Stargazer by Laura Baker
(St. Martin's, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-312-96316-5
****
Normally the thought of a novel that combines Indian romance with time-travel would strike fear into my intrepid heart, as neither are my favorite genres. But first-time author Laura Baker surprised me by crafting an intelligent, thoughtful novel featuring a wonderfully three-dimensional heroine.

Jacob Lonewolf is plucked from the midst of the 19th century where he is waging a futile attempt to save his Navajo people from the encroaching white soldiers. Despite his powers as a medicine man and mystical stargazer, he is distrusted by the other Navajo because he was raised for many years by a white family. His counsel to either retreat or surrender is unwelcome. In disgrace, he retreats to a dark cave, and suddenly finds himself in a new world, confronted by a 20th century woman with a gun.

Willow Becenti, half-Navajo police officer, is surprised to find a Navajo warrior in the very cave where a young boy has recently been murdered. When trying to arrest Lonewolf, she is subdued and kidnapped by him instead. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Willow soon finds herself indebted to Lonewolf as he saves her life from another attacker and then uses his healing powers on her injured shoulder. Willow eventually brings him into her life to meet her grandfather and Lonewolf begins to understand this modern woman's inner conflict.

Willow's grandfather clings to the old Navajo traditions and believes the people can only be saved by reconnecting with their past. In contrast, Willow feels strongly that traditions only hold the tribe back and that education and modern technology are the routes out of poverty and hopelessness. Many Navajo distrust Willow for her adherence to the white man's laws, but she feels she is leading the way towards progress. Though she is indebted to her grandfather for raising her after her mother abandoned the family and her father was killed in Vietnam, she cannot respect his blind adherence to tradition.

What a surprise, therefore, to find herself attracted to a man who is the living embodiment of the mysticism and tradition she has fought so hard to deny. And even worse, she finds that only Lonewolf can help her with a critical task. Willow is the guardian of a young Navajo boy, Manuelito, who lies comatose in a nearby hospital. His illness is a mystery to modern physicians, but Lonewolf discovers that Manuelito is the next powerful stargazer, and that only his intervention can save the boy. Meanwhile, the murder in the cave remains unsolved and Lonewolf is considered a suspect by Willow's fellow police officers.

The struggle faced by Willow to reconcile her modern, rational self with the irrational visions she experiences and the presence of a nineteenth century full-blooded Navajo warrior is beautifully depicted by novice author Laura Baker, who obviously has first-hand experience with Native American culture. If only the hero of the novel fared as well. Lonewolf is the very epitome of the noble Indian. He is so perfect that he comes across as more icon than man. In contrast to the multi-layered and very accessible Willow, he is a trifle wooden.

The struggle to save Manuelito might have been more compelling if the reader had any interaction with the young boy before he fell into the coma. I felt for Willow, who needs the boy as much as he needs her, but my interest in the boy's welfare was purely intellectual, not emotional.

Despite those flaws, Stargazer was a definite cut above both the typical Indian and time-travel romance. Laura Baker is a welcome newcomer with a unique voice.

--Susan Scribner


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