The Outlaw’s Woman was a finalist in the New Historical Voice contest offered by Leisure Books and Dorchester Publishing. New author Tanya Hanson shows promise, but suffers from what many new authors do: she tries to have too much going on in one book.
Dena Clayter became a widow after her husband was gored by their prized bull and died. She was left with his prosperous Nebraska farm and his cash reserves. Dena is a levelheaded, educated woman who was raised in St. Louis society. Following bankruptcy by her father and a rejection from her betrothed, Dena married Gottlieb Clayter, a much older man. Gottlieb could not consummate their vows, and blamed Dena. He slowly became more angry and abusive. Although he never really hurt her, she was only somewhat saddened by his death.
Upon returning from the funeral in the town of Staircase Creek, she discovers a man in her house with a gun in his hand and blood dripping down his arm. He asks for her aid, and swears he will not hurt her. Like any good Christian woman, she tends his wound and offers him sleeping arrangements, after she pulls a gun on him and takes him into custody. They find themselves attracted and after a three-day stint, they make love. He leaves, and Dena discovers a few months later that she is pregnant.
Thomas Howard is an outlaw, accused of riding with the James and Younger gangs. He is on the run following their last big raid at Northfield, where several members of the gang ended up dead. There is a Pinkerton agent on his trail and he hopes to find refuge at his aunt’s home in the nearby town of Zee. He stops at Dena’s ranch because he is in need of rest, assuming she would stay in town on the night of her husband’s funeral. She surprised him in more ways than one.
Dena is generally a strong character with lots of sense and a good head on her shoulders. She seems quite capable of running the farm with the help of some local hired hands. She surprises herself at her loss of morals in wanting Thomas Howard as her lover. Dena looks beyond the reputation he is saddled with and after just these few short days, follows her instinct that he is the innocent man he says he is.
Thomas swears he is not an outlaw, that he was never involved in any raids, robberies or murders. He does confess to knowing the James Gang, and is a distant cousin to Jesse. He knows they have not always done right, but they have their good sides, too. He defends Jesse and lies to protect him.
The Outlaw’s Woman is somewhat of a convoluted story that lasts about 6 months, weaving between the present and the past. Much of the time, Dena and Thomas are apart. Dena announces to the world that her child is an unexpected gift from Gottlieb. She is then confronted with suitors who want her land and money. These suitors include Max, who owns the neighboring farm, and Gottlieb’s brother Jonah who is a preacher. She rejects both suitors, hoping that Thomas will return.
Dena goes from strong and intelligent to a whiny, unsure woman who doesn’t know her own mind. And there plenty of misconceptions when Thomas does return that provide further reasons why they cannot be together. Throw in a major grasshopper plague and the story is complete.
I truly had difficulty with the hero. He may be a good guy, but the fact that he is friends with and defends these outlaws didn’t endear him to me. What little one sees of him doesn’t give enough information to change that opinion.
Dena is likable throughout the first part of the story, and then turns into a much weaker person. Her continued denial of her feelings and lack of courage to confront Thomas with what she thinks are lies left a sour taste in my mouth for her happiness.
New author Hanson has some strengths that she can build on. The Outlaw’s Woman portrays a heroine who is smart and able to stand on her own. Her descriptions of the hardships endured by those who lived in the late 1800’s in the prairie states were vivid and commanded respect for all they endured. The secondary characters were well thought out and added to the sense of community. Alas, the hero was not someone of whom dreams are made.