Superstitions by Annie McKnight
(Leisure, $5.50, PG) ISBN 0-8439-4405-6
**
The late author and critic John Gardner said that there are only two basic plots in literature: you go on a journey or a stranger comes to town. He could have reached that conclusion reading western romances. In fact, two might be a stretch.

Countless westerns have featured the plot where the heroine pursues her misplaced lover/fiancÚ/husband into the vast open spaces accompanied by the hero who she gradually discovers is a much better man (lots sexier too) than the one she thought she wanted at the beginning of the story. The pursued male conveniently turns up dead or otherwise unavailable so there're no obstacles to True Love.

So how does Ms. McKnight vary her story to distinguish it from the stacks of western romances that have blazed this well-worn trail? She sets it in Arizona instead of the more usual Texas. Excuse me if I'm underwhelmed.

Billie Bahill is worried. She's "committed the act of love" twice with Elliot Stevenson (you know he's a loser because Elliots are never the hero), now she's pregnant with his child, and her father's coming home.

Billie's father, the colonel, a wealthy rancher, has raised her to be a rough and tough cowgirl instead of a feminine weakling like her dead mother. The colonel tells Billie that Elliot dumped her when the colonel told him that he'd disinherit her if she married him. Billie is heartbroken.

Arizona Ranger Sam Gray (guys with single syllable names are real virile) is taking a prisoner to trial and to a hanging. He tells Billie that he would never have left her in the lurch the way Elliot has if she were his. It's obvious that Sam is a Real Man who'd stand by his woman no matter what in contrast to Elliot, an artist (a real sissy vocation), who didn't even have the decency to tell her he was leaving face to face.

Billie receives a letter from Elliot informing her that the colonel tried to bribe him to dump her and he's gone off to locate the Lost Dutchman Mine in order to gain the fortune he needs to win her. Billie knows that she's been raised tough enough to endure poverty with the man she loves so she sets off to follow him into Arizona's Superstition Mountains.

Sam hears that Billie's disappeared, so he goes looking for her. When he finds her, to Billie's outrage Sam treats her like a tenderfoot saying that it's too dangerous for her out in the wild. He insists that she go home. But the brothers of Sam's executed prisoner are on the rampage, and the Superstitions are about to become more dangerous than even Sam knows.

Billie is the kind of heroine that ought to be tossed down the Lost Dutchman's mineshaft. The kind who claims she can "take care of herself" but clearly can't. The kind who declares "I hate you" to the hero but sneaks peeks at his gorgeous physique. The kind who allies herself with the bad guy to get away from the good guy. It's hard to care whether there's a happily ever after in her future. (Incidentally, the clinch cover picture has her wearing a lace-trimmed, bosom-baring party dress in the wilderness. Even Billie knows better than that.)

Sam is much more admirable. He's what a western hero ought to be: trustworthy, brave, laconic. This is a man a gal can depend on. Ain't it a shame there're so few women in Arizona that he has to get hitched to Billie?

I've noticed lately that a lot of the westerns I read seem pretty much the same. Superstitions hasn't changed my opinion. But if you can't get enough of this plot, you might have a different opinion.

--Lesley Dunlap


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