The triggering event of Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore, is thankfully not explicitly described. Instead, this book deals with the aftermath of the rape and beating of Gloria Ramírez through the eyes of two white women and a white girl. This might be a strange choice, but it provides an interesting look into the mindset of people who seem to be caught on the outside of a community who are more than willing to pass off what happened as a “misunderstanding” and a “lovers’ quarrel.” The community can’t understand why one of the women, a witness, wants to testify and ruin a young man’s life. Meanwhile, another woman struggles to adjust to a life as a widow and a young girl shifts for herself while the adults ignore here. Valentine is a book of extraordinary emotional depth.
Mary Rose opens the door of her ranch home on the outskirts of Odessa, Texas, one morning in 1976 to find Gloria, beaten and bloody, on her doorstep. She takes the girl in and grabs Old Lady, her shotgun. Shortly after, the man who hurt Gloria shows up. He demands that Mary Rose turn over Gloria, that he and his “girlfriend” had just had a fight. Mary Rose refuses. Who knows what might have happened if the sheriff hadn’t showed up to arrest the man? The perspective of the book then shifts to Corrine, who has just lost her husband. He had died in a “hunting accident” after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We also hear from Debra Ann, known as D.A., who spends much of the summer of 1976 stealing supplies for a homeless Vietnam veteran.
Because we spend so much time away from Glory, Valentine creates more of an impression of the struggles of the women who live hard lives in West Texas. The wind always blows. It’s dry and not much grows there. The men work dangerous jobs, then blow off steam with drinking and fighting and sex. Odessa and the other oil towns read like the end of the road or a place to escape from, if at all possible. And yet, for D.A., it’s the only place she knows. She makes the best of it as she roams around the neighborhood. Mary Rose feels proprietary about her ranch. Corrine never imagines life anywhere else. Her entire life is in West Texas. Everything holds memories for her, even if there doesn’t seem to be much of a future there.
Another strong theme that develops in Valentine is a deep anti-Mexican racism. Mary Rose—who is subject to threatening calls at night that keep her from sleeping—hears comments from people who say things like “you know how those girls are.” When Glory slowly ventures out into the world again, a young boy makes jokes to her using racial slurs that he’s clearly heard from adults. We know that Glory and Mary Rose are in the right, so it’s hard to see so many people willing to brush off Glory’s rape with racism and sexism.
Although Valentine takes place over the course of one summer, it feels as wide and hot as a West Texas summer. The days seem endless as the landscape bakes around the characters. By the time the trial rolls around at the end of the summer, it feels like years have passed with Mary Rose has had to cope with sleeplessness, threats, a new baby, and separation from her husband. Corrine slowly emerges from her grief and rejoins the world. D.A., meanwhile, becomes more and more independent even though she craves affection from others. I had no idea that Valentine would end so dramatically. The ending is the perfect conclusion to all the pent up emotion that had been building all summer.
My dad grew up partly in Odessa, Texas and in a neighboring town in the 1960s and 1970s. He never talked about it much other than to mention the heat and the tarantulas. He joined the navy to get out of Texas; he only made a few trips back. One of those trips was a family trip. As soon as I got out of the car, I accidentally stood on a red ant hill. I remember that my brother was always in danger of heatstroke. I was fascinating for me to read about characters who were a part of the country in a way that I never could be. (I don’t do well in heat and humidity.) I grew to admire Mary Rose and Corrine and D.A. These women bear a lot of hurt, but they endure. I marvel at characters and people who stand for what’s right and who don’t let excuses, prejudice, or expediency dissuade them from their position.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.