June TBR Challenge Review: Kiss Me, Katie

Kiss Me, Katie by Robin Lee Hatcher was published in 1996. I have made no attempt to avoid spoilers in this review, so be warned.

The book is set in Idaho in 1916, which intrigued me right away. The main character, Katie Jones, is a suffragette. After going away to college in the east, she became involved with the women’s suffrage movement in Washington, D.C.. She has returned home to help the movement — as one of the few states where women can vote, Idaho is a key player in the push for a national suffrage amendment.

Waiting for Katie in Homestead, Idaho, are her loving and supportive family and her best friend, Ben Rafferty. Although they haven’t seen each other in many years, they have kept in touch with letters. Ben is the owner and editor of the local newspaper, and Katie wants his help in spreading the word that women in Idaho should make use of their power at the ballot box to send a message to Washington on behalf of their disenfranchised sisters.

I really enjoyed the set-up of this book. Ben and Katie have a very special relationship, going back years — they even kissed once, as an experiment, but primarily they are friends. Everyone should have one person who knows them inside and out, and whom they can trust with total honesty, and these two have each other. It’s refreshing that neither of them sees this as a romantic attachment. Ben is stepping out with a lovely young woman whom he hopes to marry, and Katie is determined to avoid marriage and the inevitable distraction it would create from her dedication to the movement. Their friendship is a separate joy for them both, and they value working together on the column she is writing weekly for his newspaper. Katie gets busy organizing a local committee, and Ben is her staunchest supporter when some of the local residents object to her views.

Of course it isn’t long before Ben realizes that he loves Katie, and he gently breaks off his budding relationship with Charlotte. I appreciated that Charlotte, while very different from Katie, was not painted in a bad light. A minister’s daughter, she handles Ben’s honesty about his feelings very well — at one point she does try to manipulate Katie into staying away from Ben, but once Ben admits to his feelings for Katie, she accepts his choice gracefully. I liked that she and Katie were able to admire and respect each other, despite their very different personalities, and the similarities in their views are more important than their differences.

Katie also realizes that she loves Ben, but she won’t admit it to him. Even once he reveals his feelings, she resists telling him of her love, because she is sure that marriage would take her away from her work. She idolizes Susan B. Anthony, and she is very much aware that Anthony has been able to lead the women’s movement only because she is free of the ties of marriage and family.

In the midst of this, Katie declares her candidacy for Congress, and Ben agrees to manage her campaign. So they are working together closely; there are kisses shared, Ben proposes and Katie refuses. Then they are stuck alone overnight on the campaign trail when her car breaks down, and they give in to their feelings and make love.

Up to this point, I wasn’t unhappy with the story. It bothered me that Ben was secretly hoping for Katie to lose the election, so that she would stay in Homestead, marry him and have his children, but I figured that there was time for him to change. Katie’s dilemma was believable to me — it was easy to foreswear love and marriage when she wasn’t in love, but it was hard to resist Ben. Yet she can’t imagine giving up her work, either, and that made a fundamentally important point about gender inequality, because a man wouldn’t have felt that he had to choose between marriage and his calling. I figured that eventually Ben would get his head on straight, realize that Katie’s political work was worth a few sacrifices on his part, and she wouldn’t have to make that choice. Which is kind of what happened, but I nearly threw the book at the wall several times in the process.

I pretty much came to hate Ben in the last third of the book. He “rescues” Katie from scandal after their night together by telling people that they are married, and then they retroactively make that true. He says he’s doing it to salvage her candidacy, and yet once they are married, he is even more determined that she needs to lose the election or give it up voluntarily. He buys land and starts planning a home for them in Homestead, and when she insists that is premature when there’s a chance they’ll be living in Washington for two years, he gets sullen and withdrawn. He is no longer her best friend and biggest supporter.

Katie comes in for some blame, of course; she continues to refuse to tell Ben that she loves him, fearing that it would give him too much power over her. That feeds his resentment of her goals. She is also very torn, because she does love Ben and is starting to feel that she doesn’t really want to serve in Congress; I never believed that was a conflict she would have felt if he had continued to support her after they were married.

The resolution of the conflict really didn’t fulfill the promise of the set-up to me. While I agreed with the advice Katie received, that fighting for women to have choices meant that she also had the right to choose a husband and family, I would have been a lot happier if Ben had accepted that her work was important enough to be worth revising his plans for settling down in Homestead. Eventually he decides that his dream is worthless without her, but that’s not the same as acknowledging that her dreams are equally important, and it doesn’t make up for the hell she goes through trying to be the first woman elected to Congress without the support of her lifelong best friend.

Then there’s the pregnancy plot. Both Katie and Ben realize that becoming pregnant would complicate her run for office; he hopes she will get pregnant, while she hesitantly approaches her doctor about ways to avoid doing so. She’s too late, and he’s resentful when he finds out that she tried to prevent it. Because she’s not thrilled at her condition, he announces that he will take the child and live in Idaho without her, if she insists on continuing her run for office. She feels guilty for not discussing contraception with him; he doesn’t seem to feel any guilt at all.

The end of the book enforces the primary importance of marriage and family. Katie and Ben are reunited, with the help of an obvious villain who’s been waiting in the wings. Katie does not go to Washington. (We are never told whether that’s because she loses the very close election or because she declines to serve, which she says she’s willing to do after conveniently learning that her opponent is a man she can respect, and who has promised to support the national amendment to grant women the vote). An epilogue lets us know that ten years and three children later, Katie is elected to Congress.

While I ultimately felt that the book didn’t live up to its potential for exploring the possibilities for a woman in this time period, and I was disappointed in the way the romance was developed and resolved, I did enjoy several aspects. I thought the setting was interesting and well developed, and the historical information was excellent. I appreciated how well the book explored the work of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, the mechanics of early 20th-century campaigns and elections, and the other details of the place and time. I also liked the excellent family relationships and female friendships in the book; the feeling of sisterhood amongst the women as they worked together on their cause was wonderful. The presence of a secondary male character, Geoffrey, who whole-heartedly supported and worked for the women’s movement was some compensation for Ben’s selfish refusal to value Katie’s work over his own desires.

An interesting dimension to this book, and the reason it was in my TBR to begin with, is that its author has to some extent repudiated it. Hatcher stopped writing mainstream romance and switched to Christian fiction in 1999; her statement on her Amazon author’s page warns:

Please note that the list of my books on Amazon includes novels written for the general romance market from 1984 to 1999. My Christian fiction has been published from 1999 to present. I no longer recommend my older fiction. Purchase used books with caution.

Hatcher revised Kiss Me, Katie and released a Christian fiction version called Catching Katie in 2004. This is the fifth book she has “redeemed” A comparison of the first chapter (downloaded free to my Kindle) to the older book shows that she added several references to God. Ben reflects on a Biblical references to marriage and how it might apply to his relationship to Charlotte, and when he thinks about his belief in a woman’s right to vote, he does so in religious terms. Katie’s determination to get out the women’s vote at home is not only important to her, but she says, “I’m certain God made me for such a time as this.” She wants to “[h]elp women see the truth,” but adds, “that God has a plan for them just as He does for men.” And, unsurprisingly, the reference to Ben and Katie’s experimental kiss when Ben was 12 is gone.

While the work is Hatcher’s, and she has the right to do with it as she chooses, I’m sorry that Kiss Me, Katie is destined to pass into dusty UBS and reader library obscurity. Problematic as I found the book, it was an interesting and thought-provoking read — and I know that the issues I had with Ben are unlikely to be improved by the changes wrought for Catching Katie.

ETA: I finally got around to skimming the “redeemed” book, and as I suspected, it’s even less to my taste. My big question about the plot was answered as I anticipated: Ben and Katie are alone in her car when it breaks down, and they are stuck for the night together, but NOTHING HAPPENS. They are discovered by a friend, not confronted by the press, but Ben still insists that they have to get married. Even the appearance of impropriety could ruin her chances in the election. I didn’t care for this version, because both characters seemed willing to use the institution of marriage to serve their own selfish ends. To me, that really undercuts the Christian faith angle of the story, belying the sanctity of marriage as a commitment that should be made freely and seriously by both parties.