I will never, ever, ever learn. These books are tragic and they’re all the same!
Impetuous: Mattie’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.
This book has a lady dressed in suspiciously well-cut and ladylike men’s clothing, including FRINGED PANTS. Unforgivable. So you know that right away this is a Girl Dresses In Dude’s Clothes kind of story, and it’s going to involve a shoddy romance plot at some point as well. Realistically that’s all you need to know, but I’ll go through with it anyway.
I already know I’m going to hate it when Mattie is one of those horrible YA protagonist who’s all “I hate frilly feminine things!” and packs herself up to move to California by herself at sixteen. I normally don’t like to critique how historically realistic these books are, but this is not. It’s just not. No 16-year-old girl who was as gently raised as Mattie is said to be would sail to California, by herself, with no escort, before the Civil War. This is already appalling on zillions of levels. But okay. Whatever. So Mattie and her older sister, Ivy, opted to go to that mining town and become miner’s brides, although it’s never fully explained why a 16- and 17-year-old girl wanted to do so in the first place. But whatever, they’re there, and Ivy is “a newspaperwoman,” and Mattie does odd jobs hauling….stuff in a wagon? But she doesn’t even own her own so she just borrows them from friends to haul stuff? This is all so weirdly and poorly explained.
Anyway, Ivy is taking Mattie more or less by force to a “picnic celebration” of some kind that I can’t even pretend to care about. Off they go, and there’s a dance, and Ivy pretty much forces Mattie to dance with some random guy who’s amazingly magnetic, and has “black hair…long, falling to his shoulders, and he was clean shaven….[h]is complexion was dark, as though he spent time outdoors.” Oh, do you seriously not see where this is going? We just all boarded a train directly to Poorly-Handled Interracial Romance with Gender Confusion With Clothing, and it’s going 90 miles per hour directly into a brick wall. Neither one of them want to dance, but apparently neither one of them have any spines, either, so they begrudgingly dance with each other. Just say no, you guys, it’s okay.
Anyway, afterwards Mattie overhears the guy—Sam—calling her a wallflower, and for someone who’s so all-fired tough and secure in herself, she starts weeping and has to run away. Again, why? Don’t tell me a character is super hardcore and then immediately show me that she isn’t! Argh! So she changes into the men’s clothes she brought (because sure) and then happens to run into a guy she knows who is upset that he can’t ride in a horserace they’re about to have. Mattie offers to do it, and it turns out Sam is going to be riding, too, because of course, and we have four pages of description of the race, which Mattie loses.
But at the race there’s a guy who thinks she’s a man, and offers her a job riding for the Pony Express until he discovers she’s a woman. Oh, I see what book this one is, it’s the “It was just SO CRUEL to be a girl back then!” book. So while she’s on a trip into Sacramento she sees a Pony Express office, cuts off all of her hair, and goes in and asks for a job. When she tells Ivy about it, Ivy tells her she’s definitely not allowed to do it, and then they have a highly period-inappropriate discussion about how golly gosh a woman can do anything a man can do, right??? (This is not what early feminists were fighting about. And average women were certainly not sitting around having very 90s conversations about how women could do anything men could do and more and so on.)
But Mattie goes off to do it anyway, and her first run is a great success. But who do you think the next rider is but Sam! Because there aren’t that many men in California, apparently. For the next few weeks they trade barbs via the stationmaster, and then eventually he arranges another race between them to determine once and for all who’s the better rider. She describes it as a “deadly contest,” which seems to be a bit over-the-top for a race between friends arranged for a bet, if you ask me. It winds up in a tie, because of course It does, and then they both stalk off separately to be irritated. Mattie and Sam banter a bit and then walk back home together, and run into a peddler along the way who tries to cheat Sam out of some fabric. Mattie threatens the guy, he threatens them back and asks “You gonna die for a half-breed?” and then Sam pulls a knife on the guy.
Mattie is flabbergasted to discover that Sam is half Indian, and I literally had to reread this section like four times to understand that this was supposed to be the twist. I thought it was obvious! I guess not? And she’s all astonished at it, having apparently never met an Indian before, despite living in the ass end of California? This is all so weirdly handled, especially since Mattie then has some really time-inappropriate ideas about how “civilizing the West is a bad thing,” which doesn’t even make sense given that the entire reason she came to California was to marry a miner and help settle the place. Oh my God.
Anyway, on her next run, Mattie has to do an extra leg when the other rider is sick and the weather turns bad. She forces her horse into a raging river, which seems like a very poor decision if you ask me, and unsurprisingly ends up washed away down the river. She manages to pull herself out, but just barely, and she’s badly hurt and bleeding all over the place and clinging to the mailbag. Then the cliff face she’s dragging herself along start s to collapse, and who’s there to rescue her but Sam? (Why?) He throws a rope over the edge and saves her from certain death, and takes her to a prospector’s cabin to wait out the storm. Sam’s excuse for going to save her is that she almost got shot saving him from a bad deal by a peddler, which seems….not even close to the same thing.
After all that she comes down with a terrible fever, and when Sam comes back from going ahead with the mail, she’s appalled to find her shaking and shivering. So then we have the classic They Have To Warm Each Other Up Scene, where Sam strips down to his long underwear and they cuddle up in blankets in front of the fire. I think this scene is mandated by law to be in every Girl Pretends To Be A Boy story. Mattie recovers from her fever, because if she died this would be a very bad novel, and then realizes that she’s in love. And that Sam thinks she is a man.
The next day they have a touching conversation about how everyone is racist against Indians, which is true, but Sam’s focus is more on “what if a pretty girl thought I was a half-breed?” and less on “literally all the white people in town hates Indians and would be OK if they all died,” which is a strange place to set your worry. Mattie is like “hey, I’ll teach you to dance!” and then tells him she’s a girl.
Sam freaks out, and is really insulted that he’s been competing against a girl all this time, and tells her off for lying and hiding all of herself. He barely says anything to her for the rest of the trip home, and when they stop at another cabin Mattie decides that the best thing to do would be to take a bath. Sam freaks out at this too, saying that she just got over being sick and she’s going to make herself sick again and she clearly can’t be trusted to behave normally. They fight, and then there’s another classic Slap-Slap-Kiss moment where, almost literally, they fight with each other and then kiss. Because Sam has fallen in love with her too, in the space of like….two days.
Then after they’re done kissing, Sam says that she’s going to have to quit the Pony Express, and she decides she hates him instead. This is why teenagers shouldn’t be trusted. They fight some more, and Sam says he’s going to put her on the stagecoach home, and does. When Mattie gets home, Ivy forces her to rest and recuperate, and then Mattie’s like “No! I need to finish out my contract!” even though she can barely walk. Ivy is writing this long newspaper story all about how women are totally just as good at men, you guys, even at riding in the Pony Express!!!!, and Mattie is all lovesick dreaming about Sam.
She does end up going back for her last ride, but it turns out the story Ivy wrote is all about what great friends Mattie and Sam became. Mattie isn’t sure she wants that all over the newspapers, but Ivy’s story is in her mailbag. So she’s stuck—if she doesn’t deliver the story then Ivy looks bad to her editors, but if she does then Mattie’s name is going to be smeared all over the place. But as she arrives at the next station, she finds the stationmaster dead and scalped on the floor, so it seems like her worries will need to take a backseat. Six Paiute Indians are standing there, holding her at knifepoint, and she’s petrified that something terrible is about to happen to her.
But then, because these books would not exist if not for Improbable Plot Coincidences, Sam walks in. He says something to them in Paiute and they leave, and we later learn that it’s “That you were a great warrior and deserved respect. That you were a warrior fit for the sky.” Are you fucking kidding me with this racist crap? Nope, we’re not kidding, because he also tells them that there were six owls on the roof and owls are a bad omen to Paiutes. Oh, why am I not making this up? Anyway, the Indians set the place on fire on their way out and stole their horses, and frankly I’m on their side. Mattie deserves to be stranded in the middle of nowhere.
As they walk back to the next station, Sam confesses that he loves her too, and they kiss and agree to “take turns” being the boss. I can’t with this book.
Rating: D. I should just go ahead and give all of these books straight D’s shouldn’t I? Anyway, Mattie is an annoying protagonist with terrible decision-making skills and is not that bright. The rest of the characters are bordering-on-racist or dumb as posts. The writing is pretty atrocious (not even getting to the previously-mentioned issues of how you should really not have characters’ stated traits and actions be at direct opposites to one another), and the plot is in equal parts paper-thin and lifted from the other books in the series. How many “men and women find themselves cuddling up in deserted cabins to stay warm” plots can one 5-book series possibly hold???? I have two more books here to go, I suppose I’ll find out.