Book Review: The Hearing Heart

TITLE: A Hearing Heart
AUTHOR: Bonnie Dee
PUBLISHER: Liquid Silver Books
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 94k)
GENRE: Historical romance
COST: $6.10

Catherine Johnson is the new schoolteacher in the small town of Broughton, Nebraska. When she witnesses a man getting hauled from the saloon and tied to a horse to be dragged through the streets, she races forward to stop them, succeeding in slowing them down long enough to get other locals involved. Jim Kinney is deaf-mute, communicating in only the most rudimentary ways. Most of the town thinks he’s stupid, too, but Catherine sees intelligence in him, and takes it upon herself to try and teach him to read and sign after saving him from the attack. Their friendship quickly escalates, their attraction undeniable, but their difference in social status makes Catherine wonder if they could have any kind of future…

When it comes to romance, beta heroes are not the norm. The genre has thrived on alpha males swooping in to protect the heroine, or in more recent years, to stand at the heroine’s side while they both fight off some unknown evil. Men who take back row positions in life, who get negated for some kind of supposed weakness or difference, who hate confrontation, aren’t usually seen as the type that can make women swoon, but when they are written as well as they are in this book, the label of what kind of hero he is becomes inconsequential.

Jim Kinney works two jobs, full time at the livery during the day, sweeping floors at the saloon in the evening. By his own admission, he does everything he can to stay physically fit and strong because that’s his only resource. He can’t communicate well, and he lives a life of solitude because nearly everybody in town looks right past him. Before Catherine comes along, nobody has really tried to get to know Jim. He’s lonely, but he’s determined to make things better for himself. He’s been saving his money for a long time, with hopes of presenting an offer to Rasmussen, the livery owner, of partnership in the business. Then, the incident happens with the new men in town, employees of Grant Karak, a wealthy Easterner who has been buying everything up in Broughton. With it, Catherine gets introduced into Jim’s life and nothing is the same again.

Catherine is an interesting mix of teacher, open thinker, and lonely woman. Raised in an upper class culture, she’s come to Broughton to escape her grief – she’s mourning the death of her fiancé three years previous – and is trying to do some good at the same time. She and Jim aren’t even really on each other’s radar until the inciting incident of the book. Just like the other townspeople, she’s accepted that he’s simple-minded without pursuing the truth. The reality when they finally come together was moving, two lonely souls recognizing a need in the other. Jim, in particular, wrenches at the heartstrings as he tries to be a man he thinks worthy of Catherine without putting himself in any more danger than he might already be.

This isn't to say that either character is perfect. Catherine is caught in the web of her upbringing. For a long time, she denies her attraction and feelings for Jim because he just is not a suitable match for her. Jim, on the other hand, is stubborn and prone to act impulsively when stressed. These flaws enrich their characterizations, and make it even easier to fall for them. Jim, in particular, got to me. He’s sweet without being weak, strong without being overbearing, intelligent without being capable of making mistakes. He is by far my favorite Bonnie Dee hero, just as this is likely my favorite of her works. I sometimes find it difficult to engage with her voice, but not so here. This is gentle without lacking drive, emotion-filled without drifting into melodrama.

Its one weakness rests in its ending. While it’s to be expected for there to be an HEA, the last three chapters feel rushed and tacked on. She packs months worth of resolution into those three chapters, making time jumps to get to the ending she clearly has in mind for them. They lack the same flow as the rest of the story, sacrificing pace for plot expediency, and dilute the romance’s lasting effects. This might have been the sweetest romance I’d read all year but for those last three chapters. As it is, though, it still remains an excellent example of a beta hero’s charms, as well as a heartbreaking romance.