A Willing Spirit by Cynthia Sterling
(Jove Haunting Hearts, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12530-X
Cynthia Sterling makes a smart move with A Willing Spirit in opening the book at a point where Tessa Bright, a young widow, has already come to terms with the fact that her late husband’s ghost is hanging around.

As I reader, I generally come into a book like this -- with any sort of supernatural element -- already aware of and ready to accept the unusual aspect. So it’s usually a little tiresome to wade through pages and pages of the characters trying to get a grip on the situation. But on the other hand, it would be unrealistic for the characters to easily accept the unexplainable. In this book, the reader is spared the expected disbelief, denial, and fear the heroine would normally have to go through, and that makes for a smooth and instantly intriguing beginning.

Tessa lost her husband, Will Bright, more than a year ago, and she’s been single-handedly running their ranch and horse-trading business ever since. Recently, that single-handed management has become literal -- she’s broken her left arm. So she’s looking for a hired hand (pardon the pun) to help her out and take care of a few repairs that have been needing attention since her husband’s death.

But her former husband is looking for more than that. Specifically, he wants to hand-pick Tessa’s next husband. Since Tessa was little more than a girl when he married her, Will still sees her as a vulnerable figure. He wants her next husband to take care of her, the way he always did. He also wants someone who can invest Tessa with irreproachable respectability, so that she can finally be accepted into the town that has snubbed her for years.

Micah Fox is clearly not the right man. Half Kiowa Indian, half white, he’s an outcast in any society, and his association with Tessa can only bring her scandal, not respectability. But Tessa isn’t nearly as fragile and helpless as Will believes, and when Micah shows up on her doorstep, she knows he’s the only man who can help her -- in large part because he’s the only one who’s offered.

And so they begin an uneasy alliance and friendship. As their relationship develops, Tessa paradoxically finds herself more and more involved in community activities. At last, she’s finding the acceptance she’s craved and making the friends she’s longed for, but her growing feelings for Micah may force her to make a difficult choice -- give up Micah, or give up everyone else.

At the same time, Micah is fighting his own feelings for Tessa, knowing that any relationship between them would ruin her reputation forever, and understanding too well what it means to be an outcast. And finally, Tessa must come to some sort of resolution in her relationship with Will, and Will must understand that she is strong enough to take care of herself, before either of them can move forward.

Ms. Sterling has crafted some interesting and truly human characters in this book. I understood perfectly Tessa’s pride and fear of rejection in her dealings with the townspeople, and I identified with her need for acceptance and her warm joy at finally receiving it. At the same time, it was easy to see why she felt so drawn to Micah.

He’s a painfully sympathetic character -- a lost man looking for a place to belong, but still strong, proud, and self-sufficient. He’s got all the makings of a tough guy, yet his sensitivity shines through clearly. I don’t know quite how the author gave him such a quality of human need without making him pathetic, but she managed it perfectly.

Their relationship is strong and well-developed, as well. Their interactions felt real, uncontrived, and I came to believe that they truly did belong together -- a must for any good romance.

And I have to say that the secondary characters are also very well drawn. The town minister, the resident “loose woman,” and even Tessa’s late husband could have easily fallen into the stereotypes of self-righteous prig, vicious vamp, and overbearing creep, but they didn’t. Instead, the author gives them all heart and personality, creating flawed but good-hearted and thus, realistic characters. And a lot of authors could take lessons from Ms. Sterling in portraying Indian characters -- the ones in this book possess intelligence, humor, and the ability to speak in complete sentences. What a refreshing change from both the Tonto-esque monosyllablists and the solemn all-seeing wisemen of other books I’ve read.

This isn’t a story with a lot of action, but it’s a story with a lot to hold a reader’s interest. The characters and their relationships are the focus, and the story moves along quickly with the pleasure of getting to know them all. The final resolution seems a bit doubtful, a sharp contrast to the realism of most of the book, but for me, it didn’t detract much from the overall pleasure of reading such a thoughtful, interesting, and touching story.

As I think about it, Ms. Sterling made a lot of smart moves in this book, and reading A Willing Spirit might be a smart move for you.

-- Ellen Hestand

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