Wild Card by Jennie Hansen
Reviewed by Robison E. Wells

Before the first chapter of Jennie Hansen’s new novel, Wild Card, even begins, there is a heartfelt dedication that proves to be much more than what it appears.  She honors her father and his frontier stories, and she honors his grandfather, a man who “earned his living as a ‘hired gun’ without ever shooting a man.” 

The words are more than a fill-in-the-blanks dedication, however – they serve almost as the prologue to the piece, showing the reader that we’re not in for a simple Western adventure, but rather a life story.  There are no showdowns at high noon in these pages; no clich quicksand and “heigh-ho silver!”   Instead, there’s reality.

The story follows the life of Frank Haladen, beginning at age seventeen.  He wants to leave town and follow his dreams – head to Galveston and strike it rich as a sailor.  Unfortunately, he learns that childhood dreams don’t always play out the way they’re expected to, and real life isn’t as easy as we may hope.

Jennie Hansen leads the reader through Frank’s hardships.  We watch as his situation turns from bad to worse, and Hansen pulls no punches; Frank makes poor decisions, and his life plummets out of control.  Make no mistake: This Western isn’t about bank robberies and cattle rustlin’.  It’s about the hard road to redemption.  It’s about the journey that takes him from nave teenager to unscrupulous wanderer to hardened criminal, and then having to face the consequences of those actions.

Is there adventure?  Certainly.  Hansen has a knack for action, and in Wild Card there’s never a lack of chases or explosions or gunfights.  Her description is clear and vivid, drawing us into the noise and confusion, letting us feel the trauma and almost duck under the flying bullets.

But the important part is that none of it matters.  It’s setting, brilliantly mastered.  The true mark of Hansen’s authorial prowess is that Wild Card is a character-driven action adventure.  The characters are not plot devices, existing merely to further the story.  They’re well-rounded, fully-fleshed-out individuals.  You almost get the feeling that, although the book ends, these characters are continuing, facing trials and living their lives.  In essence, you can strip away all the action and yet the story would remain perfectly intact as a poignant, emotional, human drama.

Praise also must go to Hansen’s literary landscapes.  She paints the world of the Old West in intricate detail.  Whether roaming the wilderness of Texas or plowing through the snows of Idaho, the images are beautifully described and clear in the reader’s mind.

A word should be said about the story’s structure.  As mentioned above, the novel is about a man’s life, not about a certain day or week, or even a single year.  And while the end product is ultimately a success, it was difficult to be drawn into the story in the early chapters.  Movements from one year to the next – sometimes summed up in as little as one short sentence – are often jarring.  It distances the reader from the story, almost forcing us to put up our guard:  We don’t want to get too attached to any character or setting, because either could disappear without warning.  Fortunately, these extreme cases only appear in the first few chapters (most likely to hurry the exposition of Frank’s moral decline) and Hansen quickly hits her stride.

Wild Card is a wonderful book.  It has enough action to satisfy thrill-seekers, enough romance to make hearts swoon, and enough reality to force the reader to ponder deeper issues.  It’s a tribute to Hansen’s cowboy relatives, but also a tribute to anyone who has ever had to fight for what they loved, grow in spite of trial, and change their lives for the better.

Published by Covenant Comunications Inc., 248 pages, $15.95


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