I’ve spent some time thinking about how I could encapsulate the influence Bertrice Small has had on me as a reader, writer and human being in general, into one post, and what I came up with was that I couldn’t, so I’m not going to try. One post is going to be three.
I read my first Bertrice Small novel, which was also the first Bertrice Small novel, The Kadin, at the tender age of eleven, but I’d known about it long before. Bertrice’s husband, George, and my dad, had been in the army together, one of those friendships that was so close, it was a shock when I figured out they weren’t biologically related. So, it was normal to have grown up with mentions of “Aunt Sunny’s book.” A story fiend from day one, I remember asking a lot of questions about it, most of which were creatively evaded, and I remember being in the local Caldor with my mother, combing the paperback racks on one fateful day when The Kadin was a brand new release from a new author. Could I read it? No, my mom said, I was too young, but I wouldn’t be put off. Something about the cover called to me. I pestered and pestered and pestered her for at least a rough outline of the plot.
At last, my mom bowed to the inevitable and gave in. A sixteenth century Scottish girl got sold into slavery and spent forty years in a harem and then came home because her daughter in law didn’t like her. I remember the words rushing out of my mother’s mouth all in one go, and the way her eyes darted as if looking for a better answer. I also remember the insistent voice in the back of my head that whispered an insistent, “sold!” I stole the book from her nightstand shortly after that, knew, within the very first few pages, that I had found what I wanted to read and write for the rest of my life. Mom caught me reading The Kadin under the bed in the guest bedroom, by flashlight, during a thunderstorm that knocked out the power. She confiscated the book. I stole it back. I also wrote a book report on it. To her credit, my teacher, Mrs. Potter, did not contact my parents and gave me an A. She also took me aside and talked to me about becoming a writer myself someday. Good spotting, Mrs. P.
By the time the second book, Love Wild and Fair, a title which I was and am rapturously in love with, came out, I was still too young, but I did it again. Stole that book, saw exactly why Aunt Sunny was as in love with Bothwell as Catriona was, and I fell as hard for Scotland as I had for Ottoman Turkey in the previous book. It all filled my mind to overflowing. Not the sex scenes at that point, but the history, the drama, the descriptions and relationships, all lush and full and vivid as life. I got caught again, got a lecture from my mother again, got steered again toward more appropriate reading, which fell flat for the reasons above. I also got a stern talking to from Aunt Sunny herself.
By the time her third book, Adora, came out, I received my own autographed copy as a gift, along with a promotional poster. I have no idea where that poster is now (hopefully in storage, where it can be retrieved and displayed) but I still have my much-loved copy of the book, signed, this time, to me. I’ve acquired a few more signed copies since then, by the same and other authors, but none will ever match that thrill of seeing the very first book a favorite author signed with their very own hand.
I remember exactly where I was when I first read the opening pages of Skye O’Malley (the book, not the kitty) and not wanting to get out of the car to follow my father to the yard sale that was apparently more important than me diving into this book. My mother had passed away by that point, and she and Aunt Sunny had agreed, when Adora came out, that I was going to steal the book anyway, so I may as well have my own copies in the future, no matter my age. When I first met Skye, the fictional character, my life changed. Strong, smart, headstrong heroines, who could be adventurous, leaders, survivors, history-makers, beautiful inside and out, make mistakes -even huge ones- and still come out on top? Oh yes, please. Give me that. Teach me how to make that.
I soaked it up like a sponge, and was unspeakably thankful to have someone as knowledegable as the author herself to help me counter my father’s argument that romance was “all soft porn” with facts and definitions. Her recommendations of other amazing books in the genre – The Outlaw Hearts by Rebecca Brandewyne and The Spanish Rose by Shirlee Busbee stand out, and, boy, was she right. She recommended other authors I might like if I liked her: Cynthia Wright, Virginia Henley, Morgan Llewellyn, and a man named Jennifer (Wilde, aka Tom E. Huff.)
Bertrice Small opened a whole new world for me, one where love stories were worthy of history, and in some cases, sprang directly from it. For a kid who had honestly thought that the only options for me were hard science fiction and mystery, neither of which caught spark with me, no matter how hard I tried, it was a revelation. In historical romance, I found my reader heart set free, and I knew, deep down in the marrow of my bones, that this was what I was meant to write, as well. I will always, always be thankful to Bertrice Small for that.