Deborah Hale’s newest novel is the quintessential homespun tale, in which two spiritually troubled people muster the courage to love each other, and heal themselves in the process. It angles for sweetness rather than page-turning excitement; if you do too, Whitefeather’s Woman will thoroughly satisfy you.
Jane Harris is desperate to escape her physically abusive fiance, even if it means leaving behind Boston and everyone she’s ever known. Thus, when she finds an advertisement for a position as nanny in a Montana household, she doesn’t even wait for a response, catching the next westbound train. Yet upon arrival in Whitehorn she meets with a disheartening surprise: the position has already been filled, leaving her stranded and penniless in the heart of the Wild West.
Her would-be employers, the Kincaids, take pity on Jane and offer her a temporary position, to be terminated when their chosen nanny arrives. Vowing to make herself indispensable to the Kincaids, and thus hopefully retain a place in their household, Jane sets out to master a variety of chores. But her heretofore sheltered life as a lady’s companion has ill prepared her for the rigors of the frontier, and her emotionally traumatized state makes each interaction with male strangers a painful ordeal.
There is only one man with whom Jane is not paralyzed by fear. John Whitefeather, the half-Comanche brother of Mrs. Kincaid, is willing to help her adjust, but life has taught him bitter cautionary lessons. Scarred by the tragic deaths of his parents and the racism which has prevented him from feeling truly part of any community, white or Indian, John fears the intimacy implicit in his friendship with Jane. Racially and culturally, the differences between them seem insurmountable; yet his nurturing streak, and his growing attraction, make it difficult to remain aloof from this shy, troubled, fascinating woman.
Slowly, these two people haunted by such tragic pasts gain courage from each other, daring to reach for happiness together. Yet Jane soon discovers her difficulties have not been left behind with Boston. Resurfacing, they shatter the fragile happiness she and John have found together, spinning them into an emotional darkness that may prove even deeper than the ones they have known…
Jane Harris is one scared doe. She flinches from strangers; she stutters; she drops trays in their laps, or she swoons. Given the treatment she’s suffered at the hands of her fiancé, it seems uncharitable, though tempting, to get a little annoyed by all this. However, as a result of such constant behavior, her attraction to John seems rooted in the fact that he alone does not frighten her. Sexual tension, then, is a scarce commodity in their interactions. Whitefeather’s Woman should not be read by those seeking sizzle.
However, far more successful is the gradual formation of Jane and John’s deep emotional connection, which feels touchingly real. Jane’s journey to emotional health is also skillfully illustrated, and occasionally very moving (if not a bit too wistfully optimistic, particularly in regards to her comfort with her budding sexuality). Upon finishing this book, the reader will not - as, unfortunately, she so often must - wonder whether love will outlast the fireworks of lust. This relationship is too thoughtfully developed to accommodate such doubts, and in that alone the novel is refreshing.
If this tale had only offered more gripping action, its coherent emotional arc would have distinguished it as superior storytelling. Instead, the plot entices the viewer to expect the appearance of a certain much-mentioned villain, even explicitly stating Jane’s horror when she realizes that he now knows where she is, and then, disconcertingly, fails to deliver. Ms. Hale opts, perhaps, for dramatic realism rather than melodrama, but achieves neither. Hence, as a tale of emotional evolution, Whitefeather’s Woman succeeds, but only in the short installments during which it holds one’s attention.