Overall Grade: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2
If you’re like me, you’re a bit sad that the second season of SmartyPants Romance has come to an end with the final book, Stranger Ranger. Written by Daisy Prescott who wrote last season’s Happy Trail, a book that opened my knowledge base to the Appalachian Trail (as a Calfornia girl, I am fairly ignorant about various places on the Eastern and Southern sides of our country – don’t shoot me), this story returns us to the park ranger world of Green Valley. If you fell in love with Jethro Winston or Drew Runous from Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series, then you know there is a veritable gold mine of stories found with these intrepid protectors of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prescott seems to be the purveyor of these stories, and she does it in a way that opens your mind. After reading Stranger Ranger (and Happy Trail), your thinking feels impacted. In this story, Prescott challenges you to (1) consider the “history” of a place and the ways that we revise the history to suit an agenda and (2) throw off labels and stereotypes based on outward appearance. Whether you have lived in the Appalachian Mountains or the West Coast, these messages are necessary to change our thinking.
There are two revelations about this book that highlight the overall genius of this series of books. For one, the SmartyPants Romance authors are not entities unto themselves. In fact, if you read Stranger Ranger, you are immediately taken back to Nora Everly’s Carpentry and Cocktails from this season. The level of planning and collaboration that goes into this series is impressive. That each other finds their voice in the Penny Reid universe conversation is already awe-inspiring. When two authors work off each other’s stories within a series, it brings goosebumps while you are reading. Do you need to read Nora Everly’s Carpentry and Cocktails to see these connections? No. Does it add depth to both Everly’s and Prescott’s books? Yes. It’s exciting to see writers working together to bring exciting fictional stores.
The other revelation is Prescott’s insight. According to her bio, Prescott lives in smallish-town in Boston. I know it isn’t fair to assume that she began this writing journey with little knowledge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but it’s a possibility. The reason I spend time in this review to underscore this is her story’s articulation of the history of this particular area. In this book, we are treated to a bit of local lore. However, Prescott presents it in such a way that feels meaningful and insightful to the reader. Through her expression of this local history, Prescott offers her first challenge to her readers: the rewriting of history.
Yes, Stranger Ranger is a lovely romance between a local farmer, Odin Hill, and the newest park ranger, Daphne Baum. Daphne is drawn to Odin when she visits the local farmer’s market, as he is presented as the image of his name: a Norse god. He is incredibly handsome and knows his vegetables, vegetables that are different from any that Daphne has known previously. Something about their initial meeting piques a curiosity in both of them, and they find themselves running into each other at various other times. This leads to shared time together and a growing attraction and interest in each other. The struggle of their relationship lies in their past histories, the first nod to Prescott’s message on perceived history. I prefer to avoid offering up the details of their lives, but in the struggle of telling each other about their pasts, there is a bit of its rewriting. Prescott couples this with a bigger truth of this area, the idea of the National Park system. Some people would agree that the NPS saved large natural areas. What Prescott asserts in her story is the idea that the NPS knowingly or unknowingly rewrites the history of the local people. When this message is spoken into Stranger Ranger, it’s a major ideological turning point for both the heroine, Daphne, and the reader. It’s moments like these in literature that are necessary because they change thinking. They force us to see a different “reality”. With this discussion underlying the story, I was excited about the profundity of Prescott’s storytelling. She also inserted ideas about women in male-dominated industries as another assertion to provoke her readers’ thinking. That’s keen and insightful storytelling, and it’s particularly necessary for romancelandia where many judge it by its most tawdry scenes.
This leads me to the most profound message of Stranger Ranger: the idea of prejudgement based on appearances. Honestly, this theme is most visible in this book. There are aspects of Odin’s life which, from the outside, make him look weird. Similar to Odin is Daphne’s outsider status. Without a familial history in the area, the townspeople struggle to include her because they perceive her to have the typical behaviors of an outsider without a shared history to the area. Together, these two represent the ways that our society attaches meaning to a person based on their appearance and choices, not more valuable qualities. Initially, this is Odin and Daphne’s biggest challenge towards being together because they make assumptions about the other. Once they move beyond those perceptions, Prescott crafts this soul-abiding romance between the two. When this occurs, both of these characters, interestingly enough, become more likable.
If I had a criticism for this book, it would be the pacing of it. I wish I had better words to articulate what I’m going to mention next, but the beginning of Stranger Ranger felt disjointed at times. I found myself rereading a few places where I didn’t quite understand the reasons behind the conflict. Then, Odin and Daphne begin to fall for each other, and the honesty of their relationship binds them together more cohesively. For the latter part of the story, I thought Prescott rushed through it, once their secrets are revealed. I guess I wanted it to slow down a bit more, developing more of that abiding love before hitting us with the epilogue.
There is no doubt in my mind that Stranger Ranger is a perfect end to this second season of SmartyPants Romance. Daisy Prescott’s ability to underpin her romance with the gravity and depth of social issues is the eloquence of her story. With this book, SmartyPants Romance and Daisy Prescott offer us a valuable representation of this romance community, and it’s exciting especially considering the possibilities for future books. I found myself turning between books to remind myself of the details. That’s genius. The collaborative nature of this writing community and its gifted storytelling are the reasons you should be a SmartyPants Romance reader.
In love and romance,