As you may know if you’re a long time reader, I am a fan of the romance genre, particularly of newer romances that explore something different than “rich white man + rich white lady fall in love and get married.” Because of that, I decided to read an older one, just to see how far romances have come: Sonora Sundown by Janet Dailey.

Turns out this book is a bit of a peculiarity both because of the series it was part of, and the author herself. But let’s start with the series.

Sonora Sundown is part of the “Americana” series, where Dailey wrote 50 romances set in 50 states. I found this, the Arizona book, in a Little Free Library near me (and then Montana Nebraska and New Hampshire in another one a few blocks away).

In a 1997, Dailey told the St. Pete Times (now Tampa Tampa Bay Times) that she started writing her first romance novel in 1974 when she and her husband sold their construction business and decided to travel around the country in an Airstream Trailer. Sonora Sundown was published soon after, in 1978.

The books were incredibly popular. The copy I have is from the fourth print run — and they’re still being published by a company called Open Road Media Romance. Dailey often claimed that she was the first American writer on Harlequin’s roster. Sounded plausible, but I figured there was more to this story (and you’ll see why in a moment), so I asked Steve Ammidown, who runs the Romance Fiction Has History website, about it.

I’m glad I did! He wrote a post about Dailey and this series in 2021. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s one snippet: “They framed her early books as an attempt to write a book about every state in the US, and often posed with the Airstream trailer that they used to travel the country to soak in the atmosphere of the place Janet was writing about. Bill put Janet in front of reporters at every opportunity, making her American romance’s first superstar author.”

As someone who has been to all 50 states, and written about it, I get that marketing appeal. What a neat idea! Fifty states, 50 books, American romance superstar! And here’s a picture of her posing in front of the vehicle she used to experience “real” America to put in her books — that’ll go great with a newspaper article!

But she wasn’t, in fact, the first American to write for Harlequin. Fudging the facts, or even flat out lying about them, was a feature, not a bug.

In 1997, Dailey was caught plagiarizing, stealing pieces from another author’s work for three books of her own. That other author? NORA ROBERTS. As I said in the last Friday Folio, Roberts will sue. We know that because she sued Dailey, and won (then donated that money to Literacy Volunteers of America). Unsuitable, a blog from Duke University about women in history and popular fiction, has an excellent run down of what happened, and the ramifications. The post also includes Dailey’s “apology,” which starts with “I recently learned that my essentially random and nonpervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had,” after which she blames “professional and personal stress.” A very “sorry not sorry” indeed.

So no, I’m not surprised that Dailey misrepresented herself and her role in American romance novels. She was dropped by her publisher after the scandal broke, but if no one’s really “cancelled” today, they weren’t 20 years ago either. After a brief hiatus, she keep writing until she died in 2013, and almost every obituary I read included her shading of the Americana truth. Thankfully Ammidown set the record straight.

As for the book itself, it’s not great. The hero is an asshole, insulting and even hurting the heroine. I know the dominant male was more common in older romances, but I felt uncomfortable reading this. Oh and if you’re curious, the New Jersey book, One of the Boys, is about a television producer and a woman who is part of the crew. I can pass on that.

If you’d like to know more about romance history, check out Ammidown’s website, or his very informative Romance Historian Instagram account.

Nail polish: Suzi Talks With Her Hands by OPI.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

1 Comments

  1. Adrienne on May 10, 2023 at 11:29 am

    Any industry is always more interesting than it first appears.

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