Under the Heartless Blue

Written by Allyson Stack
Review by Larry Zuckerman

It’s 1884, and Vera Palmer, widowed at twenty-three, has left middle-class Connecticut for a bookkeeping job at a frontier Arizona boardinghouse. But the boardinghouse is actually a brothel, and the sheltered Vera must learn to cope with combustible, violent surroundings. Lucky for her, she has inherited a mining claim, and the attorney helping her, Will Keane, may turn out to be more than a legal adviser.

From this solid premise, Stack conveys the Far West in visceral detail, whether she’s describing an abortion, the brothel madam, or the muddy streets of Goose Flat, Arizona. But, contrary to what the jacket flap would lead you to believe, the novel actually begins thirty years later with Vera’s nursing service during the First World War, a confusing narrative with no obvious connection to her earlier life. The Arizona story, wings clipped before it even starts, never quite takes flight.

I like Stack’s grasp of metaphor, and her ability to show rather than tell. But her descriptions rely too heavily on choppy fragments that interrupt the flow, as do the Briticisms that pepper Vera’s supposedly American voice. As to characters, Vera comes across fully, but not Will, her good-hearted lawyer, who makes a sudden reversal and steps out of himself. It’s essential to the plot and the theme of sexual attitudes, but I don’t see Will acting like that. Maybe if the narrative had stayed with Will and Vera throughout, Stack could have persuaded me.

Readers of literary historical fiction may like Under the Heartless Blue for its prose and vivid glimpse of a Far West that Hollywood never shows. But at least in this, her first effort, the author shows a greater gift for style than for storytelling.