I’ve heard some readers say they dislike reading Scottish historical romances from the period immediately preceding the battle of Culloden because they have a hard time believing in any happy ending when they know such happiness is doomed by history. I have the same sort of difficulty with 19th century Indian romances, which is the category in which Navajo Sunrise falls. But author Elizabeth Lane doesn’t make any pretense that things are great, or are going to be great for her hero and heroine. And while this is historically accurate, it makes for a rather depressing romance novel.
Miranda Howell is on her way to visit her emotionally and physically distant father at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, before her impending nuptials. As she and her military escort near the fort, she spies an elderly Navajo woman shivering and hungry in the falling dark. She insists on stopping to help the woman, using her position as the daughter of their commanding officer to override the objections and blatant disregard for human life by the soldiers of her escort. She gives the woman her own food and cloak, but is immediately confronted by another Navajo, a handsome and proud man named Ahkeah. He scorns her gifts, telling her that the Diné, as the Navajo call themselves, can take care of their own. As they argue, Miranda’s escort takes matters into their own hands, with one soldier knocking Ahkeah unconscious to keep another man from shooting the known troublemaker. Reluctantly, and only on Miranda’s insistence, they load Ahkeah into the wagon to bring him to the hospital at the Fort, a place the Diné fear, and one where few survive. Miranda places the rebellious warrior’s wounded head in her lap as the party makes its way toward the Fort, and from that moment on, Miranda and Ahkeah are bound in a relationship of struggle – both against each other, and against those who would tear them apart.
Miranda is a decent and likable heroine, neither stupid, nor overly “spunky”. She doesn’t come west looking to save the Navajo, but when she sees an injustice, she feels compelled to act and to protect human life and dignity. On the other hand, she’s still a bit distant from the reader. When she reveals a rather important fact about her past about two thirds of the way through the book, it’s not something I would have guessed. And while this revelation doesn’t exactly conflict with her characterization, it does serve to illustrate how little we know her. I never really felt like we got into her head and heart fully, and she never became a completely rounded character for me.
Ahkeah, similarly, is a decent, but distant hero. He’s been through tragedy – losing his pregnant wife on the Long Walk from his homeland of Dinétah to the wasteland of Fort Sumner – still he has a reason to live, in the form of his daughter Nizhoni. Nevertheless, he despises the indignity in which his proud nation is now forced to exist. He’s also one of the first believable Indian-hero-who-speaks-English-and-knows-White-ways that I’ve ever read since he’d been captured by the Comanche at the age of nine, and lived as a slave in Mexico for eleven years before escaping. While he’s a bit more fully developed than Miranda, I still didn’t feel all that close to him, even as I could admire him from a distance. That distance is what kept this book in C territory.
The deplorable situation into which the Navajo were forced at Fort Sumner is depicted in a starkly realistic light. The suffering of the Diné and the indifference of most of the Whites is documented in such a way that the reader can easily tell how passionately the author feels about such a dark period of American history and also can’t help but feel moved by it. Perhaps the most compelling of Ahkeah’s thoughts comes when he looks at his young daughter and is filled with determination that she will never be one of the many girls who sells herself to the soldiers at the Fort every night in exchange for a full meal and a warm bed.
While Ahkeah and Miranda both share that goal, their beliefs about how the Diné should proceed are very different. Ahkeah believes that the Diné will survive only by retaining their beliefs and culture, and by one day returning to the sacred land of Dinétah, where their gods will make them prosperous and whole once again. Miranda believes that the only way they can survive is to learn English and the ways of Whites, to become educated, and attain equal position in American society to that of Whites. In a way, they represent the conflict shared by American Indians, then and, to some extent, now. If the characters were developed a little more fully, they might have been more than symbols of this conflict.
As a book, this is a truly interesting, if depressing read, in terms of the plight of the Navajo at Fort Sumner, and the hardships they faced. As a romance, it falls a bit short, both because of the characters’ distance from the reader, and also because of their distance from each other, all of which could have been solved with a bit more “rounding”. This could have been a truly great book, but missed fulfilling that potential. However, I remain hopeful regarding Lane’s future work; where this came close, the next one may well succeed.