Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Melissa Lenhardt--The Feminist Western



DEBORAH CROMBIE: Having grown up in Texas, with an uncle who was a famous Texas writer and historian, I rebelled by turning all my imaginative passion to the other side of the Atlantic. I didn't read westerns, or watch westerns, and am abysmally ignorant about John Wayne movies. And I'm ashamed to admit that I'm probably the only person who neither read nor watched Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.

HOWEVER, thanks to Melissa Lenhardt, I am now a western convert!! I am totally hooked on her SAWBONES trilogy. (Maybe the reason I never liked westerns was because none of the main characters were women?)
 


Melissa changes that. Here she tells us what inspired her.

MELISSA LENHARDT:  When I woke up on June 20, 2008, I had no idea my life was about to change irrevocably. It was the next to last day of our vacation in Hawaii, and all we had on the agenda was hanging out on the beach. It was the first day we weren’t scheduled to the hilt, and we were all looking forward to a casual day, and capping off our trip with a luau on the beach that night.


After breakfast, I went to a photo shop. I don’t even remember why, but my boys were nine and six, so I have a pretty good idea why I was taking my own sweet time returning to the room. When I saw my husband on an adjacent trail with a panicked expression on his face, my first thought was the boys. Then he said, “You need to call your mom.”

Let’s be honest; no one ever thinks they’re going to get The Call while they’re on vacation, but we still dutifully give our itineraries to our loved ones and, in my case, call your parents earlier in the week to let them know to call my husband’s phone if they need me because mine wasn’t working. Just in case. You never know.

My dad died suddenly that day. We had no time to prepare, and we didn’t know how to grieve. All I knew is that one minute my soul was full, and the next a part of it was gone, and would never return. I spent the rest of the summer in a fog, watching Westerns on TCM and AMC, trying to touch a piece of him, no matter how ephemeral. Bud Boetticher, James Stewart, John Ford, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Randolph Scott, and Anthony Mann helped keep the sorrow at bay, at least for an hour and a half at a time. Lonesome Dove was my father’s favorite, and I dutifully watched, then picked up the book for the first time. I loved it, naturally; McMurtry is a master, after all. By then, I’d watched enough Westerns focusing on the men that I was ready for a female-centered story with some grit that didn’t revolve solely around romance. When I didn’t find it in literature (Lord knows it doesn’t exist in the movies or television), I decided to write my own.


Writing was a hobby in 2008. I had no designs on getting an agent, let alone getting published. Lord knows I had no idea this book would get published. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how many iterations this story went through. Sawbones was the book that taught me how to write, how to finish, how to edit, how not to give up. There was something about Laura and her story that resonated with me, so I doggedly kept at it. I’ll confess, as time went on and I read more on women in the West, and their lack of representation in history books, I had a strong desire to shatter a few myths about the West. And, I didn’t want to let my dad down.


Badlands, the third book in the Sawbones series, was released nine years, almost to the day, since my dad died. A decade. Hard to believe so much time has passed. It’s even more difficult to believe the story I started to feel closer to my dad, to honor him, ultimately led to a new career as a professional writer, to meeting so many wonderful writers and readers and publishing professionals. I wish I could have one day with my dad, to hug his neck, hear him call me “Bug." I want to tell him how he’s inspired me, how the memories of his love, his never-ending encouragement, his belief that I could do anything I set my mind to, has led to an exciting new chapter in my life. I can't imagine ever being able to answer, "Which of your books is your favorite?" with anything other than, "SAWBONES, hands down."

DEBS:  Here's how the story begins, in 1871: When Dr. Catherine Bennett is wrongfully accused of murder, she knows her fate likely lies with a noose unless she can disappear. Fleeing with a bounty on her head, she escapes with her maid to the uncharted territories of Colorado to build a new life with a new name. Although the story of the murderess in New York is common gossip, Catherine's false identity serves her well as she fills in as a temporary army doctor. But in a land unknown, so large and yet so small, a female doctor can only hide for so long.

Catherine/Laura's story continues in BLOOD OATH and BADLANDS, and, yes, she does come to Texas in SAWBONES, and I'm now fascinated not only by her story but by my own state's too long neglected (by me) history.

READERS, were you bitten by the western bug? What were your favorites? And did you long to see strong women characters?  


Melissa Lenhardt writes mystery, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Heater Mystery Magazine, The Western Online, and Christmas Nookies, a holiday romance anthology. Her debut novel, Stillwater, was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. She is a member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop and president of the Sisters in Crime North Dallas Chapter. Melissa lives in Texas, with her husband and two sons.


68 comments:

  1. What a heartbreaking story, Melissa, to lose your dad so unexpectedly. And yet, what a joy that you’ve embarked on writing these wonderful westerns.
    I remember television westerns when I was growing up: The Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry . . . I guess the western bug bit me early on. Favorites [besides Lonesome Dove]? High Noon . . . The Searchers . . . Stagecoach . . .

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    1. I grew up with Westerns, too, but it took me 40 years to realize how male centric they were. Sawbones was my way of bringing women into the West as equal actors rather than support for men.

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  2. I can tell I'm going to love these books! A medical woman in the second half of the 1800s?
    I'm hooked (we could have Laura meet up with my Quaker midwife Rose Carroll someday...).

    Melissa, I had a father like yours, who loved and supported me unconditionally, who also died suddenly way too young. He wrote long, long typed letters and I've long thought he might have ended up a writer if he'd lived longer. Like you, I wish I had just one day with him so he could see my books and meet my sons.

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    1. There are Quakers in Blood Oath, book two of the series! I hope I got them right! I had to address the Quaker Peace Policy the government tried with the Native Americans, and had Laura spend some time at an Indian Agency in Indian Territory run by a Quaker.

      I'm lucky that my father got to meet my sons, but I wish he was here to see the young men they've grown into.

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  3. Between TV and movies, I've watched and loved a lot of Westerns. But I don't think I ever even thought about the lack of "strong" female characters.

    Some of my favorites from TV were Bonanza, The Big Valley, The Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin and likely many more. I also am a huge fan of the giant miniseries Centennial which isn't a straight up Western but has some of the same qualities. Between that and Lonesome Dove, I'd say those were my two favorites from TV.

    Movies like The Searchers, Unforgiven and Open Range, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider and many more make up my list of movie Westerns.

    I don't really read any Western type books but I am very intrigued by these books.

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    1. The issue with most female characters in traditional Westerns is that their only purpose it to serve the man's story. That's the problem with the myth of the West, and also with the history of the west - women and their contributions have been marginalized. Women were there, contributing, and had lives that are worthy of documenting. That's what I'm trying to do.

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  4. I'm not a western fan either, but I could become one reading this! Such a sad story Melissa, but wouldn't your dad be proud of you now! Writing comes from the strangest places...My father was a western fan too. I can remember when he was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, popping a John Wayne movie in the VCR was the surest way to calm him down.

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    1. My dad had tons of Westerns on VCR, and he would pop one in and watch it. It didn't even have to be at the beginning, just from wherever it stopped before. He just enjoyed visiting the worlds.

      I hope you enjoy Sawbones!

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  5. I'm also a big fan of Melissa's contemporary Jack McBride mysteries, also set in Texas in a fictional small town. Melissa, I'm sure your dad would have loved them, too.

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    1. He would have loved them. He might have even read them! (He wasn't much of a reader.) He would have liked picking out all of the little nods to my hometown that I've sprinkled in the series. My mom loves texting me when she sees stuff, and my other friends/family that live there do, too.

      (Also, kindle versions of Stillwater & The Fisher King are on sale for Prime day for $1.99 today!)

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  6. Also, I wanted to say that the covers of these books are just stunning. And that the books should be read in order!

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    1. Yes, they are best to be read in order. It's very much a series. A reviewer said it was like reading a "1200 page epic" which I have to say, I totally agree with.

      I love the covers, too!

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  7. When I was growing up there were tons of westerns on TV so that is what we watched: Wagon Train, Maverick, Rawhide, Wyatt Earp. But I can't say I developed any passion for them. Absolutely loved John Wayne, but not necessarily in westerns. The only ones I've read are the CJ Box Joe Pickett novels, which I cannot get enough of. I'll definitely be reading SAWBONES though. Sounds very good!

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  8. Melissa, what a story. The book sounds irresistible... a Western FUGITIVE with a woman in the lead. I love westerns, HUGE fan of Lonesome Dove. And a woman (doctor!) in the wild west, talk about fish out of water...

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    1. She is such a fish out of water, and that was great fun to write. I hope you like Laura as much as I do!

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  9. What fun! Like Judi, I remember a lot of westerns on TV when I was a kid, but like Debs, I'm not deeply conversant in John Wayne or Lonesome Dove--despite having lived in the town where Oliver Loving and Bose Ikard are buried. When westerns fell out of fashion as a genre, sometime after Louis L'amour died, it was hard to even find books set in that part of our history, and when I did I thought the female characters sadly lacking. I think I gave up when I read a book where the only woman was catatonic and speechless throughout. Guess that's the way the author liked 'em, but I knew my grandmother, and I knew she wouldn't have survived her hillbilly childhood if she hadn't been made of stern, outspoken stuff. Western women had to be better than they were portrayed, and I'm quite certain men did not populate the west all by themselves. I've met Melissa, and I'm sure she can write strong female characters, so I'll definitely be looking into these novels.

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    1. You are correct on all accounts, Gigi! Women settlers had to be tough and resilient to survive. Have you read The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout? It was made into a movie with Tommy Lee Jones & Hilary Swank a few years ago. It really shows the toll settling the West had on women. It's a great book. I highly recommend it.

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    2. No, I haven't, Melissa, but I'll be sure to look for it--right after I finish reading yours!

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  10. What a beautiful story. Catherine sounds like a great character.

    I watched a lot of John Wayne with my father growing up. He liked all the movies, but I liked the westerns. One of my favorites is "McClintock" co-starring Maureen O'Hara. She may not be the main character, but she's no wilting violet either. She gives as good as she gets. =) Honestly, I think she's a strong character in all the movies she made with The Duke (McClintock, Big Jake, and The Quiet Man).

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Oh Debs? I haven't seen/read Lonesome Dove either.

      Mary/Liz

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    2. I love Maureen O'Hara, and especially like her with John Wayne in The Quiet Man. But, there was a Wayne/O'Hara Western, and it might be McClintock, where Wayne drags her through a crowd to humiliate her and put her in her place. She always had strong personalities, but they made sure Wayne was always stronger.

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    3. Melissa, that scene always reminded me of The Taming of the Shrew. Sigh. Some things take a long time to change!

      Have you read 'Prayers for Sale' by Sandra Dallas? It's set in a Colorado mining town at the turn of the 20th century, if I remember correctly. A strong female protagonist.

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    4. I haven't read that Sandra Dallas book but I've read others and I love her! Thanks for the rec!

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  11. John Wayne was delightful but when you add Maureen O'Hara, sparks fly. I like strong women.

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    1. If I recall correctly, they were great friends off-screen.

      Mary/Liz

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  12. These books intrigue me, and I will add them to my tottering TBR pile.

    Deb and whoever else has missed LONESOME DOVE, you're in for a treat. I love the book, the TV series and Larry McMurtry. Julie and I were just talki g about this the other day, saying it was time for a revisit.

    I grew up on movie westerns, then TV westerns, but I haven't read on since Annie Proulx's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, more of a novella, and BARKSKINS, mostly set in Canada. I recommend both highly.

    One week post op hernia surgery and I haven't taken anything stronger than a couple of tylenol. Piece of cake. Thank you for all the good wishes.

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    1. Ann, his manuscripts are in the library at the University of North Texas, as are mine. So we share shelf space. I really should read Lonesome Dove...

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    2. Thanks for adding them to your TBR pile!

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    3. Deb, wow!
      Melissa, I am a reader not a writer, and I look forward to exploring your work

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  13. Note I buried Finta with honors

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    1. And we are glad to have you back, Ann:-)

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  14. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Okay, don't stone me! This tv western annoyed me so much--she was always being rescued by Sully. I grew up on tv westerns and reruns of western movies with Randolph Scott (my mother's crush) and John Wayne. My favorite tv series was Maverick--loved the humor. My favorite western movies--anything with Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne.

    Melissa, out of the ashes came the phoenix, it seems--it's always great to meet a new (to me) writer who is passionate about his/her characters and stories. I'll be looking for Sawbones.

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    1. In SAWBONES, I was all about upending Western tropes, and the woman being saved by the man/white knight, was one I set my sights on.

      Melissa

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  15. I tried Westerns, I really tried.. read Zane Gray, and discovered 'formula' writing; can still hum the theme to Bonanza, except my warped mind sings bung a da bungada bung banana! Now I have a chance to read about a strong woman in the West? Thanks Melissa.. lead me to her.

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    1. OMG, Zane Gray. Trying to read Riders of the Purple Sage is what finally made me decide to write what I wanted to read, because I sure wasn't finding it. I honestly see these books as historical fiction more than Westerns, but publishing likes its genres.

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  16. Melissa, tell us about your research! You must have done so much, on the medicine, the aftermath of the Civil War, Texas in the 1870s. What kind of sources did you use?

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    1. Gosh, I read so, so much. I read books that didn't necessarily show up specifically in the book, but that helped me understand the time, the ideas, mores, etc. For instance, I read The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust (brilliant book) which is about death and the Civil War, and how the experience changed the country fundamentally. Sawbones was set only 6 years after the war, and the country/people were still recovering from it physically and emotionally, and reading the book helped me get into the mindset of the time. The Texas State Historical Society has a great website. It was a rabbit hole I fell into numerous times while writing. Empire of the Summer Moon by SC Gwynne was the book that helped the story come together. That is the source for most of the details about the relationship between the whites, Army and Comanche/Kiowa. For the medical research, the best book I read was called Gangrene and Glory about medicine in the Civil War. It was fascinating!

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    2. I am SO tempted to fall down your research rabbit hole!! So fascinating. BUT I would be in big trouble. I have enough research rabbit holes of my own...

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  17. I have to confess that I've actually contemplated writing a book about the women who escaped from the Alamo. I'm fascinated by that time period in Texas, and there has always been something about the Alamo that really gets me emotionally. If you visit some of the other Texas missions around San Antonio that are not as touristy, you get a feel for what the Alamo must really have been like.

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    1. Do it! I would love to read it!

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    2. I would have to write a bit faster, wouldn't I? :-)

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    3. Yes you would. I bet your Duncan & Gemma fans would revolt if they had to wait longer than 2 years between books!

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    4. I grew up in Missouri, where we were always taught that there were no survivors at the Alamo. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Texas and discovered that quite a few women, children, and slaves/native servants/others actually survived.

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  18. I grew up in a time of westerns on TV but the women were always ladies with hearts of gold, if you get my drift. I loved the men though, would have taken most of them home if I'd been old enough. The concept of a woman centric western is so appealing on so many levels. Can't wait to dig in and meet the good doctor!

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  19. I once taught an American Political thought class using novels as the texts. I included Zane Grey and Willa Cather and Kate Chopin on the syllabus. It was pretty impossible to find western women with any depth! I am so looking forward to reading this series.

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  20. For the record, I've seen and read very few Westerns. You aren't the only one who hasn't read Lonesome Dove, Deborah.

    I wonder if the reason there are so few women main characters in the genre is that there were so few in the west during that time period? Or is it because the main audience is men? It's kind of like how there are few male main characters in cozies because the main audience is women. Just wondering out loud.

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    1. I think Melissa will agree that there were lots of amazing women, but it was the men who were writing the stories, and the histories.

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    2. I think it's a little bit of both, Mark. Men did outnumber women in the West. In Cheyenne in 1872, the ration was 6:1. And, men wrote the history, and made the movies. What I want to know about, and to illustrate, is what life was like for the women who were there. I'm more interested in the wives and laundresses who were left behind at the fort while the soldiers went off to patrol. What were their lives like, how did they survive, etc.

      Here's a perfect, real world example on how a man's experience was immortalized and a woman's margainalized: The Searchers novel/John Wayne movie, is based on a man's search for Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken along with two other women and some children, by the Comanche from what's now the Waco area, in the 1830s. The focus is what the man did to find the girl, the years it took, but after he "saves" her, the book ends. He was a hero, she was a victim. He's fictionalized and immortalized, and she gets a sidebar in a history book. The other women who were taken at the same time, and who were ransomed within a year, are forgotten completely. The real tragedy in these instances is that though the men would go to great lengths to "rescue" the women, they were more often than not shunned by society. Personally, that story is a helluva lot more interesting than a man riding all over the West, failing for thirty years, before finally lucking into discovering his niece (who is fully acclimated by this time and doesn't want to leave her family).

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    3. That's the saddest part of that story, isn't it?

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    4. It really is. And, don't think i haven't considered writing that story...;)

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  21. As I grew up in an age where the parents actually controlled the household and the television, I ended up watching quite a few Westerns. It was my father who started me on watching them, and it seems like the weekends were when they aired most. I can't imagine my father having much time to sit and watch TV, though, as he was always busy with his real estate business, and I know my mother rarely sat and watched TV. But, watch the Westerns at my house we did, and so I developed an interest in them. Moving on to series such as The Big Valley, the Rifleman, and those popular series, I can say that I was a fan. I loved Lonesome Dove as an adult, but I haven't read the books. I don't know that now I would be that interested in reading Westerns, but I can say that my interest has indeed been peaked with your female series, Melissa.

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  22. Mark and Debs, I'll join your sad group, never having read or seen "Lonesome Dove," either! Clearly, that's something I need to correct, but first, I think I need to start reading Melissa's books! I'm sorry that your writing career was borne out of your father's death, Melissa, but in a way, what an amazing tribute to him!

    Is there another setting you'd like to write about or are you firmly rooted in the west?

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    1. I have lot of ideas, Ingrid, and I'm not married to one time frame, particularly. I've written two contemp mysteries, and I want to write more. I've also written a women's fiction novel that's out on submission right now. I love writing in multiple genres, and multiple time periods. It will keep writing fresh and exciting for me. I'm finishing another Western right now (due date August 31) and I'm determined my next project will be a Stillwater mystery. I miss that world!

      If you pick up Sawbones, I do hope you enjoy it! And, thank you for the lovely words about my Dad.

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  23. Being a baby boomer and growing up in Texas I couldn't avoid westerns on TV if I had wanted to! Fortunanately I loved them. I thought the Lonesome Dove miniseries was wonderful. My favorite "current" westerns are the ones Tom Selleck has done. He is fabulous, and Yea! he is older than me. And looks good.

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  24. Melissa! Love you! and SO late today Hmmm...I am not a westerns fan, I must say. No Lonesome Dove for me either. (Though my husband loves it.) Or Bonanza, (ditto.) or How the West, or ..anything. Shane, maybe. Okay. Does it matter that I lived i my cowgirl hat for my entire life as a five year old? No? :-)
    But I have to say your research sounds fascinating! xoxoo

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    1. Labeling Sawbones a Western is, I'm afraid to say, a drawback for many people. Sadly, it's a losing fight to get it to be labeled only as Historical Fiction, so a "Western" is shall be. But, non-Western readers who have given it a chance have loved it! I would love to either 1) get to a point where the 19th century West can be a setting without a book being labeled a Western or 2) usher in a new era for the genre that includes all types of books, not just traditional, romance or genre (inspirational, some mystery though not many).

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    2. This is Melissa, btw. Different computer, different log in!

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  25. My father, upon learning I'd never watched a spaghetti Western made me sit down and watch one, stat. Love that your books brought you closer to your Dad, Melissa. And after reading the 1st, can't wait to read the other two!

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    1. Gotta be honest, I'm not a fan of the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s and 70s. Tried to watch a Clint Eastwood one and within five minutes of the movie starting, he rapes a woman in a barn. In that era, they seem to marry the two worst impulses of the genre, male-centered machismo with a strong current of blatant misogyny. Not saying that wasn't the dominant culture of the West, just that I'm not interested in seeing it from a man's point of view, the point of view of the people in power. I'm more interested in the women and how this toxic culture affected them. You'll get even more of this exploration in Blood Oath and Badlands. I'm thrilled you enjoyed Sawbones!

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