The Gate to Eden
by Cathy McDavid
(Leisure, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-5692-5
***
Maddie Campbell is a desperate woman. Her husband, along with one hundred and sixty-six others, was killed in a mining accident. The mining company, faced with the loss of so many men, reneged on its promise of back wages and bereavement pay. Forced from her home to a tent city called Eden, Maddie and the other widows must struggle for the survival of not only themselves, but also their children.

Having taken on odd jobs -- not an easy task for a woman in 1887 - the women still find themselves unable to make enough money for food, clothing, healthcare and the basics of life. So they hatch a bold plan: they will rob the owners of the company, again and again, until they receive the money owed to them.

Mine owner Thaddeus Newlin isn't about to let a band of rogue thieves rob and humiliate him. He hires former US Marshal Scott McSween to track down the robbers, so he can bring them to his own kind of justice. Which isn't hard, since he has the town sheriff in his pocket.

Scott doesn't much care for Newlin, nor does he really need the money, but there is a pretty young woman working in the company store, he'd like to get to know better. The only problem is that as time goes by, she seems to know a bit more about the robberies than she should. The women of Eden quickly realize that Scott's weakness for Maddie can be used to their advantage. The plot of seductive woman using her feminine wiles against the unsuspecting male certainly turns up often enough. But in this case, the female isn't acting of her own volition. The women of Eden have a council of sort that seems to rule their lives - even dictating who their visitors are. I found myself more irritated with Maddie for not standing up to the council than I did for manipulating Scott. Maddie wasn't likable, per se, but I respected her ability to cope, to improvise and to survive.

While the morals of the main character seem circumspect, The Gate to Eden presents a fairly good argument for Maddie's crimes: she has a deaf daughter at home who's hungry and needs new clothes. But is it necessary for the women to humiliate the men? Tie them up and leave them naked, or inflict some other kind of psychological warfare on them? As the reader, I couldn't get past this. Maddie's desperation doesn't make up for the despicable nature of her actions. Of course, Newlin is presented as a man who's just asking for it. He's flat, one-dimensional and pure evil - and has a bit of a deviant, sadistic sex life just to make the reader dislike him even more. It seemed a bit of overkill to this reader.

The most interesting thing about this story is Eden itself. It's a great concept - the idea of a town full of widows and orphans living in a matriarchal society in the Old West. For their safety, men aren't allowed past the gates (hence the title) and armed guards patrol the area. The women have divided up the labor and have formed a huge family. I loved the idea that the prostitutes in Edenville acted as spies for Eden, but hated the double standard that being in the brothel was more demeaning than robbing the mine owners. The women of Eden will accept information from the brothel girls, but view that occupation as below them. Which, okay, it's not a dream job, but they're starving and being "forced" to rob people!

That idea baffled me. How one thing was better than the other, I didn't quite understand, but morality is a very subjective thing.

The Gates of Eden received a three-heart rating, because despite not really liking the heroine (or being able to remember the hero's name), it had a compelling plot. McDavid's action scenes were well crafted - full of tension and leaving the reader wondering when exactly our heroines would be caught. It's a compelling drama with complex characters (except for the villains, who were too clear-cut for my taste) and genuine emotion. I may not have always liked the characters, but I always felt for them.

a

--Amanda Waters


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