Pieces of Sky

Open Country by Kaki Warner
(Berkley Sensation, $15, PG) ISBN 978-0-425-23430-3
I enjoyed Kaki Warner’s debut novel, Pieces of the Sky very much.  I like her second book even more.  Open Country continues the story of the three Wilkins brothers of Rosaroja Ranch in New Mexico Territory in the early 1870s.  Like its predecessor, it paints an unstinting picture of frontier life while at the same time offering a sense of the beauty and attraction of this wild place.  It has a great hero – Hank, the second brother, a hulking, complex, intelligent and handsome man with all the issues of a middle child.  What makes Open Country especially attractive is the heroine; Molly McFarlane is one of the most interesting heroines I’ve encountered recently.

Molly has had a most unusual upbringing.  Her mother died when she was twelve and she was left to the care of her doctor father.  Dr. McFarlane was a brilliant surgeon and medical innovator.  His profession was his life and if Molly wanted any attention, she had to become part of that life.  So at an early age, she became her father’s assistant.  Molly saw and did things that no respectable young lady of her time should have seen and did.  She assisted at surgeries, she worked with the wounded after the siege of Atlanta, she tended the dying at Andersonville.  She is herself a skilled healer, although she does not enjoy the title, doctor.

As the story opens, Molly has been called to her sister’s deathbed.  Nellie is dying of consumption; she knows it is too late.  But she makes a startling request of her sister: that Molly take her two children – eight year old Charlie and six year old Penny – and flee Savannah that very night.  Nellie is deeply afraid that their stepfather, Daniel Fletcher, will harm them.  Charlie and Penny are all the family Molly has left; her father died a few weeks earlier, a supposed suicide, although Molly finds this difficult to believe.  Molly knows something is terribly amiss; Charlie especially is deathly afraid of something or someone, what he calls the “monster.” So Molly and the children steal off into the night.

We soon discover that Fletcher is indeed a dangerous man.  He is involved with a group of Confederate dead-enders, who have plans to reignite the conflict that ended six years earlier.  We also discover that a very important document is missing from Fletcher’s possession.  The leader of the conspirators wonders if the children know something about its whereabouts and instructs Fletcher and another operative to find Molly and the children.

A month later, Molly, Charlie and Penny are on a train traveling through Texas.  They had spent the previous four weeks moving from one place to another, trying to insure that they are not being followed, but having the uncomfortable feeling that they are.  Now, Molly is hoping to make it to California where she believes she can find work with a friend of her father.  Her resources are low.  And then the train runs off the track.

One of her fellow passengers is Hank Wilkins, whose bulk and bushy beard have drawn Molly’s attention.  When the crash occurs, Hank – after saving Penny – rushes off to try to help and is sorely injured.  Molly goes to the aid of the injured and discovers that the train company will give $300 to the widows of those killed.  Believing Hank to be dying, she claims to be his fiancée.  When she learns that a betrothed will have no claim, she arranges with a sympathetic minister to “marry” the unconscious man.  She is left to care for him, the local doctor having abandoned his post.  Then Hank’s brother arrives on the scene, and Molly is forced to face the consequences of her lie.

Brady Wilkins is highly suspicious of this woman who claims to have won his brother’s heart.  He forces her to confess her deception.  But Brady also recognizes Molly’s medical skills; she does save his brother’s life and his arm.  Brady blackmails Molly into returning with him to the family ranch, both to care for his injured brother and to be available to assist his pregnant wife Jessica.  Molly has no choice but to continue the masquerade and hopes that she and the children will be safe at remote Rosaroja.

When Hank recovers consciousness, he at first suffers from amnesia and while his memory mostly does return, he never does recall marrying Molly.  But he is willing to believe that this woman who cared for him so tenderly and effectively is his wife.  He agrees to “court” her until such time as he remembers their relationship.  Of course, Molly is all too well aware of how Hank will feel if or when the truth comes out.

Kaki Warner has created a most satisfying romance.  Molly’s upbringing has set her apart from other young women of her class.  She has had no suitors, no experience with love.  She does not comprehend her own attractiveness, both in appearance and character.  Hank has his own insecurities. He had been jilted by a shallow young lady some years earlier and is distrustful of women.  But he finds Molly intriguing and has no trouble believing that he might have fallen in love with her.  Watching Hank and Molly discover each other is a real treat.

Likewise, Warner does a fine job with the danger that looms over Molly and the children.  There are ruthless men who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals and the suspense is palpable.

Open Country is a worthy successor to Warner’s debut novel.  As in the previous book, the wild, implacable land and its challenges and grandeur are beautifully described.  The realism of the setting enriches the reader’s enjoyment.  I am looking forward to the third book in the trilogy and to reading many more fine books from this most promising author.  

--Jean Mason

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