When I first received Open Country, I was filled with equal amounts of anticipation and trepidation. The genre – a Western, by golly! – and the author’s sophomore status account for the former; the synopsis, the latter. Happily, I can tell you my final pronouncement is firmly wedged on the positive side.
The story proceeds thusly: Molly McFarlane has taken her late sister’s two children and run away from her brother-in-law in order to safeguard them. She takes a train west from Georgia, praying to find nursing work in San Francisco, but the train derails around El Paso. Many are injured, two men die, and one man hovers between life and death. When Molly hears that the railroad is offering monetary compensation to relatives of the victims, Molly marries the unknown man to collect the insurance to support the children.
Except, of course, he doesn’t die. His name is Hank Wilkins and he is the second of three brothers who own and operate the prosperous Wilkins Cattle & Mining in New Mexico. But amnesia has set in and, even when Hank’s brother Brady comes to collect him, nothing comes back. Brady sees through Molly’s deception, but he coerces her to accompany them to the ranch anyway because Hank needs a nurse, Brady’s pregnant wife needs a midwife, and who knows how the marriage will turn out anyway, considering all the sparks Molly and Hank are setting off?
You will have recognized a veritable compendium of plot devices and clichés that may strike fear into the heart of many a seasoned reader. But I was quickly convinced that Open Country was different. The amnesia disappears quickly, the sparks are real, and Molly is a true nurse, not a fake one who chucks whisky and bandages over wounds. This is a book that makes sense, from the violence of Western life to the depiction of the children to the appearances of a previous couple. It all rings true. The only exception is subplot involving the brother-in-law, which fits like a hexagonal peg jammed into round hole.
Our main couple, however, are wonderful. Molly’s duplicity is understandable and even forgivable because she genuinely demonstrates compassion and an unwillingness to deceive Hank. She’s a great heroine, a realistic combination of strength and vulnerability who made me want to be her friend. And Hank is one of the nicer and more layered Western heroes I’ve read in a while; they have a tendency towards extreme dominance and chauvinism, but Hank is a good man with very still and deep waters. Their romance progresses with humour, heartache, and poignancy that never threaten to become overwrought or artificial; Ms. Warner’s prose rings with sincerity as well as humour.
Open Country is a remarkably polished book. It is an extremely good one to have on your TBR shelf and Ms. Warner is an author to watch.