The Best Man

Brides of Prairie Gold

Promise of Jenny Jones

A Stranger's Wife

Silver Lining by Maggie Osborne
(Ivy Books, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-449-00516-X
Maggie Osborne turns the traditional western romance on its head. Ever since Owen Wister’s The Virginian, the stock plot has followed the story of the prim Eastern woman who comes west, meets a cowboy, rancher, sheriff, marshal, or nice outlaw (take your pick), and who falls for our virile hero, while struggling to adapt to the wild, wild west and its mores. What Osborne so often does -- and does well -- is to reverse roles. Instead of the civilized woman and the uncivilized man, she gives us the uncivilized woman and the civilized man. And what fun the reversal can be!

Silver Lining is vintage Osborne. How less civilized can we get than a heroine known as Low Down? And how more civilized than a wealthy rancher who is planning to return to his hometown, marry the banker’s daughter, and settle into a life of high finance? Then, fate intervenes to bring these two together.

Piney Creek, Colorado, a mining town, is hit with a small pox epidemic. Most of the good citizens flee. There is no one to care for the sick and dying except Low Down, who had the disease as a child. For weeks she tends the sick, washing them, feeding them, dosing them, and sometimes almost forcing them to choose life rather than death. When the epidemic is over, the survivors want to honor the woman who saved their lives. So they offer her anything she wants. Low Down doesn’t want a house or riches or a py-ano. She wants a baby, and she blurts out her wish without thinking.

The men have promised to grant Low Down’s wish, so the unmarried miners choose lots to see who will father Low Down’s child. That no one jumps to volunteer in a woman-short world gives us some idea of Low Down’s apparent lack of appeal. She’s a tall woman dressed in miner’s clothes who has been on her own since she ran away from her foster parents fifteen years earlier. She’s made her way in the man’s world of the mining camps and can out cuss and out drink any man in Piney Creek. She is not the stuff of which romantic heroines are usually made.

As luck would have it, Max McCord draws the marble with the X. Max had come to the gold fields more on a personal quest than in search of riches. He is planning to return to Fort Houser, marry blonde, petite, lovely Miss Philadelphia Houser, and live happily ever after. Honor demanded that he participate in the drawing, and now honor demands that he give Low Down what she wants.

But there’s a problem. Preacher Jellison, the town’s spiritual advisor, isn’t going to permit any unsanctioned baby-making. Low Down doesn’t want a husband; she just wants a baby. Max certainly doesn’t want to marry Low Down. But before they know it, they are standing before the preacher being joined in holy wedlock.

The story is in some ways predictable. Low Down cleans up very nicely and Max and she develop a working relationship and perhaps something more. But Louise, as she now becomes, plans to leave once she gets pregnant. She’s not going to hold Max to the marriage. Still, for the first time, Louise finds what it’s like to have a family and a home. Leaving will not be easy.

The situation is complicated by Philadelphia’s behavior and her father’s determination to punish Max for his actions. But most of the story centers on the emergence of the real Louise and Max’s discovery that drawing out that marble with the x might have been the luckiest moment of his life.

Strong characterizations, an interesting premise, well-drawn secondary characters, and a fully realized setting make Silver Lining a joy to read. In fact, I kept reading it way past my bedtime, a sure sign of that I was fully involved in the story. Maggie Osborne is one of my favorite western romance authors and Silver Lining is one of her best books.

--Jean Mason

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