Comanche Eagle by Sara Orwig
(Zebra, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-5951-5
****
If you love the Rocky Mountain states and fiction which springs from a significant, historical phenomenon, read Sara Orwig's new novel, Comanche Eagle . The action occurs in and around Cheyenne soon after the Territory of Wyoming enacted radical legislation granting women the right to vote and hold office. If you are thinking "But it was South Pass . . ." or "Hey, why is Orwig using one of those endless Comanche titles instead of the name of an indigenous tribe . . .," you are in for a treat. This author knows Wyoming's history. Twists and turns in her story will prove that to you.

Crystal Spencer is a can-do kind of woman with a problem her ignorance of men and especially the effects of frontier living upon them. After experiencing a refined childhood in Baltimore and learning law by assisting in her family's firm, she is abandoned and impoverished. To survive, Crystal sells everything except her piano and moves West hoping to convince her brother Ellery to uproot his medical practice and accompany her to California. Unfortunately, Ellery's dual addictions to drinking and gambling limit his doctoring opportunities to such rough-and-tumble towns as Cheyenne.

The book opens with a courtroom scene in which Crystal, recently appointed Cheyenne's first Justice of the Peace, hears the case of a brawler. She loves her job and enjoys her reputation as a strict judge, unaware that rigid adherence to the letter of the law is not appreciated by most inhabitants of Cheyenne. In this case, even the testimony of the accused's employer, Travis Black Eagle, a farrier and successful owner of a livery stable, does not convince Crystal to be lenient.

Sparks fly from this first eye-to-eye contact between Black Eagle and the judge. Crystal feels uneasy and intimidated but still imposes a stiff sentence, since she believes it is the only way to maintain her credibility and achieve civility in Cheyenne. Travis is furious with her but pays the fine, since his business will suffer if his employee cannot afford to pay and must go to jail.

Soon after the courtroom drama, Travis' wife dies in childbirth. Ellery Spencer was dragged from a saloon to assist but was in no condition to help, so Travis blames the doctor for his wife's death. Ellery is shot and dies on his way home. As Crystal struggles to cope with her brother's death wondering how she will survive, let alone get to California, Travis Black Eagle arrives demanding to see her. Crystal believes Travis murdered her brother and is so terrified, she threatens him with Ellery's pistol, actually pulling the trigger, only to find the gun is empty.

A haggard, grief-stricken Travis demands Crystal marry him and help raise his two-week old son. Though marrying "Judge Spinster" is anathema to Travis, he believes his child must be raised by an educated, refined woman in order to ease the boy's way into "society." After some negotiating, they make a deal Travis will not touch Crystal, since he has no desire for her body, and, when the child is thirteen, he will free her to move to California. It's a deal she cannot refuse, though she is hurt by a man finding her physically undesirable.

Revelations about Travis and Crystal are so well-paced as the plot unfolds, each reader should experience them without any clues here. Suffice it to say, a very sensitive handling of issues involving Native Americans and some of the more poignant aspects of their history in the American West is a commendable feature of this book. Travis and Crystal come to terms with different views of right and wrong, some personal and some cultural, and share their most hidden secrets.

Though focused on serious issues, Sara Orwig has a wonderful sense of humor. Crystal and Travis know about as much about taking care of a baby as a five year-old who has been deprived of doll-play. Also, I suspect Orwig has observed "nesting habits" of some single males; her description of Crystal's first day at Travis' cabin is worth the price of the book.

This book may be a "keeper" if you care to distinguish between the Laramie Mountains and the Wind River Range or consider visiting South Pass a highlight of your life. If not, you may prefer to trade or loan this book to a friend after reading it, but do read it!

--Sue Klock


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