The Hidden Heart by Jane Orcutt
(Waterbrook, $7.95, G) ISBN 1-57856-053-5
****
The Hidden Heart is an inspirational romance from Waterbrook Press, a new subsidiary of Bantam Doubleday Dell. Inspirational romances are romances that feature a Christian theme in the stories. Make no mistake about it, The Hidden Heart is very heavy on the religious focus. It is also the best story set in the post-Civil War American West I've read in a long time.

When she was twelve, Elizabeth Cameron was abducted by Comanches along with her mother and older sister. Her mother and sister were raped and killed; Elizabeth was spared only because she was mysteriously able to speak fluently in the Comanche tongue. She later learned she had recited the Lord's Prayer.

She was given to the tribe's medicine man who taught her much about healing. Her Comanche name translated into Speaks of Her God because of her frequent stories about Jesus. Sunbeam, the medicine man's daughter, became Elizabeth's dear friend, and Elizabeth converted her to Christianity.

Sunbeam married Eyes Like the Sun who had long resented Elizabeth. He eventually raped her repeatedly, but Elizabeth never told Sunbeam because she didn't want to hurt her. When white soldiers raided the Comanche village, they killed Sunbeam and her newborn son and many others in the tribe. Elizabeth was returned to her stern preacher father several months pregnant with Eyes Like the Sun's child.

Elizabeth's father forced her to accept his harsh rules. She would be able to keep the child but not acknowledge it as her own or show any affection to it.

Five years later her father has died. Elizabeth along with Joseph, her half-Comanche son who does not know she's his mother, is traveling by stagecoach to Belton, Texas, to a new home with the Sanctificationists, a group of devout Christian women who live without men. Elizabeth, physically and psychologically abused by her father, is seeking a refuge where she can no longer be subject to male domination.

Caleb Martin has secretly been assigned by Elizabeth's brother, a U.S. marshal, to travel with her to provide protection. Caleb is a convicted robber who has been serving as a deputy marshal in the hope of receiving a governor's pardon.

In spite of her ordeal, Elizabeth's Christian faith has remained strong, and she is determined to raise Joseph in a devout fashion. Caleb disapproves of Elizabeth's cold manner even though he is entertained by Joseph's personality and liveliness. When the stagecoach overturns, Elizabeth's healing skills save Caleb's life, and Caleb sees her in a new light.

Upon reaching Belton, Elizabeth is disappointed to learn that there is no longer a place for her with the Sanctificationists. She is sent instead to live with Anna, an elderly blind woman who is bedridden with severe arthritis. Anna is a loving, saintly woman who has a strong Christian faith. She recognizes Elizabeth's damaged soul and tries to help her find inner peace.

Even though Elizabeth tries to discourage Caleb, he continues to drop by the farm to see both Joseph and her. Gradually Elizabeth realizes that she returns his interest. But Elizabeth's hard-won peaceful existence is threatened when Joseph's safety becomes at risk and their Comanche past jeopardizes their lives.

While Joseph and Caleb have prominent roles in this plot, this is Elizabeth's story. The carefree child of the beginning of the story is forever changed by her captivity and the birth of her half-breed son. She is a wounded soul seeking security and salvation.

The theme of this story is the healing power of redeeming faith. Elizabeth has suffered horrible abuse and deprivation for years, but her hatred has turned inward rather than towards those who have harmed her. She doesn't believe that she is worthy of God's grace even though she knows that Jesus's love encompasses everyone.

I cannot overemphasize the prominence of the Christian message in this book. Bible verses are quoted verbatim, and characters scarcely talk of anything except their faith and its role in their lives. This, in fact, borders on the preposterous. Joseph quotes Scripture at the drop of a hat but rarely asks what's for dinner. After an ordeal that should have brought Elizabeth to the point of complete mental and physical exhaustion, she's still got the energy to experience a new religious epiphany. With little or no convincing motivation, Caleb, as well as other characters, suddenly becomes a devout believer.

There is scarcely a page that doesn't have some mention of the Christian faith, and a very conservative, literal-interpretation version at that. If you're thinking you'll ignore the religious stuff and just enjoy the story, I advise you to abstain from this book because you're not going to be able to avoid the proselytizing.

An additional caveat: if corporal punishment of children bothers you, you might find one scene as disturbing as I did. I have serious reservations about the wisdom of taking a leather belt to a five year-old even when discipline is justified.

I suspect the image of life on the frontier portrayed in The Hidden Heart is much closer to reality than that more frequently presented in romance novels. This is a hard place with harsh and unforgiving people and conditions. If you'd rather have your heroine dressed in lace-trimmed gowns and impressing the lean, rugged hero with her charm and vivacity, this is not the book for you.

But if you like a determined heroine who overcomes adversity as best she can through faith and hard labor and do not mind a heavy chunk of sermonizing at the same time, I can recommend The Hidden Heart.

--Lesley Dunlap


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