On Saturday, July 28, 2012, Barbara Samuel became the thirteenth author inducted into the Romance Writers of America’s Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for multiple RITA winners who have received three of the coveted awards in the same category. Samuel won the 2012 RITA in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category for How to Bake a Perfect Life written under the name Barbara O’Neal. That marked Samuel’s third win in the Novel with Romantic Elements category but her seventh win over all categories.
And now, allow me to explain just how varied, rich, and wonderful her books are.
Samuel graduated from the University of Southern Colorado in 1985 and published her first book (her second manuscript), Strangers on a Train, in 1989. That first book was published under the name Ruth Wind, a name she would use for another twenty-two novels and two novellas between 1990 and 2008. Most of her Ruth Wind books were Silhouette category romances. These were the first books of hers I read—amazing books that treated serious issues such as child abuse (Breaking the Rules), illegal immigration (Rio Grande Wedding), and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (Reckless) and, at the same time, centered on engaging romances. And she clothed these stories in lovely, lyrical prose without a single lavender-tinted syllable in sight.
In 2000, In the Midnight Rain, her only single title written as Ruth Wind, was published. It was one of the most buzzed about romance novels of the year, and it was named an RWA Top Ten Book, a Library Journal Top Five, and Best Contemporary Romance by Romantic Times. It was also the seventh book by Ruth Wind to become a RITA finalist, following Jezebel’s Blues (1992), The Last Chance Ranch (1995), Her Ideal Man (1997), Rio Grande Wedding (1999), Reckless, which won for Best Long Contemporary—Series in 1998, and Meant to Be Married, which won the same award in 1999.
At the same time she was crafting some of the romance genre’s all-time best contemporary romances as Ruth Wind, she was also writing extraordinary historical romances under her own name. A Bed of Spices (1993) is a medieval romance set in 14th-century Germany with a Christian heroine and a Jewish hero, a match that could mean death for both of them. Lucian’s Fall (1995), which was Samuel’s first RITA finalist under her own name, is a Regency that features a rake and a virtuous beauty, who are both the quintessential types of these characters and individuals of rare depth, individualism, and self-awareness. Class differences play a significant part in Heart of a Knight, which won the RITA for Best Short Historical in 1998. Set in 14th-century England, when the Black Death was devastating the population, this novel features a hero whose character proves him truly “gentil,” however low his birth. Samuel wrote an American Western, more Medievals, and a pair of Georgians before turning to a hybrid of contemporary romance and women’s fiction with No Place Like Home in 2003.
No Place Like Home, the story of Jewel Sabatino, who, with her best friend Michael, who is dying of AIDS, and her seventeen-year-old son Shane, leaves New York City to return to Pueblo, Colorado. The house she has inherited from an aunt is there; so is her Italian-Catholic family, including her father who has not spoken to her since she ran away with a musician twenty years earlier. Samuel weaves the story around all of Jewel’s roles—caretaker, mother, daughter, sister, and lover. It is a tale of healing, forgiveness, and acceptance, a story about holding on and letting go. It won the RITA for Best Contemporary Single Title in 2003. It was also named RWA’s Favorite Book of the Year and one of Library Journal’s Top Five.
A Piece of Heaven, another contemporary romance/women’s fiction mix, one that features a recovering alcoholic as the heroine, was nominated for a RITA the following year. By the time Samuel received her next RITA nomination in 2006, the contemporary romance label had been dropped. The move she called “a slow, long lean” towards women’s fiction was complete, but she retained the romantic elements.
Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas, a road book with a protagonist who has mother issues and a mentally ill twin sister—and the emotional punch and lyrical prose that are this author’s trademarks whatever name she uses, won the RITA for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements in 2006.
In 2009, Barbara O’Neal debuted with The Lost Recipe for Happiness, the first of four books in which place figures as prominently as any character and food becomes a presence, both nearly tangible and emblematic. It won the RITA for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements in 2010. The Secret of Everything (2010) won high praise. Booklist described it as “powerful and intriguing,” and, to move full cycle, How to Bake a Perfect Life won the RITA for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements in 2012 and earned Barbara Samuel her well-deserved place in the Hall of Fame.
In an article that appeared in ParaDoxa in 1997, Samuel wrote that writing romance was something she consciously chose to do:
I didn't stumble into writing romance—how many writers and artists stumble into it? I chose romance. Deliberately, with much thought. I chose it because I am a feminist, and because I wanted to bypass the male culture of the mainstream publishing world. I genuinely did not care, when I began, if any man ever read anything I wrote. I wanted to write for women. To weave legends we feel in our guts: reclaim history from a woman's point of view; explore sex from our viewpoint and see what it meant and how we felt about it—both in terms of what it is, and what it should be.
I also wanted to give rest, a moment's peace, to some overwhelmed sister who had no time for herself, who probably loved her life and her family and maybe if she was lucky, even her job, but just never got enough time to rest. I wanted to give her something she could take into a hot bath, with a glass of wine or cup of tea, and let herself be carried away into another world. A hopeful world, because hope renews us as nothing else does.
I thought about these words when I read the first tweet that Barbara Samuel had won in her category, and I knew that meant she would enter the Hall of Fame. I thought how glad I was that she made that choice all those years ago, how grateful for the time I spent in the hopeful worlds she created. Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell said in a review of Lucian’s Fall, “I’m much better a romance reader for having read this story.” I know what she means, only I could provide a long list of books by Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal that have made me a better reader, a better writer, often a better person as well.
Now I’m off to read The Sleeping Night, the story of an interracial couple in post-World War II Texas, the most recent novel from Barbara Samuel. One reviewer called it “unforgettable.” It sounds like vintage Barbara Samuel.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.