It sounds to me like most of the negative comments about this novel are written by fans of the romance genre, who expect specific (dare I say predictable) personality types, plot developments and themes, along with a swift narrative pace. This historical novel defies those expectations. Spoiler alerts prevent me from saying more, but those who disparage Lael for being “fickle” may be missing out on an honest portrait of a woman with more complexity than one finds in the average romance.
I love the tall Shawnee, Captain Jack, who’s actually a captive white boy raised by the tribe. Every scene with him is mysterious and, haunting. The blue beads. The blanket, barely rescued after an outraged mom tosses the gift into the fire. Throughout this long novel, while Lael dreams of marriage to a familiar(and handsome, and very appealing) neighbor boy who’s always been there for her, the beads in her pocket remind her of the possibility of an unorthodox life with the mysterious Shawnee–which would be anathema to Lael’s mother and community–but Lael’s father softly tells her such a life would be far better than “civilized” people imagine.
I appreciate the contrast between life in the fort versus the cabin in the woods. Lael hates swapping freedom for security, open space for confinement. She hates gossip. And rules. I was horrified when she got shipped off to finishing school in Virginia, and even more horrified that this phase of her life dragged on for five years. This is where I stopped reading and looked at reviews to see if I should bother to keep going to the end. (I almost didn’t.) The negative reviews echoed what I’d been thinking: the novel is well written but long, mired in detail (it’s good detail! it’s historical!), and the reader’s hopes are thwarted–but then, that’s how real life works. The trick is to portray real life in a novel that doesn’t feel slow and frustrating to modern readers.
The prose is surprisingly good; rare is the Kindle Daily free e-book that is so well written, so well researched, with characters so multi-dimensional and real. As the author notes on her website, Hemingway advised novelists to create people, not characters, and Laura Frantz achieves exactly that. In real life, one obvious “perfect husband” doesn’t exist. Lael meets three men who would marry her, and all three have their appeal. Most readers would choose Captain Jack, but this is not “Dances With Wolves” — unlike that cliche of a story, this one shows that the Shawnees and Cherokees have their dark side. Natives lived by a different set of rules and a level of violence “proper” society condemns as savagery, even though the apparently “just” ways of the civilized cloaked a holocaust against Natives.
Jack remains elusive to the end, as other reviewers noted with (unwarranted, I thought) disdain. The final scene is magical. Whoever said the man she’ll marry “deserves better” is missing out on a heroine of marvelous complexity and depth. Yes, this long novel leaves some loose ends untied. For that, I almost offered 4 versus 5 stars, but the book stayed with me. I kept going back to revisit favorite scenes. If you want to know what happens under the waterfall and which of the three men kisses her there, you’ll have to wade through the rich layers of history of the American frontier. This novel is loosely based on real-life details from the life of Daniel Boone, a worthy character, much more deserving a subject of romance novels than those two-dimensional heroes who never existed outside a woman’s feverish imagination. I recommend this novel for its authenticity, historical as well as psychological. It’s a novel I could read again and again, and very, very few novels these days make me feel that way.