The Book of True Desires won the 2007 RITA Award for Best Short Historical Romance and received very positive reviews from Romantic Times, and The Romance Reader. A short excerpt can be found on Amazon and, in truncated form, here.
All About Romance's reviewer, Leigh Thomas, however, struck a dissenting note:
The biggest problem is that the characters are rather flat. I really like the idea of a strong, adventurous heroine and amusingly persnickety, intellectual hero, but I never warmed up to these particular characters. I kept waiting for them to be deepened beyond those first impressions. They never were. Their development is perfunctory at best, with Cordelia and Hart never achieving more than two dimensions. As a result, the characters aren't as engaging as they should be, so their adventures aren't either. Everyone else ranges from the nondescript, like Cordelia's aunt (which prevents her subplot from having any impact), to one-note, like the cartoonish villain.The Purple Pen reviewer, Lola Sparks, despite having a favourable opinion of the book as a whole, also states that
If one thing grates in this novel, it's Cordelia herself. She is painted as entirely too perfect for my liking. I'm not a fan of heroines who are too beautiful to be believed. Cordelia can do no wrong. She's been everywhere, she's done seemingly everything, she fights like a man, and is beautiful like no other woman on earth. If I could wish for one thing in this book, it would be to tone Cordelia down a notch, give her a few faults, which would make her more believable.If Cordelia O'Keefe is emotionally "flat" and yet exceptional in so many ways, including being "beautiful like no other woman on earth" this is perhaps because she is characterised as seeming
to have escaped from Charles Dana Gibson's sketchbook, and it was little wonder. Her bountiful chestnut hair was a single pin away from falling into glorious dishabille…her long-waisted gown emphasized the provocative S curve at the small of her back…the creamy perfection of her skin was enhanced by a dark ribbon bearing a cameo at her throat. Gibson's celebrated talents could only have captured her in two dimensions and it was as clear as the winter sky that she was all but bursting the bounds of three. (1-2)The picture of Cordelia as a Gibson Girl is reinforced by a later description of her having "an impeccable Gibson coif" (35).1 The Gibson Girl, while not a caricature, was an idealised stereotype of American womanhood: "The Gibson Girl was, in the artist's own words, 'The American Girl to all the world,' even as she raised her new-fangled golf-club and cried 'Fore!' She was spunky and sentimental, down-to-earth and aristocratic at the same time" (Gibson-Girls.com).
She wasn't real, but she was the ideal. The creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944), she represented a serene self-confidence that could surmount any problem, and a physical beauty enhanced by an elegant S-curve silhouette shape from bouffant to bustle that real women everywhere emulated into the fashion of the times.In some ways the novel reminded me of the adventures of Hergé's Tintin cartoons, though with a Gibson girl as the main protagonist rather than a young, male reporter. Tintin visits South America in a number of books, including The Broken Ear, Prisoners of the Sun, and Tintin and the Picaros. Hergé was "determined to get the details of the backdrops and locations of Tintin's adventures absolutely right, down to the smallest detail" (BBC) and Krahn demonstrates a similar interest in historical accuracy. In an "author's note" she states that "the details of time and place are as authentic as research can make them" (339) and she has photos of many of the locations here. As with Hergé's work, this leaves space for less than total realism with regards to the larger-than-life characters and the humour in the book, which draws on racial/national stereotypes. Whereas in Tintin and the Picaros Hergé has Tintin caught up in civil unrest in the South American state of "San Theodoros, where General Tapioca has deposed Tintin's old friend, General Alcazar" (Wikipedia), Krahn has her characters visit Cuba just prior to the Spanish-American War and her villain is a Spanish aristocrat with an uncle who is a "bishop of the church" (85).2 This villain is
But more than anything, she came to symbolize the "New Woman," a feminist ideal that emerged in the decades following the Civil War. (Shaw)
moderately tall, slender to the point of gauntness, with dark hair and Moorish eyes that matched the exotic cut of his white linen suit [...]These eyeteeth "lent his face a reined savagery" (149). His name may not be quite as obviously absurd as Tapioca's but there is definitely something of the stereotype about him.
"I am Don Alejandro Castille." He made a curt bow. [...]
[...] he must look less sallow and dyspeptic by candlelight [...] He tilted his head, [...] then smiled broadly enough to show startlingly large, tobacco-yellowed eyeteeth. (82-83)
In addition to the Gibson girl and the Spanish villain, we have a Professor Valiente of the University of Mexico. "Valiente" means "courageous" in Spanish, and he does have a chance to demonstrate this quality in the course of the novel. He is not as ruthless as Castille but "had the black hair and dark eyes common to Latin types and the flashy white teeth and reckless grin common to lothario types" (60). He is later described as "an aging Latin lothario" (164) who, "like so many of Castille's countrymen, clearly had a weakness for women" (268). He also has a penchant for stylish and expensive clothing, "He wore well-tailored trousers, handmade Italian shoes, and a shirt embellished with white-on-white silk embroidery" (60). The aging Valiente thus provides a somewhat humorous embodiment of the "Latin lover":
Since the days of early cinema, Latin men have portrayed some of the most virile, passionate and forbidden characters on the screen. With their swarthy good looks and smoldering eyes, these "Latin lovers" have caused female moviegoers to swoon for decades. But unlike his blond counterpart, the Latin lover was generally not cast in the leading role. He played the rogue to the Anglo gentleman. (Chapa)Valiente is indeed contrasted with the Anglo Hartford Goodnight, and though the two are never truly love rivals, Valiente does introduce Cordelia to the very sexual tango, much to Goodnight's disapproval:
Suddenly the professor brought her body fully against his and guided her leg into a dramatic extension that pressed her into a startling proximity with his, mimicking a far more intimate dance between a man and a woman. [...]The Mexican guides, Itza and Ruz Platano, with their ludicrous name and comic appearance also draw on a common stereotype and provide a source of humour:
[Goodnight to Cordelia] "What's gotten into you - making a spectacle of yourself out there? There are mating rituals in Borneo less explicit than that. May I remind you that you're in a foreign country, you're on a mission, and the man whose shirt you just steam pressed with your ... body ... has just attached himself to our expedition to Mexico. (68-69)
two shaggy-looking men with broad, sunbaked faces and eyes so dark they were almost black. They were barefoot and wore ragged trousers and shirts from which the sleeves had been ripped. They looked up at her and their toothy smiles faded to looks of awe.Cordelia reflects that they are "a pair of toothy yokels whose surname - according to her phrase book - meant 'banana,' and who had a bizarre, almost familial attachment to a pregnant burro" (138).
The taller, thinner one sprang up.
The shorter, stockier one joined him, nodding shyly.
They produced artless grins of appreciation. "Hola! Senorita. (136)
The mention of Cordelia's phrase book brings me to the issue of language. Krahn, by having a heroine who uses a phrase book, demonstrates the difficulties of language learning yet, despite the fact that some of the Hispanic characters have made the effort to learn a second language, English, and are far more proficient in it than the heroine is in Spanish, the way in which they speak English seems to be exploited for humorous effect. As Charles Ramirez Berg has written, the use of broken English in cinema has a long tradition:
Language divulges character and the relationship between character and culture. "Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity," Gloria Anzaldúa has written. "I am my language." Most Hollywood films not only deny this part of a Latino's identity, they adulterate it as well. In American culture and Hollywood films, the command of standard English establishes a person as well-educated, intelligent and credible. The use of "Hollywood Spanish" — broken English spoken with a heavy accent — marks a character as stupid.The witch, Yazkuz, is
an old woman swaying forward with the help of a gnarled walking stick. She wore a red shawl over her head and as she approached, Cordelia thought she looked like one of the dried-apple people children in New England carve in autumn.She isn't precisely described as "stupid" but instead of her language learning skills being provided as evidence of her "intelligence" they're presented as the result of "patience and cunning" (217): "an unexpected student of English [...] she had acquired, through her little extortions and nefarious trading practices, three books published in English and had with patience and cunning sat down to decipher some of that foreign script" (217). Having acquired her knowledge by "nefarious" means, she uses it to flirt. After Cordelia has found her "brain being picked to correct Yazkuz's English [...] The result was an improvement in the old witch's ability to communicate with the 'handsome one'" (217). Yazkuz is described as "the old girl" (223, 226, 247, 290, 291, 314), her "guile" (223) is mentioned and when she speaks it is in a "voice [that] sounded like something straight out of Hans Christian Andersen" (209). This last is perhaps another indication that the characterisation is not intended to be entirely realistic, but instead draws on larger-than-life stereotypes or archetypes.
Frizzy white hair was visible beneath the shawl, and she had dark, piercing eyes. Bone bracelets clacked on each wrist and there were carved talismans on leather thongs hanging around her neck. (204-05)
The characterisation of the Spanish/Hispanic characters seems to fit into a particular tradition. William Anthony Nericcio quotes from Gary D. Keller's Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources:
Hollywood has produced a huge number of films that depict Hispanic characters, mostly Chicano or Mexican . . . manufactured according to a formula that has overtly provided for the denigration of minorities and outgroups. . . . The Hollywood Celluloid Factory reflect[s] and reinforce[s] the pervasive racial antagonisms that have been the bane of American society from its origins. The initial Hollywood result was the cloning of greaser stereotype upon stereotype: incompetent bandidos, goodhearted simpletons, easy mujeres, perfidious criminals . . . and so on, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.Castille is the "perfidious criminal", followed by an entourage including "incompetent bandidos" while the Platanos are "good hearted simpletons". The witch, Yazkuz, is an "easy" woman, despite her age and appearance, which makes her a source of humour too. She "winked coquettishly" (209) at the hero and when she's shut out of discussions between the two "Cordelia [...] was torn between outrage and amusement that the old woman had taken such a fancy to Goodnight" (212).
The stereotype which is most explicitly and repeatedly explored is that of the British male. The hero is first referred to as a "Brit" with a "stiff back and flared nostrils", and a "Damned limey" (4). Shortly afterwards he displays a "frosty British air" (21) and "very British disdain" (26) or, as Cordelia later phrases it, "his upper-crust British superiority" (155). When Cordelia announces
"I wear men's shirts."Then, because he's "Tall, bloodless, and British" the heroine wonders "What would such a man want?" (42) and later we're informed that he has a "long, superior British nose" (43) and that when he "stood with his arms crossed and his legs spread, refusing to recheck anything" he is "a monument to the hidebound aspects of British character" (139).
Men's shirts. The words echoed in Hart Goodnight's head and - alarmingly - in his blood. She wore men's shirts. He was rocked to the very roots of his British-bred propriety. (37-38)3
"I'm stubborn, not insane." He glanced at her from the corner of his eye.By the time that Hartford Goodnight decides he's "tired of being thought a contrary, priggish, inept British domestic. And even more tired of thinking of himself that way" (201) I have to admit that I was more than tired of all the stereotypes, because even to begin with I couldn't see the humour in them. That said, I'm sure that some people do, or the novel wouldn't have received the accolades it has. So is humour just that, and nothing to be concerned about? David Pilgrim has observed that
"I thought you were just British," she said [...] "Which explains perfectly your gambling problem."
"I do not have a gambling problem," he said [...].
"Of course you do. It's the English disease. That and blocked bowels." (150)
There are those who claim that political correctness has run amuck. Get a sense of humor, they say, lighten up. Quit being sensitive. Learn to laugh at yourself; learn to laugh at others. Humor is good. True, but humor at the expense of others is divisive and selfish. Humor that relies on racial stereotyping promotes an us-versus-them dichotomy. It ensures our membership in the in-group by excluding others. It promotes an unjustified sense of superiority.It seems significant to me that the humour in this novel is always directed at non-Americans. The Americans, in particular the Irish-American Captain O'Brien and the Irish-American heroine, are depicted as being on the side of freedom, engaged in helping others throw off the shackles of oppressive imperialist rule.4 When the protagonists stop over in Campeche (Mexico)
everyone seemed to know Johnny "Dynamite" O'Brien. During their post-siesta meal in a quaint, saffron-scented cantina, the owner and other patrons were eager to retell the story of how the captain had acquired his nickname: carrying explosives to the canal builders in Panama when no one else would. And they were told that he had been a friend and admirer of Jose Marti, one of the first leaders and greatest martyrs of the Cuba Libre movement. Clearly, many in Campeche sympathized with the Cuban revolutionaries and welcomed O'Brien because of his support for them. (118)In the "Author's Note", Krahn explains that
Captain John "Dynamite" O'Brien was a historical figure, a champion of the freedom of the Cuban people who repeatedly risked his life smuggling guns, ammunition, and freedom fighters into Cuba. Cubans revere him to this day. I'd like to think he would have enjoyed spiriting Cordelia and Hart away from danger and collecting a tidy little sum to help purchase weapons and supplies for his freedom loving Cuban friends. (340)Even if O'Brien's motives were entirely as described, the contrast between the humour/villainy assigned to the representatives of British and Spanish imperial power and the noble, freedom-loving American O'Brien is perhaps somewhat problematic. Without in any way wishing to minimise or deny the negative consequences of British and Spanish imperialism, positioning the Americans quite so unambiguously on the side of freedom, and having them be acclaimed by the South American population, seems troubling when one considers the broader history of the US's relationship with its so-called "backyard":
From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the U.S. military sharpened its fighting skills and developed its modern-day organizational structure largely in constant conflict with Latin America-in its drive west when it occupied Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century and took more than half of that country's national territory. And in its push south: by 1930, Washington had sent gunboats into Latin American ports over six thousand times, invaded Cuba, Mexico (again), Guatemala, and Honduras, fought protracted guerrilla wars in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti, annexed Puerto Rico, and taken a piece of Colombia to create both the Panamanian nation and the Panama Canal. For their part, American corporations and financial houses came to dominate the economies of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, as well as large parts of South America [...] After World War II, in the name of containing Communism, the United States, mostly through the actions of local allies, executed or encouraged coups in, among other places, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina and patronized a brutal mercenary war in Nicaragua. [...] By the end of the Cold War, Latin American security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited by Washington had executed a reign of bloody terror -- hundreds of thousands killed, an equal number tortured, millions driven into exile. (Grandin)In addition, it is the "Anglo" Goodbody who is entrusted with fulfilling the promise of the Jaguar/God in a scientific manner. Yazkuz is relegated to the role of a "lowly servant", while she declares that Goodbody is the man specially chosen by the Jaguar:
All healing comes from the Creator ... who walks the earth as a jaguar from time to time and speaks to lowly servants who do work in his name. This is why I have brought the tall healer here to this place. The Jaguar Spirit told me of his coming long ago, in the sacred bones. So, when I saw him and learned of his interest in healing, I knew he was the one. [...] Now the tall healer must carry the remembrance of the Jaguar's gift with him back to the world. (247)The Jaguar's gift is a rare orchid with potent healing properties and
Before he left, Yazkuz loaded him up with enough herbs and botanical curiosities to keep him busy in a laboratory for years. And after considerable consultation with the Jaguar Spirit, she insisted on sending three of the bags of gold back to civilization with them, to help fund Hart's healing mission. (316).5Ironically, the United States of America is one of the few states which has still to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity. The convention was designed to address concerns about the exploitation of the biological resources of "developing countries" by companies and individuals from the "developed countries":
Most of the world's biodiversity is found in developing countries, which consider it a resource for fueling their economic and social development. Historically, plant genetic resources were collected for commercial use outside their region of origin or as inputs in plant breeding. Foreign bioprospectors have searched for natural substances to develop new commercial products, such [as] drugs. Often, the products would be sold and protected by patents or other intellectual property rights, without fair benefits to the source countries. The treaty recognizes national sovereignty over all genetic resources, and provides that access to valuable biological resources be carried out on "mutually agreed terms" and subject to the "prior informed consent" of the country of origin. When a microorganism, plant, or animal is used for a commercial application, the country from which it came has the right to benefit. (CBD website)Such exploitation could include more than the appropriation of biological material:
When botanists for multinational corporations go to the Third World to gather plants, says Pat Mooney of the Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI), "they do not just collect plants, they collect the knowledge of [local] people; the botanists don't have the slightest idea" which plants are valuable. The botanists gather the plants that local farmers and herbalists have cultivated and breeded and which they unsuspectingly report as useful to the multinational's representatives. (Weissman)In return for her help in locating extremely medically useful plants for Goodnight and, through the Jaguar's gift of gold, funding Goodnight's scientific research, Yazkuz receives "a telescope, a photo of the U.S. Capitol, several spools of ribbon, some lavender sachets, rose-scented soap, a tin of maple candies, four china teacups, and a bottle of Goodnight's precious whiskey" (204) and later a further $0.35 (214).6
- Chapa, Julie. "Latin Lovers: The Don Juan Syndrome." Hispanic Heritage Plaza 2003.
- Grandin, Greg. Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Metropolitan, 2006. [Excerpt here].
- Krahn, Betina. The Book of True Desires. New York: Jove, 2006.
- Nericcio, William Anthony. Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America. U of Texas P, 2006. [Excerpt here].
- Pilgrim, David. "Notes on Racist Jokes." Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. 11 September 2006.
- Ramirez Berg, Charles. "Strategies for Latino screenwriters: ¡Ya basta con the Hollywood paradigm!" Jump Cut 38 (June 1993): 96-104. Rpt. online in 2006.
- Weissman, Robert. "Patent Plunder: TRIPping the Third World." The Multinational Monitor 11.11 (1990).
1 I suspect that this is intended to refer to Cordelia's hair, or coiffure, not to a coif.
2 This uncle, "Ramon de Castille, Bishop of Sienna, is well known throughout Spain, Cuba, and even Mexico" (86). It is not entirely clear where "Sienna" is, if it is not the Italian city of Siena. It is also unclear why this aristocratic Spanish family are using the French version of their name, "Castille", rather than the Spanish "Castilla".
3 In this period
Changing attitudes about acceptable activities for women also made sportswear popular for women, with such notable examples as the bicycling dress and the tennis dress.Given this, I wonder how shocking the wearing of men's shirts would really have been.
Unfussy, tailored clothes were worn for outdoor activities and traveling. The shirtwaist, a costume with a bodice or waist tailored like a man's shirt with a high collar, was adopted for informal daywear and became the uniform of working women. (Wikipedia)
4 Cordelia's Irish background is mentioned when her grandfather (who at this point does not know of his relationship to her) muses
"Boston. O'Keefe." He shifted back in his chair with a frown. "Irish."Cordelia's freedom-fighting is feminist in nature, asserting the abilities of women and refusing to settle into a relationship with anyone unable to accept her as she is: "I've yet to meet a man who would put up for very long with a wife who has a head full of ideas, a penchant for digging up secrets, and a yen to see what's over the next mountain" (9). Her triumph over imperialism is to transform the British Hartford Goodnight and contribute to the defeat of Alejandro Castille.
"Half," she said with an arch look, which caused him to glance between her and his aunt and think better of whatever comment he was about to make.(8)
5 The use of the word "civilization" in this context is rather telling. It would appear to position America as "civilization". Krahn does write in an "Author's Note" that:
As to Mayan culture ... my understanding of and respect for the Maya has changed forever the way I look at the "settling" of the New World and the flow of subsequent history. The Mayan culture was highly developed and, unlike the Aztecs and other conquered people, the Maya still exist in huge numbers and celebrate their culture. (340)Again, it seems telling to me that there are references here only to Mayan "culture" not to "Mayan civilization". Perhaps it will be argued that I'm quibbling over semantics, but, as all writers know, the nuances of language can be crucial in shaping a reader's responses to a text.
6 Cordelia has thought carefully about the items to be exchanged:
"In the agrarian cultures we are likely to encounter, sharing food and drink has special significance, as does the sharing of ceremonial vessels. Teacups are as close to ceremonial as we can get without being sacrilegious. Presenting village elders with them is a good way of sharing a part of our culture and ensuring good will." She propped her hands on her waist. "More effective and respectful than cheap tin mirrors and strings of coloured beads, don't you think?" (126)I can only wonder why Cordelia thought "a photo of the U.S. Capitol" would be appreciated. Perhaps it symbolises the long reach of American cultural, economic and military power?
Illustration of Charles Dana Gibson's Their First Quarrel is from Wikipedia.