I saw this book at the library, sitting kinda inconspicuously on a shelf, and I thought that the cover was really gorgeous, so I had to pick it up. Then I realized that it was a novel about the wild west and all my Texan blood started singing. So I grabbed it. And I’m really glad that I got a chance to read it.
Vengeance Road is a tribute to the gun-slinging Westerns of the 19th-20th centuries, featuring lawless towns, high-profile gangs, jaded cowboys, and a girl burning for revenge. Author Erin Bowman is known for her Taken series, and Vengeance Road is a pretty drastic step from that genre. Still, it’s the first cowboys-and-Injuns, ragtime-playing, whiskey-sipping, cow-bones-and-burros sort of book that I’ve ever encountered. It was a really great break from the usual.
Starting right off, I felt weird about the dialect. I’ll confess that dialect is not my favorite literary device– especially after the adventure that was having to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The story was important, of course, and invoked a lot of reflection, but I couldn’t stand the dialect. I’ve never been able to, which is why I also tend to stay away from novels that take place in Victorian-era Britain or other ancient European settings. Not even books that take place in India and use arbitrary Hindi words. I always felt like it detracted from the story, so I was going to give up reading Vengeance, but I decided to stick through the first few chapters but did not expect much– I mean, I’d never gotten used to dialect in TEWWG, and I didn’t see why that would be different for this book. But somehow, I developed a sort of understanding of the language, even started to enjoy it. Maybe it’s because I’ve always low-key wanted to have a deep Southern accent, haha. But whatever it was, I’m glad that it worked out.
That was a really long paragraph about language. Geez. Sorry.
Anyways, on to the actual book. Kate is like a female version of Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, who was a very powerful character, so it’s great to see some characteristics of his in this young woman. Kate’s suffered an enormous loss: her father is strung up by a gang, left to die, and their house is burned down. Furious and thirsting for revenge, Kate decides to track the gang down and take them out herself, all in the name of avenging her father. During the course of her journey, however, she slowly discovers that there’s a lot more to her father’s story than she’d ever known.
Within the first ten pages, someone’s already dead: this really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Kate is this force of brutality, as hard and cutting as the Arizonan dust storms that drown men in earth, with a blood-lust that won’t be sated until Waylan Rose, her father’s murderer, has a bullet in his brain. To start this journey off, Kate dresses like a man and begins to make her way to Wickenburg to meet a man named Abe, friend of her father’s. The journey is difficult – “The frontier ain’t for the faint of heart, and it certainly ain’t kind to women,” after all. Another thing to note about Kate is that she’s incredibly grounded. After her father dies, she immediately buries him and then sets out to find more on the men who did this terrible thing. She doesn’t cry until she’s taken one of them out, and even then, only allows herself to cry for something like a minute before counting down and ceasing entirely. She doesn’t have time to be sad; she doesn’t have time to sit around and mourn. If she wants to track down the Rose Riders, she’s got to get on it immediately.
Once she reaches Abe’s (only to find that he had passed away a few years earlier), she begrudgingly consents to being joined by Jesse and Will, Abe’s two eldest sons, who are supposedly on their way to Tucson anyways. She’s informed them of her mission to kill Rose and get rid of his gang, The Rose Riders, all of whom are notorious outlaws. Though the brothers think that she’s insane, and rightfully so, they insist on accompanying her halfway. The trick here is that Will and Jesse know her as “Nate,” a hard, grumpy young man.
Jesse and Will are really fun characters. Jesse’s the responsible older brother, but he faces some guilt from his past: his mother died in an Apache raid and he never quite moved on. She shot herself in the head to avoid being taken by the Apache, all while little Jesse watched, trapped underneath an overturned carriage. As a result, he’s grown up to be a very responsible, very cautious man, with a deep distrust for the Apache. Also, there’s a whole thing about how he spent hours squinting into the sun while he was trapped and he never stopped squinting. That was kind of tragic, but an interesting detail that humanized the character further.
Will is the younger of the two; he’s got a proclivity for chewing tobacco, has a sardonic humor that contrasts hugely from Jesse’s gentle jibes, and his family always comes first. The two of them make quite a pair, and they worm their way into Kate’s heart before she can stop herself.
There’s a lot of anti-Native sentiment in this book because it takes place in the old West. The settlers are fighting off Apache, who are rightfully incensed about the trespassing of these “White-eyes” on their mother land. To make it worse, the settlers mine gold from her caverns, thereby destroying her beauty. Gold plays a huge role in this story: it’s the reason why Kate’s father was killed; it’s why the brothers are tracking Rose with her; it’s why anyone does anything in this story. The only person that’s entirely uninterested in gold is Kate, who only wants revenge. She claims, later in the book, that she has no need for gold; she has no need for anything. She has no home anymore, no one to go home to. If she dies taking down Rose, she’ll be happy knowing that she dragged him down to Hell too.
The racism comes to a head when the group is joined by a young Apache girl that Kate saves: Liluye. She’s blasé, entirely indifferent to the hatred of Jesse. Will doesn’t acknowledge her much, and Kate tries to stay on good terms with the girl– after all, she’s their guide into Superstition Mountains. Liluye is like the ocean; she doesn’t care what the rest of the group does, she moves in her own path. The only reason she’s helping Kate is because she feels somewhat indebted to the girl for saving her, but also because her tribe lives amidst the mesas of the Mountain and she’s heading there anyways. It causes an interesting dynamic in the group, with Kate defending Liluye and then wondering why she bothers; Jesse trying to antagonize her at every turn; and Liluye simply looking for her way home. I was annoyed with her at first– she doesn’t even try to befriend the gang– but that annoyance quickly trickled away into understanding. She’s been hunted by white people for her entire life. She’s lost most of her tribe to them. It’s amazing that she doesn’t completely despise them.
There are a lot of twists and turns in this book. A lot. And you don’t see them coming, but you really should. Ms. Bowman is good at making readers comfortable, then pulling the rug out from underneath them. It’s important to remember that this is a book about deep-seated prejudice, burning anger, and overall: vengeance. Kate isn’t here to make friends. She wants Waylan Rose dead. Will and Jesse might be good friends, but they’ve got an ulterior motive, too. Like Kate’s father says: “Gold makes monsters of men.”
The ending was written well, though. I don’t want to spoil any more than I have, but it’s paced perfectly and the whole thing plays out as realistically as possible. I really enjoyed this book. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a YA novel that delves into the west, and I’m hoping that this is a trend that continues. Anyways, if you’re looking for an action-packed read, one with a lot of heart and soul: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman might just be for you.