Hummingbird by LaVyrle Spencer

hummingbird.jpgThe Bandit and the Gentleman

Both were wounded in the same train robbery in frontier Colorado and left on Abigail McKenzie’s doorstep to nurse back to life.

Gentle, loving David, promising her a happiness she’d lost hope of finding, was all a lady could wish for.

Jesse stood for everything she hated: he was rude, violent, roughly handsome and disturbingly sensual.

But it was Jesse’s mocking mouth that troubled her dreams, Jesse who made her feel a hundred things a lady should never know, Jesse who challenged her every waking hour.  She fought him with all the stiff propriety her stubborn will commanded…but in her burned the aching embers of love too long denied–love that would force her to a choice no woman should ever have to make…

W:  Hummingbird was my introduction to LaVyrle Spencer and the first single title romance I read.  Abbie and Jesse’s antagonistic banter hooked me immediately; I fell in love during their verbally aggressive courtship, my heart broke when Jesse left and stayed broken for the length of his absence, only mending upon Abbie and Jesse’s reunion.  During the countless single title romances I’ve read since this one, Spencer’s crisp characters and “day in the life” storytelling stood out in my memory and called me back to them.

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W:  Hummingbird is a character and dialog driven historical.  It’s heavy on internal conflict, light on external conflict, with no action or great intricacy of plot.  Even though this book is the opposite of what you gravitate to, did it work for you?  Were you, at all, charmed by it?

HK:  Western historicals are not my usual preference. The plots tend to revolve around a misunderstood outlaw and the teacher/widow/spinster who falls for Mr. Seems So Wrong But Is So Right.  Stepping back from what I like and focusing, instead, on what works, Hummingbird hits many of its marks.  It doesn’t depend on suspense or murder to move the plot.  The book’s strength comes from taking the basic premise and twisting it just enough to make it her own.  My main complaint with the book comes from the amount of time Jesse spends off stage in the middle of the book.  The absence of such an overwhelming alpha hero drags the story and left me waiting not-so-patiently for his return.   

W:  At the front note of the book, Spencer pays a special thanks to Janis Ian and her poignant song “Jesse”.  I’ve always found this work—as with many others of Spencer’s—to be bitingly poignant, tender, and bittersweet.  Is there anyone publishing currently who’s writing to similar effect?

HK:  It’s interesting you used the word "tender" to describe this book.  For me, the heat between Abbie and Jesse is intense and potent.  The word sensual, not tender, leapt to my mind.  As to who is writing tender yet sexy romances, it is hard for me to think of anyone tackling this mix.  Many of the bolder aspects of this story remind me of early works by Linda Lael Miller. For a time Miller focused on western romances – I think she calls them Americana – that tended to have a larger-than-life feeling and intense heroes.  Miller’s works are much more sexual than Spencer’s but the tough yet tender feeling Jesse evokes as he leaves Abbie then fights to get her back is reminiscent of Miller’s fractured heroes in her Corbin series.   

W:  For the first half of the book Abbie believes Jesse to be a train robber.  He isn’t and tells her so, but her refusal to accept what he says as truth creates conflict between them.  Was this believable and sustainable?

HK:  Spencer actually pushed the conflict to the backdrop as she developed the growing and undeniable attraction between Abbie and Jesse.  Where the conflict turns and no longer serves to propel the story forward is when Jesse’s identity is unearthed and he leaves town.  From that point, until his return, the plotting and pacing drags.  For somewhere in the range of 75 pages, my only thought was:  when is Jesse coming back.  Spencer kept Jesse alive through Abbie’s thoughts but the book needed more to sustain itself at that point.  Once Jesse returned, the love triangle aspect kept everything moving, but that middle section felt forced and plodding.

W:  Abbie and Jesse’s relationship—their mating ritual—is combative, both verbally and physically.  For a time, Jesse gains the upper hand with an unloaded gun.  Are Jesse’s actions teasing and playful, or unjust and cruel?

HK:  The nature of the relationship is part of what sets this book apart from others.  The loaded gun might bother some but it’s offered in context and the book never falls into the rape-as-sex model of many early historical romances.  Jesse’s actions are less teasing than they are domineering but his personality adds to the push and pull in his relationship with Abbie.  The sexual tension sizzles, in part, due to Jesse’s strength.

W:  And what of Abbie’s actions?  Are they equally matched to Jesse’s?

HK:  Abbie did not back down, hide in a corner or weep over the unfairness of life.  She plays the game Jesse set up for them.  The fault with Abbie centers more on the why-are-you-with-David feeling that sets in somewhere in the middle of the book.  Her motivations are not fleshed out enough to be clear or understandable.  At times, the practical nature of her relationship with David significantly conflicts with the emotional nature of her relationship with Jesse.  This could work but Abbie isn’t developed enough, other than being angry with Jesse and his abandonment, to sustain her.

W:  Jesse is a bit Rhett Bulteresque, challenging Abbie to abandon rules of propriety, encouraging her to instead do what’s best for her.  As a hero, how did you find him?

HK:  The strong alpha hero always works for me.  Jesse is flawed, makes some dumb choices, lets his emotions take over – in other words, he’s real.  His character arc from beginning to end is consistent.  When he comes back into the picture he does so on the same terms in which he left.  He knows what he wants and is willing to bend the rules to get it.  He’s sexy and his actions are sexy. 

W:  From the beginning Jesse The Bad is pitted against David The Good in the Abbie-Jesse-David triangle.  Neither man is altogether good or bad, but rather each holds their own priorities and beliefs.  In the battle for Abbie’s love, David’s only crime is that he isn’t the hero.  Spencer doesn’t give Abbie the easy way out by making David unlikable bur rather his fault is that he is not Jesse.  Did you respect that decision?

HK:  Maybe any other male on the page would pale by comparison to Jesse but David really faltered for me.  His character limped along, more in the role of whimp than as a believable alternative to Jesse.  His courtship of Abbie, starting with his decision to take money from Jesse and blackmail him out of town, rang hollow.  When Abbie then turns to David as a potential future husband, the continuity of her character faltered as well. 

W:  Spencer writes about people more humble than grand:  Abbie is a spinster, David a milquetoast shoe salesman, and Jess a photographer (ok, who happens to own a railroad).  Her scenes and the action in them are the stuff of everyday life: bathing, eating, shaving, and dressing.  How effectively does she use situations to tell her story, relate sexual tension and explore her characters?

HK:  In some ways it is easier to carry a story using intricate plot devices and exciting locations.  The window dressing aspects become part of the story.  Here, Spencer focuses on the mundane, using something as simple as the taking of a wedding photograph as a means to unleash a sensual spell.  That is a gift and it makes the unfolding of the events more realistic and, in some ways, timeless.

W:  This story is set in 1879 but the year isn’t as important as the remoteness of the setting, the smallness of the town, or the mindset of the heroine.  Could this story work in a contemporary setting?

HK:  Certainly the love triangle idea is a popular one in the romance genre, whether the book be contemporary, historical or paranormal.   That construction will always work so long as the hero is clear and the other man is believable. 

W:  Hummingbird was published in 1983 and, rereading it today, I was struck by the frank sexuality of it.  The language is, perhaps, not as graphic as today’s releases, but a considerable amount of heat is generated by Abbie and Jesse and a good portion of their story is about sex.  Is this yet another example of sex always being part of romance?

HK:  Many of today’s romances are more graphic, more explicit, than this one.  This story’s sexual frankness and the unapologetic manner in which the love scenes unfold is refreshing.  The basic attraction between Jesse and Abbie may evolve from, and be based on, sex.  However, the book isn’t about sex.  It’s about attraction and finding a soul mate. 

W:  This is the first time I’ve read Hummingbird in many, many years.  Quite honestly, I didn’t expect it to live up to my memory of it, but it did.  Despite the flowery narrative and omniscient POV, I was once again pulled into the story, charmed by Abbie and Jesse, afraid that they might not work things out, tempted to skip ahead to assure myself they would, and in general loved every second of the read.  It has also inspired me to reread my other Spencer favorites like Forgiving, The Fulfillment, and Morning Glory.  Would you be willing to read Spencer again?

HK:  Jesse carried this book for me.  His presence at the beginning and end of the book (for all but the very middle, really) grabbed my interest.  Having started the romance with such a punch, I wanted to know how Abbie and Jesse would find their way back to each other, so I did want to read from beginning to end.  The flowery writing and character issues aside, I would recommend this book to historical romance readers.  As for other Spencer works, the plan is to read some to see if I connect with other heroines since I had some trouble with Abbie.  Also, I’m interested to see how Spencer handles her heroes in other settings since I enjoyed Jesse so much.

You can buy this book here and here.

6 thoughts on “Hummingbird by LaVyrle Spencer

  1. I never read this book, but I did read one book (VOWS, maybe?) by Spencer, and it was too sweet and unsexy for me even back when I was a teenager. I gave up on Spencer after that, because I somehow thought she was mostly known for sweet, Americana romances– am I wrong?

  2. Wendy is the Spencer expert. This was my first and only Spencer read to date. My understanding is that this book is one of her spicier. I wouldn’t call it sweet. It’s sexier than that. But, it doesn’t have the sexuality of the Americana stuff done by Linda Lael Miller or Linda Howard in their earlier years or the westerns Diane Whiteside is doing for Brava now, which are very hot.

  3. I know that I read Vows, but I can’t remember it at all–even the jacket copy fails to jog my memory. I usually have a rather frightening recall of books that I like, so Vows must not have excited me much.
    Spencer definitely has the Americana thing going, but, is she sweet? If you mean sweet as in no sex, innocent romances, then no. Her stories–the ones I remember well–were often about sex. A large plot point of Hummingbird is that Abbie is a spinster, Jesse evokes feelings her she didn’t know where possible, she has sex with him, thinking that he’ll leave and she’ll never have the opportunity for passion again. Well, he does leave, but David shows up and Abbie is conflicted over her lack of virginity. It’s all about sex. The same is true for The Fulfillment, it’s a triangle between a husband, wife, and his brother. The husband can’t father children so he asks his brother to sleep with his wife–ok, that is clearly not the man any of us wants to be married to–brother and wife both say, uh, no. But, the idea is then out there, and well, you know.
    Perhaps someone has a better recall of the bulk of Spencer’s works than I do, but I don’t think of them as sweet.
    And, yes, HK, eventually The Fulfillment WILL be a pick, so start planning your D. Palmer revenge now.

  4. You sure you want to go down the brother/sister-in-law road? I can top whatever you put out there with a Lora Leigh book and you know it. Tread carefully.
    And, really, the Palmer books are coming so that isn’t even a threat. That is going to happen. I know there are Palmer fans lurking out there, ready to support me.

  5. I said triangle. I didn’t say anything about poorly motivated and implausible threesomes. The books you refer to are not worth the fight (and I don’t mean between the two of us) that they would cause.
    D. Palmer? Pfft. Jude. Deveraux. Wishes.

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