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The Chili Queen
By Sandra Dallas
Review by: Kim Wells

  1/1/04

Sandra Dallas' novel, The Chili Queen, is a humor-filled historical novel of the sort that, while reading, you can't seem to help yourself but begin to cast for the Hollywood adaptation. Addie French seems the perfect heroine for a Sandra Bullock movie, with, perhaps, Aidan Quinn as the dreamy cowboy-ne'er do well Ned Partner. Addie is "trouble" but the type of trouble you like from the moment you first lay eyes upon her. The novel is a joy to read, pure entertainment without thought-- I like to call it brain candy, but of the finest, Godiva-inspired sort.

The novel is set in 1880s New Mexico, and it features Addie as a madame to a small brothel, who decides to help Emma Roby, a not-too-attractive "mail order bride" she meets on a train. From the start, however, things are not quite what they seem-- mystery, romance, and schemes where who-is-doublecrossing whom race along at a breakneck pace until you are left with a fun surprise ending.

The characters in the novel are strongly sketched, with a hand for details and a sensory-aware voice. I loved the description that explains how Addie's brothel, and thus the novel, is named-- from "Chili Queens"-- vendors of Mexican-food in San Antonio:

The sky reminded her of San Antonio, too, the soft darkening evenings when the scents of coffee and chocolate, chili and sizzling fat filled the air. Addie had loved the peppery smell of the chili as she scooped the beans and meat and gravy into dishes and handed them to her customers.... Other chili queens worked there, too, selling tamales and enchiladas, tacos, menudo, and chili, but Addie was the favorite and best. (27)

We learn that Addie, like any good businesswoman, has a dream: to start her own chili-queen service.

It was time for her, too, to move on, maybe go back to San Antonio. . . She could buy a stand and hire girls to work for her, then expand into the other plazas.

This novel is a quick, fun read. I loved the artwork on the front that suggested a quilt, and I loved the way the characters' inner strength and purpose shows that even those who, on the surface, might be a little "peppery" can have a dream and a soft heart (that leads them into trouble, no doubt).

This is a great read for those who like mysteries, old-West historical fiction, as well as strong women characters with a touch of the feminist foremother.

 



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