There are two aspects of American history that I believe the romance genre handles especially poorly. The first is the Civil War; the second is anything to do with the treatment of Native American people, especially during the 1800s. Both topics are so frequently mired in politically correct approaches that they come off as sugar-coated and false.
Despite knowing this, I cling to a very frayed thread of optimism, hoping someday I will read an Indian romance that both feels honest and helps me to understand reader (and author) fascination with Indian/European coupling. In The Spirit Of The Wolf, the story of an Indian scout on an unclear mission to save his people and an Englishwoman trying to make her way back home, Karen Kay fails to do either.
Grey Coyote, a member of an tribe that was banished into the mist due to greed and lust, is trying to break the curse that keeps his tribe from inhabiting this Earthly plane. Marietta, an Englishwoman, ended up in the American West due to an evil uncle selling her into servitude due to his own greed. The two come together when Grey Coyote wins Marietta after a marathon gambling session; she’s somehow the key to accomplishing Grey Coyote’s goal, which he’d realize if he bothered to ask her name before the 150th or so page of the book.
Marietta has her own goal. It turns out that her evil uncle illegally claimed her ancestral home and she must now return to England to regain her place as lady of the manor. Pronto. I remain fascinated with the way good news like this finds its way to fairly obscure individuals tucked away in lost corners of a vast continent. Seriously. If you’re going to introduce something as improbable as this, explain it. This woman was banished as a child, give me something plausible.
Grey Coyote, who is now, apparently, Marietta’s temporary husband, plans to continue on his mission, half-clad blonde in tow. Marietta will not stand for that. She has to get to England as fast as possible to claim her inheritance. She needs him to take her in the opposite direction to catch a boat. Why she doesn’t send a letter to let the world know she’s on her way is unclear – no really, she’s in a hurry, but there’s no indication that she’s facing a deadline (you know, be in England on June 26 or else). Her needs matter more than anything in the world.
Yes, this is my subtle way of saying that Marietta comes off like a spoiled brat far too often for my taste. Personally, if I were a good-looking Indian who could have my pick of women, I’d have left her in the wilderness. Better yet, when she tried to escape, stubbornly deciding she’d walk back to the village where Grey Coyote found her, I’d say, “Good riddance.” Anyone dim enough to think she’s going to night on the Plains deserves to learn a valuable lesson.
Grey Coyote doesn’t allow this happen, of course (this type of romance requires a heroine to be even partially effective). Instead, he goes all alpha male and makes her behave. Soon they’re sort of back on track, seeking the man Grey Coyote saw in a vision. Once said dude is found, then all Grey Coyote has to do is solve a little God-esque riddle and save his people.
You’d think they’d hit the proverbial trail pronto, right? Well, see, first you have to journey to a distant wood to find the perfect trees for arrows because, even when the lives of everyone in your tribe are on the line, taking the wood closest to your location is a sin (also a chance for the author to impart a bit of sophomoric Native American spirituality). Also, you should probably spend a lot of time having sex instead of communicating. Kay makes it clear that Grey Coyote’s mission is time sensitive, so if these two people had stopped boinking long enough to to, oh, I don’t know, talk, maybe it would have been a much shorter book.
Yeah, it should go without saying (but won’t) that the major conflict of this novel revolves around two people stubbornly deciding their respective needs are greater…yet neither bothers to articulate what they’re trying to do. It’s beyond belief, reading as these characters refused to share their very important missions with each other. I am not a fan of the Big Misunderstanding plot, especially when it is the plot. I’m also not a fan of days-long romantic interludes that don’t move the plot forward, especially when I’ve been told that time is of the essence for the characters.
In fact, there was a lot of page filler here. Marietta is chaperoned, in a manner of speaking, by an Indian woman named Yellow Swan (leading to a personal issue: for my entire first draft of this review – despite having the book in front of me – I kept typing “Grey Goose” for the hero’s name). The women are separated early in the book, and as Grey and Marietta are urgently trying to reach their respective goals, they learn that Yellow Swan was captured by a war party. Needless to say, all forward motion must stop in order to rescue Yellow Swan.
Laudable, sure. Except she was a cipher of a character to begin with. Her most memorable feature was the fact that the author…made…all…her…dialogue…like…this. I think it was supposed to represent a lack of fluency in English, but mostly it made her sound breathy. Also, Yellow Swan actually used the word “heap” (as in, “Husband…heap…good scout.”). I don’t know if this is historically accurate or not. I do know that it’s the worst kind of Native American cliché on the planet.
The actual preparation for and rescue of Yellow Swan occupies more pages than the character does throughout the novel. Is it too much to ask that this type of rescue scene be saved for major, plot-enhancing characters? Once Yellow Swan is saved, she flits in and out, never developed beyond scenery, until she disappears forever. Our heroic couple passes her off to another traveling band so that she can find her husband. This diversion didn’t add to the overall plot, nor did it do much more than allow Kay to share the fruits of her research with the reader.
Kay misses every possible opportunity to build tension and create a page-turner of a story. She hints of misdeeds at a key fort – misdeeds that somehow tie the novel’s, for lack of a better word, uber-villain to a larger evil – but nothing is done with this possible plot thread. She makes a big deal out of the tensions between Plains tribes, but, well, why go there when you can play naked in the river? This leads to a not-so-dramatic conclusion that makes almost no sense. I mean, of all the bad people in the fledgling United States, why was it so important that Grey Coyote destroy the one he did? What was the purpose?
I tried with this book, I really tried. I wanted to give the story and, well, the sub-genre the benefit of the doubt. I’m one of those readers who keeps coming back for more, convinced that all it requires is just the right story to convince me. Easy spirituality and lightweight conflict – not to mention utter absence of plot – aren’t likely to tempt me back to the well in the near future.
Unless I lose another bet to HelenKay.