I didn't want this one to get lost in the list.
Shirley Kennedy is a name I know from category Regencies, but recently she's branched into Western historicals. The first one, Wagon Train Cinderella, had a Cinderella-motif that was okay, although the main character was a bit of a doormat. (I was sort of waiting for some big reveal that she was an illegitimate child, but she seemed to just be an orphan.) But it fit with the story.
However, another Kennedy Western historical, called Heartbreak Trail, came up on the Kindle deals, so I went ahead and bought it.
I read it. I enjoyed it. But... well, let's put it this way. If I were to give you a snappy summary full of pop culture markers, I'd say that the book is basically what I'd expect if George R.R. Martin played Oregon Trail for a day straight, then wrote a romance novel about it. I gave it 3 stars on Amazon.
Why? Let me tell you (with spoilers)...
The heroine has married a (she thinks) okay guy to get out of her stepmother's house and control. He's not as okay as she thought. He also has a brother who's quite unpleasant. The two men (without any consultation of wives) decide to sell their prosperous farm and hit the Trail.
There's a ton of patriarchal behavior that's mostly period-jerk-compliant. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Then the husband gets killed in a really stupid way. Cue predictable premature birth and grieving mother by side of the trail. Now our heroine is stuck with the unpleasant brother-in-law, his mousy wife, and her beloved stepson. She feels she needs to stay with her stepson, and staying with the brother-in-law is the only way she can. He's all about his legal rights to be a jerk to anyone who might be his property...I mean, responsibility. There's gold in the wagon that's hidden, and she figures she'll stick it out. Safety in numbers...
Then, the guy becomes the train captain. Why, I'm still not sure because a) no one likes him and b) not charismatic at all.
Whilst stopped along the prairie, a pretty young daughter of our heroine's best friend on the trail gets run over by a herd of buffalo. Dead.
Her very pregnant mother goes through a horrific birth (attended by a "midwife") and then dies. The baby dies as well.
Now the unlikable brother-in-law wants to take one of the dubious cutoffs that we now know is a HORRIBLE idea. Ends up taking a very small portion of the train with him.
Beloved stepson dies along cutoff. You're thinking, "at least the heroine is free". Wrong. Unpleasant brother-in-law goes ahead to scout and doesn't come back. (Not dead, unfortunately. Busted leg.)
Mousy wife goes into labor with her much-wanted child... and dies. The baby does NOT die. Now, given the death and destruction so far, you're probably wondering why - it's because it serves to keep the heroine with unpleasant brother-in-law. He literally threatens to suffocate the baby, and goes so far as covering her face with his hand. So she stays. They rejoin the train, and she stays with him and her new niece.
Then the train splits and our unhappy little group turns to California, rather than Oregon. Oh, and unpleasant brother-in-law has found and appropriated the money, claiming it's his anyway.
They end up in a gold town. Turns out that despite his Bible thumping, the unpleasant brother-in-law is a handsy kind of guy. He finally gets what's coming to him when he tries to put the moves on a town girl, and ends up dancing at the end of a rope.
Where is the HERO, you may be asking? He's one of the trail guides, so he always ends up being away when she needs him, until the very end.
There's not many sex scenes, which is good. There's plenty of implied sex.
The heroine also has a mild case of TSTL syndrome (Too Stupid to Live). Not a bad one, but a problematic one.
The writing and editing are good. Which helps.
But still - George R.R. Martin writes the Oregon Trail.