knife in your gut because you aren't worth spit. You're a person with no fricking honor." (104-105)
The Promise of Jenny Jones is as much about Graciela's journey as it is Jenny's. The cockles of my heart warmed considerably toward Graciela as she began to wonder "What would Jenny do?" when trouble came knocking in exactly the same way Jenny asks herself "What would Marguarita do?" as Graciela throws her curve after curve. Though I couldn't help chuckling as Graciela inevitably begins picking up Jenny-isms, like repeating Jenny's favorite cussword, fricking, and had her mouth washed out with soap for doing it.
“Virile,” she said quietly. A soft word for a hard thing. Pursing her lips, she considered, then composed a sentence using the word. “The cowboy is virile.” (60)
Yes, indeed. That cowboy can put his boots under just about any lady's bed any time. Ty Sanders, the love interest of The Promise of Jenny Jones, is a very reluctant, slightly tarnished white hat on a white steed, charging in to save the damsel in distress. Because this is, after all, a romance in want of a hero. As far as hero's go, Ty was hard for me to warm up to at first because of his prejudice against Hispanic people. His hatred is tangled up in the wedge driven into the Sanders family after his older brother, Robert, married Marguarita Barrancas against his father's (and her father's) wishes, the hostilities between the Sanders and Barrancas ranches in California, and Cal Sanders' bitterness at losing an arm as part of an invading American army into Mexico in 1846.
"Cal Sanders had refused to accept Robert’s marriage because Cal could not bear the thought of Mexican grandchildren. That a Mexican might one day inherit the fruits of Sanders labor was an abomination too repugnant to contemplate. It was offensive enough that the Sanders ranch adjoined Barrancas lands; that the two families might intermingle was unthinkable to a man whose hatreds had been formed in his youth." (120)
But again, it speaks to the power of Maggie Osborne's writing skills to take a man who says things like this and make him into a hero with a capital H.
"Mexicans weren't happy unless they were fighting someone." (21)
"Let a stranger, especially a gringo, ride into a Mexican village, and within minutes everyone in the village knew about it and was busily scheming how to profit from the encounter." (22)
"The only thing Ty liked about Mexican people was their food. Even the language offended his ear." (23)
Ty has been dispatched by Robert, Graciela's spineless father, to fetch his fricking family home to California after six years' separation. Cause, you know, Robert just couldn't be arsed to give up his inheritance and follow Marguarita to Mexico in exile. Nor can he be arsed to travel all the way to Mexico after Cal dies, and he finally decides it might be a good idea to collect Marguarita and Graciela. To be, you know, like a real fricking family who fricking live together. Under one fricking roof. In the same fricking country, for frick's sake! Ahem. Sorry. I'm a little fricking exercised. It's Graciela who is the catalyst for Ty's epiphany and the bridge between the Barrancas/Sanders family feud.
"Troubled, he stared through the darkness at the moonlit face of his brother’s daughter. Already this child was challenging assumptions Ty had picked up at his father’s knee. Graciela wasn’t a Mexican, as Cal would have dismissed her. This child was Ty’s niece. His blood. The realization was throwing his thoughts into turmoil." (121)
As far as first meets go, Ty and Jenny must hold the record for "Most Unusual Circumstances To Meet Your True Love." His first glimpse of Jenny is not across a crowded ballroom, gliding along in a gown of silk and lace, and her first words are not sweet nothings whispered in the heat of passion. Nope, she's pounding the hell out of Cousin Luis (an evil cousin) who mistakenly believed he could snatch Graciela away from Jenny, and the first words he hears her say are. . . Can you guess one of the words out of her dulcet mouth? Wait for it: "You fricking bastard!" Yep. That's my girl, questioning Cousin Luis's parentage. So what's a slightly tarnished cowboy in a (mostly) white hat to do? Spits on his hands and jumps into the fracas to protect her back, that's what. Yeah, baby! In the confusion of battle, Jenny clips Ty with a mean right, and that's when he tumbled arse over tea kettle into hankering territory. Believe me, there's a whole lot of powerful hankering going on between these two.
“I can’t explain this, but I have a powerful hankering for you. I beg pardon if that observation is out of line, but you strike me as a woman who’s not averse to straight talk.” (165)
A tall, strong-boned woman wasn’t to every man’s taste, but he responded powerfully to the challenge she presented. “And I admire your style. Hell, who can explain a hankering. You aren’t like any woman I ever met.”(166-167)
“Do you have a hankering for me, too?” He snapped the question, irritated that he had to humble himself by asking. He’d made a declaration here, and she owed him better than to leave him dangling and wondering. He’d revealed himself, and he deserved a revelation in return.
“I guess I do,” she admitted after a lengthy hesitation, scowling up at him. “I don’t fricking like it much, but now that you mention it, yeah, I guess I got a hankering for you, too.”(168)
In Ty's eyes, Jenny wasn't petite, simpering, or ladylike, but "God had arranged her in absolutely perfect proportion." And for Ty, it was just gravy on the biscuit that she had "breathtaking breasts." Well, Jenny does notices Ty doesn't exactly fill out the back part of his long-johns so that means they're even. Besides his lack of tookus just adds to his, er, many charms. He may be butt challenged, but his romance-o-mometer works just fine.
The second time Ty and Jenny come together is more unusual than their first encounter. This time they're fighting. Oh wait, that's not different. Except they're fighting. Each. Other. To give Ty credit he is "appalled" at the way he "jumped into a punching match with a woman." The whole scene is weird and funny and muddled up in misunderstandings and unknown identities. Plus, Jenny is doing what Jenny excels at — neutralizing what she perceives as a threat to Graciela. Um, to clarify, that means Jenny walloped the fricking hell out of Ty before he knew what was happening and began to defend himself. It takes some back-and-forthing before these two finally join forces against the evil cousins.
I loved The Promise of Jenny Jones. I love that so many different meanings of the the word "promise" are part and parcel of Jenny's and Graciela's stories. I love how it begins with the Jenny's vow, pledge, promise, her covenant, with a dying mother. But then there's the harbinger and hope for what Jenny has longed for all her life to be realized: love, family, a home, and most of all a love for the "daughter of her heart." There's also the promise of all that Jenny, Graciela, and Ty are and will become together as a family. This is a wonderful road romance filled with adventure and peril and a little romance along the journey. The relationship between Ty and Jenny develops slowly and beautifully, and for the first half of the book, page time together is sparse and it did feel a bit strange at first not to have Ty and Jenny stuck like glue from page 1, it still worked for me. Tension was heightened and the eventual emotional pull was ratcheted up so greatly that when these two came together, it was one of the most satisfying encounters I've read in a long time. Read The Promise of Jenny Jones. Go ahead. But make sure you have a fresh box of Kleenex handy and a relaxing libation before you step into the Mexican desert with Ty, Jenny, and Graciela on the way to California. If you don't bawl like a baby, as I did, after reading the last few chapters, I'll eat my cowboy hat.