Dancing on Coals
If you asked most people who live in the American West to name a Native American Indian tribe, they would most likely give the generic name of the local tribe. O’Connell takes this one step further in her new novel by portraying a specific tribe, a subgroup of the Apaches.
As with her previous books, Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold and Sing My Name, her newest one is a gritty, realistic look at life in the Old West, replete with the dirt, dust, and hardship that comprised daily survival. This isn’t a book for the faint of heart.
Shipping heiress Katherine Grant is furious when her father and brothers sail away, leaving her on the East Coast ostensibly to stay and become a lady. Since Katherine has been with her all-male family on every other adventure, she thinks it’s unfair that she must now learn how to become civilized women in the late 1800s.
Head-strong Katherine resolves to travel across the continent having her own adventure, which works out well until she lands in the Arizona territory where her stagecoach is attacked. Civilized behavior as she knows it ends at this point in the book.
First she is at the mercy of robbers who plan to rape and kill her; then after shooting and killing one robber, she’s rescued by Apache brothers, one who wants to keep her and another who wants to kill her at most, abandon her at least. The calmer and happier of the brothers prevails, mostly because, she realizes, the older brother is very protective of his younger sibling and is willing to do whatever the younger man wants.
Handsome young Nilchi and his surly, bitter older brother Gaetan, as children having been taken from their families to be retrained by white missionaries, speak English, which makes dealing with them much easier for Katherine. Nilchi admires Katherine because she killed one of the robbers, but she can tell by the contempt radiating from him that Gaetan hates her. Actually, as far as Gaetan is concerned the only good white person is a dead one. And Katherine is definitely white.
At that point readers will have that twitchy feeling when they realize the love interests are so far apart that bringing them together won’t be easy and possibly not pleasant. This reaction is spot on in this story.
Before they can get back to the village, Nilchi dies in a surprise attack. Stuck with Gaetan, who won’t let her go off on her own in strange territory, Katherine tries to make peace with him. That’s a losing proposition since Gaetan’s hatred of whites is so ingrained and not unjustified. Returning to the village, Katherine learns that Nilchi and Gaetan were the community hunters, so Gaetan dumps her with an old woman who needs help and gallops off to kill more whites and take their possessions to be divided among the community members.
So really begins Katherine’s education about Apache life and Gaetan’s appreciation of the tough, resilient Katherine. His respect for her grows as he sees her not backing down and not giving up. Her respect for him blossoms as she realizes how dedicated his is to the tribe’s well-being and how hard he works to keep them from being rounded up and sent to a reservation.
As I said earlier, this is a gritty book. While it has the requisite happy ending for Katherine and Gaetan, discerning readers understand that there was no happy ending for the Apaches. O’Connell isn’t shy about airing her stance on Native American history and affairs, which occasionally slows the story and gets in the way of the romance.
But even with the few soap box moments, this powerful book will delight O’Connell fans and win her new ones.