Love Only Once

Dance on the Wind
by Brenda K. Jernigan
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7061-6
Five-year-old Brandy (named for her hair color) is left on Father Brown’s doorstep in Independence, Missouri. Father Brown raises her and several other orphans. Now Father Brown is dead, the bishop has written that the church is closing, and Brandy has to find some way to support herself and the other orphans. She has no success in locating a job. When she sees an advertisement for a mail-order bride, she writes to Sam Owens not mentioning the children but intending to take them along.

Sam sends her money to pay off her debts as well as enough to get herself to Montana by wagon train. The wagonmaster Ward agrees to take on the novice Brandy as long she has a man to handle the wagon and team of oxen. Brandy sets her sights on the virile half-breed Rolling Thunder who is to be the wagon train’s scout.

As a teen, Thunder was sent to Boston by his white mother to his unsuspecting grandparents (they’d thought she’d been killed but instead she’s been living all these years with Thunder’s Indian father). Thunder slipped right into his new environment and in a few short years graduated from Harvard and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Now, he’s returned to the West, hating war, and resumed his Indian identity.

Initially, Thunder refuses Brandy’s request that he guide her party, but when he is falsely accused of gunning down another in a gunfight, she steps in saying he’s agreed to work for her. As the date of their departure nears, Brandy’s thoughts focus on Thunder rather than her intended.

Thrown into each other’s company on the long days and nights on the trek across the prairie, Brandy and Thunder battle each other and their attraction. He’s domineering; she’s petulant. A force beyond their control, however, draws them inexorably together, and helpless to resist, they soon surrender. She’s destined to be Sam’s wife, but her heart yearns for another.

As a reviewer, I adhere to the doctrine that a good romance is subject to the same standards as any other work of fiction. I want believable characters, a coherent plot, and good writing. Dance on the Wind fails to satisfy on all points.

The characters are time-worn stereotypes: the beautiful white virgin who’s annoyingly spunky and devoid of common sense, the taciturn hunky half-breed hero who’s college educated but returning to his native roots, cute orphans, plucky pioneers. The helpless-heroine-needs-masterful-hero-in-the-wilderness plot’s been used so many times it’s left wagon ruts in the western romance landscape. It doesn’t help that this one suffers from uneven pacing and some preposterous coincidental plot twists. Moreover, the awkward writing style makes the reading tough going.

Thunder had first met Ward in Boston when Thunder had been fool enough to fall in love with Ward’s beautiful niece, Elaina. She was a chapter of his life he wanted to bury permanently, but he thought of Ward fondly. Ward had been one of the few bright spots in Thunder’s eastern experience.

The parsonage was built into a square with a large courtyard in the middle. He had passed the front doors before, but figured another door would be on the side for supplies. And, sure enough, when he rode around the corner he saw that a second pair of double doors were mounted at the back of one of the side wall. Formidable, Thunder thought.

Oh, puh-leeze, I thought.

Brandy is one of those heroines who are proof that airheads are nothing new. She’s been raised in an American frontier town in a church parsonage/orphanage and has learned absolutely nothing. Her hands indicate she’s never done a lick of work in her life. She doesn’t know how to cook, clean, or manage children, and, of course, she’s utterly clueless about the facts of marriage. It’s obvious why no one in Independence wants to hire her: anyone who can reach adulthood in that time and place and have absorbed not one single piece of practical knowledge isn’t a good employment risk. Here we have a CAP (Catholic American Princess) without a single marketable skill. What was Father Brown thinking when he raised her?

But not to worry. Thunder’s got enough arrows in his quiver to more than compensate for Brandy’s blank resume. Harvard-educated, battle-seasoned, self-sufficient, kind to children, and one fine piece of manhood. Could any sheltered maiden resist?

What about Sam Owens? What are the chances he’s any kind of competition for our hunky hero? Of course, that’s a good thing because Brandy has no experience whatsoever in making intelligent, informed choices so if he were a good catch, she’d be at a loss.

Speaking of intelligent, informed choices, when it comes to deciding which romance to buy, I advise readers to waltz right on by Dance on the Wind. It’s got about as much going for it as a team of oxen in ballet slippers.

--Lesley Dunlap

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