Desert Isle Keeper
During the Irish potato famine, Gerald Keegan, a schoolteacher of County Sligo, made a note in his diary about a gift of corn from the Choctaw Indians of the United States. Eileen Charbonneau has taken this diary entry and fashioned an unusual and compelling historical novel around it.
Rachel LeMoyne is part French and part Choctaw. She and her brother, Atoka, live in the Oklahoma Territory at a mission where they were taken after their parents died during the Choctaw removal. Rachel helps teach the children at the mission and she is loved and respected there – a peace chief among her people. Rachel is a Christian, but has not totally abandoned her ancient Choctaw beliefs. When the Choctaw nation hears about the famine in Ireland, they vote to send some of their surplus corn to the starving Irish. Rachel goes to Ireland as a representative of the Choctaw, along with Miss Wakefield, one of the Presbyterian missionaries.
In Ireland, Rachel is appalled by the suffering and immediately begins to take steps to distribute the corn. She does not make the Catholic Irish convert to Presbyterianism as a condition of aid, and that earns her the enmity of Miss Wakefield. In Ireland, Rachel is aided by Darragh Ronan, a millworker who has a price on his head. Rachel and Darragh have to leave Ireland to save his life, and they are married on board ship. When they return, they have to leave to escape the wrath of Miss Wakefield and the immigration authorities. Darragh and Rachel change their name to Mr. and Mrs. Dare Swimmer and they and Atoka move to St. Louis.
In St. Louis, they encounter prejudice. This is the time of NINA (No Irish Need Apply), and Dare is forced to masquerade as an Englishman. While they are in St. Louis, Dare works in a print shop and Rachel finds out that Miss Wakefield has been keeping from her all the letters her uncle has been sending. Rachel’s uncle and aunt live in Oregon and want to see their niece and nephew. Dare and Rachel are forced to flee again when she is stabbed and almost raped by the son of Dare’s employer. They again change their name, this time to Mr. and Mrs. Dare Gilmartin and join a wagon train to the Oregon territory.
The trip to Oregon is packed full of events and character development. Dare and Rachel make several friends among the company and soon become almost indispensable to the other members of the wagon train. Dare excels in handling horses and so does Rachel’s brother Atoka. Rachel and Atoka save the wagon train by talking and trading with the Indian tribes who live on the land the company passes through. Rachel is well-versed in finding edible and medicinal plants and she also helps teach the children in the party. Atoka changes from a lost and bitter young man, to one with a sense of purpose and place. He rescues a young white woman who had been a captive of the Indians and then spurned by her family, and they are married on the journey. Rachel and Dare also grow closer and their marriage, which has been one of convenience, becomes a true bond of souls.
I started this book feeling a little bit leery. I just don’t like Indian historical romances. Most of the ones I have read were very simplistic and full of that awful “Me Brave Wolf” dialect that I just hate. Rachel LeMoyne is not that kind of book. It is not simplistic; the characters in it are well-rounded and not the least bit stereotyped. I was very impressed by the masterful way Eileen Charbonneau uses language to evoke the character’s backgrounds. Both Dare and Rachel speak English perfectly well, but it is clear from the way they talk that English is their second language. There are a few Choctaw and Gaelic words and phrases sprinkled through the book, but not enough to be disconcerting.
There is an afterward to the book where Ms. Charbonneau explains the origin of the story and the sources for many of the characters in her book. There is also a bibliography of historical sources for those who are interested in reading more about this period in Ireland and America.
This is a superb book. It’s not light and fluffy, but it is not at all difficult to read. Dare and Rachel are two of the most admirable people I’ve encountered in a book and I grew to love them and empathize with them over the course of the story. I am a very fast reader, but I read this book slowly, savoring the characters and their stories. Rachel LeMoyne is a book that I am looking forward to reading again.