I enjoyed Whitehorse right from the start. But make no mistake -- the emphasis in Katherine Sutcliffeís first contemporary work of fiction is definitely not on the romance.
Leah Foster and Johnny Whitehorseís teenage love affair came to an abrupt end once Leahís father, prominent senator Carl Foster, learned she was dating the impoverished son of one of his Native American ranch hands. After threatening to fire Johnnyís father if she ever saw him again, Leah ended her relationship with Johnny without revealing her fatherís involvement.
Twelve years pass and the tables are turned. Dr. Leah Starr has returned to Ruidoso, New Mexico, now a divorcee with a profoundly handicapped young son, Val. Johnny is the wealthy, if embittered, owner of what used to be the Fosterís 800-acre ranch. Leah is now his tenant in the rundown house where Johnny spent his childhood.
Leah is struggling to make her large animal veterinary practice a success. This part of the book really came alive for me. The prejudices Leah faced as a vet in a field dominated by men read like a feminist All Creatures Great and Small. The author obviously loved her subject, making this the strongest portion of the book.
When Johnny and Leah meet again, the attraction is still there and it isnít long before their relationship is renewed. But once again, itís Leahís father who threatens to tear them apart. Johnny holds a grudge against Senator Foster and, after much searching, finds evidence of illegal activity that could ruin the Senatorís career. Johnny must now decide whether to expose the man he holds responsible for his own fatherís suicide, knowing it will end his relationship with Leah.
This short synopsis doesnít begin to explore the complexity of Whitehorse. It is packed with major issues -- including the difficulties Leah faces, both as a female veterinarian and the mother of a severely handicapped child, plus Johnnyís bitterness with Senator Foster and the problems of the Apache community -- that all take precedence over the romance.
I had a difficult time understanding Leahís blind loyalty to her dad. Her father ignored her for much of her childhood, broke up her relationship with Johnny, drove Johnnyís father to suicide and provided little support, emotional or financial, to his handicapped grandson. Senator Fosterís discomfort in admitting any member of his family was not physically perfect was loathsome, especially in light of Johnnyís unwavering devotion to Val right from the start. I lost a little respect for Leah by that point.
As the book moved towards its conclusion, the scenes in the uncorrected proof I read became somewhat choppy, as if the finished book was too long and became the victim of clumsy editing. This is a complex story that deserved to be fully fleshed out. In particular, the reader deserved a final scene with Leah and Johnny.
Whitehorse certainly passed my put-down test, since I was unable to go to bed before I finished the book. However, if youíre expecting a typical romance you might feel a bit let down. The conflict between Leah and Johnny was resolved relatively easily, shifting the focus to Johnny's desire to discredit Senator Foster and Leah's struggles to make a success of her business while trying to raise a handicapped child. This made the final denouement, from a romantic perspective, less than satisfying. But if you're a fan of Katherine Sutcliffe, and are in the mood to try something a bit different, then I expect you'll want to give Whitehorse a try.