Sutter Creek, Montana, Book 3
Heat Factor: Let’s tryst on this ski lift!
Character Chemistry: My PTSD is incompatible with your hobbies!
Plot: They are planning a holiday party together, but really it’s about Caleb dealing with his PTSD in a place that triggers his PTSD
Overall: Diversity tokenism done wrong
Before I start ranting about diversity and representation in fiction, let me begin by acknowledging that this is a decent love story, mainly because the central conflict is interesting. See, Caleb was caught in an avalanche a few years ago, and now is triggered by things like going on big mountains or thinking about skiing or having a girlfriend who does backwoods Search and Rescue. Obviously, the solution to this problem is for him to move from Denver to… a small ski town in Montana. Garnet loves to ski, do other outdoorsy things, and is a member of the Search and Rescue team; furthermore, she has sworn never to change herself for a man again. So they are facing a tough dilemma, because a huge part of what makes Garnet tick triggers Caleb’s PTSD.
They have some stupid fights, and there were several moments where Garnet made me RAGE because of how rigid and unreasonable she was being. I get it about not wanting to have a complete personality makeover, but sometimes relationships are about compromise, and Caleb was doing PLENTY of compromising by doing things that were immensely difficult for him (like skiing!) because they were important to Garnet. Luckily, she does eventually come to that realization, but her path there was sometimes frustrating to read about.
My true frustration, however, stems from the way that “diversity” was shoe-horned into this book. Caleb is: Jewish, half-Japanese, and disabled. Let’s break it down.
I’ll be honest, I got this book solely based on the cover: it was a Christmas Special with a Menorah on it! How would the magic of Hanukkah bring these two crazy love birds together??? Answer: it doesn’t!
Here are the “Jewish” things that occur:
- Garnet asks Caleb if they office Christmas party should be a generic holiday party, since he is Jewish. Caleb says, “Nah, I’m trying to fit in here. A Christmas party is fine.”
- Caleb hosts a Shabbat dinner for his friends. There is no challah. There are no candles. There are no prayers. It is just a dinner party on a Friday.
- Garnet looks up Jewish holidays on the internet.
Look, it’s fine to have a non-observant Jewish character as your hero! They exist and are sexy and should also have their place in fiction! But pushing this as a Hanukkah story is downright dishonest.
If Judaism is important enough that Garnet brings it up in their first conversation, there should be a bit more depth to the portrayal. Waving your hands and saying, “Look, my character is Jewish!” is not a thoughtful depiction of what kinds of conversations a (mostly non-observant) Christian and a (mostly non-observant) Jew would have about religion when entering a relationship. (I might be speaking from experience here.)
Here are the “Japanese” things that occur:
- Caleb’s last name is Matsuda
- Garnet asks Caleb if he’d done acupressure, and he’s touchy about it, because “being biracial meant he got a lot of stupid questions”, presumably about “Asian stuff.”
This moment with the acupressure question happens at 15%, and then there is no other mention of any kind of Asian heritage or family or issues with being biracial for the rest of the book. In fact, the word “Japanese” appears twice, and the second time Caleb is thinking about whisky.
My conclusion: Caleb is about as Japanese as I am. Please note: I am not Japanese in any way, shape, or form.
Again, I’m sure there are plenty of bi-racial men who do not think about their heritage, and we should tell stories about them too. But the fact is that the only mention of his race occurred so he could be touchy about it – and then it disappeared from the story completely. Since it was important enough to come up in their first conversation, and since Caleb seemed sensitive about it, maybe this is something that we could explore with a bit more nuance.
Ok, this was actually integrated into the story, particularly if we’re counting PTSD as a disability. Caleb’s hand was also crushed, meaning that he could no longer perform surgery, and his hand pains him periodically throughout the book. Caleb and Garnet also repeatedly acknowledge that while Caleb may be able to eventually be on a mountain without having panic attacks, his PTSD is not something that will ever go away completely – this isn’t something that he can just fix through the power of love and mantras. But it is something that he can cope with and that he and his partner can work together to find ways to minimize the stress it puts on their relationship.
In fact, Caleb’s struggle to redefine himself (because of his mental struggle, but also because he was forced to change his career after his injury) is the central component to both his character growth and provided the conflict for the romantic relationship.
I am taking as a given that more diverse characters in fiction is a net positive. And it’s true that not every character who checks a diversity box has to be all hung up about whatever it is that makes him different, because some people aren’t. If every part Asian man in a romance novel was all hung up on being biracial, that would be annoying.
So why was I so peeved about this particular book?
- Marketing. This book is explicitly being marketed as a Jewish romance. In case you’ve forgotten, THERE’S A MENORAH ON THE COVER.
- Caleb is a case of diversity bingo. This guy ticks all the boxes. Maybe that’s why the half-Japanese thing sort of irked me, because it felt like something extra that was just pushed in there because why not?
- The set up. In the beginning of the book, Caleb feels alienated from the community in which he lives. This is why he signs up to help plan the Christmas party with Garnet; he wants to try to make some friends. Given that the initial party-planning conversation includes references to both Caleb’s Judaism and his Japanese ancestry, and given that Montana is 90% white (with less than 1% of the population identifying as either Jewish or Asian, much less both), I thought that maybe there would be a thoughtful interrogation of Caleb’s alienation as the Other in Small Town USA. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. Nope. He was just alienated because he hated the mountains and moved to a ski town.
TL;DR: Ignore the cover and the book blurb. Read this if you dig small town romances and skiing.
Buy Now: Amazon
If you’re looking for romances that ACTUALLY represent more diverse characters, here are some suggestions: