If you like westerns and all the action that goes with them then you will surely enjoy the reissue of Joan Johnston’s second book, Colter’s Wife, originally published in 1986. Set in Wyoming territory in 1875, Johnston tells the story of a half-breed woman desperately trying to survive in the male-dominated world of ranching. Just as she is about to give up, Benjamin Colter offers her a deal she simply cannot refuse.
Kinyan Holloway’s world turned upside down after her husband of eleven years died, leaving a large ranch to run and three children to raise. The ranch has been her home since adolescence, and rather than return to her Sioux roots, she chooses to raise her children on the ranch instead. She knows the tribe is considering a war with the whites and believes the best way to insure a future for her family is to remain in the white world.
Benjamin Colter is a drifter ready to settle down. After spending eight years searching for the men who killed his wife and daughter and left him scarred, he’s been able to track down two of the three men responsible, and while the third remains at large, he’s decided to end the vendetta and move on with his life. Though he believes he will never know love again, Colter wants a place to call home.
Knowing nothing about running a ranch, and realizing that as a woman she’s unprotected, Kinyan needs help in order to save the ranch and protect her children’s inheritance. Unfortunately, Ritter Gordon, head of the local cattleman’s association, wants both Kinyan and her land, and won’t take no for an answer. As a matter of fact, he’s already announced their engagement. Kinyan doesn’t trust the unscrupulous Ritter – with good reason – and soon enough Colter makes the same determination.
Ritter unknowingly set the wheels in motion that bring about his long overdue downfall. His actions anger Colter, and he makes an enemy he cannot beat. Colter offers to buy Kinyan’s ranch, but she refuses; the ranch is her children’s legacy. But they agree to an alliance in which she marries Colter, he manages the land, and teaches Kinyan how to run the place (just in case her new husband dies so she will not have to depend on a man). In return Colter gets the land he covets and sets down roots. Though the chemistry between them is obvious, learning to live with one another presents new challenges. Colter wants all the rights a husband should have and Kinyan doesn’t want to share her new husband with any other woman.
It’s not often that I read a romance and dislike the heroine. But for the first third of this book, I struggled to care for Kinyan. She commits an act of nearly unforgivable cruelty when she originally left her tribe by not revealing to the brave who loved her that she no longer loved him. This has repercussions later in the book and actually results in some very poignant moments, but it took some time for her to redeem herself in my eyes. Her choices often improve and her reasoning, even when flawed, makes sense. As for Colter, he’s a textbook tortured hero who lost everything in a cruel twist of fate and spent years searching for justice. He’s dark and brooding, and spends too much time walking away from the women (Kinyan and her daughter, who reminds him of the daughter he lost) in his life. I wanted to scream at him “just tell her what happened!” more than once. This lack of subtlety shows the book’s age. He finally deals with his loss near the end of the book, ensuring an HEA. Better late than never, but slightly less angst would have been appreciated.
The book’s secondary characters made for some interesting triangles. Kinyan’s dead husband’s presence lingers too long in her new marriage. Granted, he’d only been dead a short period, but adjusting the timeline would have been more effective as he’s still a major part of the story halfway through the book. And the Sioux who’s loved Kinyan from afar adds a welcome layer of pathos; while I hated the way she dealt with the relationship, I loved how he dealt with her.
Johnson does a great job presenting Kinyan’s heritage as a half-breed living in a white world where she can easily “pass” for all white. Not only does she grieve the loss of her husband with her family, her children visit their grandparents and learn the Sioux culture. Though I don’t know enough about Native American culture to pass judgment on whether the Sioux were historically accurate, it is to the author’s credit that they were made an integral part of the story and not simply “cigar store” Indians.
Colter’s Wife is a story about love, loss, revenge, and having the courage to continue with life in the face of death and adversity. It should appeal to those who enjoy angsty, brooding heroes, stoic heroines, and western romance. Though there’s a slightly dated feel to the book, readers yearning for the sort of meaty, romance of yesteryear will find it here.