Set in 1875, this erotic historical western is about Caleb and Jessica. Caleb and Jessica have loved each other since they were teenagers, so Caleb—wanting to give Jessica the life she deserves– sets out to California to work and earn enough money so he can support them and the lifestyle she has been accustomed to. He promises to return and marry her, but two years pass and Jessica’s hope dwindles. She sends letters to him through his family, but they go unanswered. Caleb doesn’t write very well, so he rationalizes this as a reason he doesn’t write back. Jessica is led to believe Caleb is not returning home because he has found someone else, and now her father has died. Left with nothing and nowhere to live, a man propositions her: A house for her virginity. Circumstances threaten her and she is backed into a corner, and the man takes advantage of her even more.
Though no one really knows the real story behind this– rumors spread, tongues wag, and the whole town calls her a whore. Thus, this is what Caleb returns home to after two years: His delicate, gentle sweetheart taking money in exchange for sex. He is shocked and seething with anger. All of his plans destroyed by what Jessica chose to be. Jessica in turn is cast away by the whole town. She cowers in fear while they make lewd comments, and people sneer and shoo her away like a dog.
Caleb is confused, hurt, and angry but still wants her. Jessica blames herself for ruining their future. Their encounters are dirty, angry, painful and fraught with unwanted emotions.
[kindred-recipe id=”2573″ title=”Harlot”]
Okay, I’m not going to start this review by yelling “feminism!” (no matter how much I want to), even though that is the underlying theme this novella possesses.
The word “whore” carries a lot of weight in this book, surely. It looms over every character and is whispered in every turn of the page. The word itself is encumbered by all the rigid structures society has erected. Granted, this story is set in 1875, but the message still rings true until now: women who are desperate enough to turn to a life of whoring are cast aside and treated like pariahs. They are alienated and worse, much worse, are taken advantage of and manipulated by the same people they thought would help then in times of strife. Thus is the story of Jessica, and in turn, of Caleb.
This book is erotica in its truest form: it shows sex as an exploration of their tempestuous relationship. It is sexy yes, but it is also painful, dirty, downright uncomfortable, and very hot. The sex scenes are integral to the story. It shows pain, punishment, confusion, anger and love. Which are what Caleb and Jessica’s relationship are all about. But the sex also bring about other things: acceptance and healing.
The book also explores the sexism and hypocrisy abundant during that time (which, as I said, still rings true now). The guilt Jessica feels for what she did is fairly evident. “They’re people’s husbands, though. Fathers, husbands” she points out, and she let them use their bodies for sex. “Aren’t you somebody’s daughter? Aren’t I?” another character volleys back, who also sells her body for money. These truth bombs are what makes this book so good. The “villains” of this story are also well written, the reveal of who they are and who they are to Jessica makes her story much more poignant. Ms. Dahl’s writing is impeccable, and always on point. No word is wasted, and she manages to convey so much with so few words. While this book is short, it packs such a punch. It is tight, well-paced, made me cry like crazy, and hot.
There is a particularly great scene where Caleb points out “it’s different for men” with regards to society’s view when men go to whores for pleasure that’s okay, because they have needs. But women who do it in order to survive, in order to eat, are looked down upon and branded forever. Jessica, tired of all the hypocrisy, LET IT RIP. SHE YELLS IT ALL OUT AND IT WAS BEAUTIFUL. I ADORED JESSICA. She let out all the anger and frustration we all feel when men get up on their high horses and proclaim it’s “different” for them. You really have to read this scene, it is glorious.
What I like most about this book is Jessica’s personal journey, and ultimately, her will to survive. Another character in the story points out that despite everything that happened to her, Jessica’s still alive. And she has to keep on living. Caleb or no, she’s still alive. She took society’s ugly perceptions and kicked them in the butt. And because she had nothing left to lose, this gave her her freedom. She fought against the shackles of society and yelled “HOW DARE YOU”. Caleb just took a while to catch up.
In the end, it might not be the happy ever after Caleb and Jessica wanted, but it was definitely what they needed.
Okay, I lied, FEMINISM!
In the immortal words of Victoria Dahl: GOT YER PEENUS.
P.S. Victoria Dahl is one of my favorite authors, so do yourself a favor and read all her books.