Implausible, awkwardly written, and with enough New Age political correctness to sink a Prairie Schooner, I struggled to finish this book.
Anna Wiley is escorting twelve orphans from New York to Kansas to find them homes with pioneer families. Tall, plain and believing herself unappealing to men, Anna has devoted herself to working with orphans thinking it’s the closest she’ll ever get to motherhood.
On the train out of Kansas City, Anna is concerned when she overhears talk about unrest among “them Injuns.” Shortly thereafter, an Indian boy is hauled on board the train and, to her horror, is casually abused by his white captors.
When the boy manages to escape, Anna hides him beneath her skirts where he stays until the train is attacked by a Cheyenne war party. They immediately slaughter everyone aboard. Anna and her charges are reluctantly spared when the boy she helped intercedes with his brother, War Cloud, who is leading the raid.
War Cloud’s people do not leave survivors behind, so Anna and the children may not wait for another train but must go with him. Begrudgingly, he sets off across the prairie trailing this unlikely group, with no apparent plan or destination.
Unfortunately this also pretty much describes the rest of the story.
Anna is, on the whole, ridiculous. She has no reaction at all to dozens of people being massacred in front of her; she’s too busy worrying about the children to bother about minor details like that. On the other hand, she manages to forget the children entirely at the sight of War Cloud’s studly muscles, leaving them to do goodness knows what while she chases him all over the prairie to complain about how rude he is and sneak peeks at his firm buttocks.
When he offers to take them to a white settlement if she will perform “the duties of a wife” Anna is astonished. Why, she can’t marry him! She is so plain! And they are of different faiths! Once she realizes that marriage was not what he had in mind she chases him all over the prairie to explain that she can only give herself to him if they’re married - but she’ll make the sacrifice for the sake of the children.
The author finds this theme so fascinating that it’s covered over and over and over. I pretty much got it the first time.
War Cloud gives new meaning to the phrase “wooden Indian.” He speaks fluent English, but his conversation for the first half of the book consists mostly of “Humph!” I could understand that he didn’t want to encourage Anna’s blithering, but he was so resolutely impassive as to be virtually devoid of personality. He shows flashes of both humor and intelligence later, but never manages to get much beyond a cardboard cutout of the noble savage.
For some reason - proximity we’ll have to suppose - the two find themselves attracted to one another. Because of a family curse, however, War Cloud can never commit himself to a woman.
This poses a new problem for Anna, who, once her hormones are up, is desperate to “dance in the rhythm of love.” At one point, when War Cloud offers to let her off the duties-of-a-wife hook, the poor thing is reduced to actually insisting that he take her virtue - for the sake of the children, of course.
Although she invokes them frequently, the kids are virtually invisible. They’re impervious to the killing and hardship, and all twelve of them trot after Anna and War Cloud for days without a word of complaint or a moment of misbehavior. Occasionally one of them will toddle out of obscurity (say, to scream at an opportune moment), then fade back into the long grass. They didn’t enhance the story, they just made it even more improbable.
Finally, the writing itself is cumbersome and stilted. Using unnecessarily long words and almost no contractions at all was probably meant to convey the formal tone of a bygone era. The actual effect was to rob both story - and War Cloud - of the occasional bits of passion they actually managed to generate.
Bottom line? Humph!