The Lieutenant's Bargain
This reunion romance brings together two childhood friends who find that their memories of each other must turn upside-down before they can pledge their hearts. Although The Lieutenant’s Bargain is not described as a Christmas novel, this intriguing and smoothly written story revolves around the holiday as it was celebrated in an 1880s Indian Territory school run by Mennonite missionaries. The characters from the first book in the series appear as secondary characters; otherwise, The Lieutenant’s Bargain works perfectly as a standalone read.
Coming from a well-to-do family in Van Buren, Arkansas, Hattie Walker’s parents have specific expectations, and her ambition to become a professional oil painter is not in their vision. Since Hattie has spurned all suitors so far, her parents lay down an ultimatum. Two months is all she has to exhibit or sell a painting. They will finance a trip to Denver as she requests, but if this fails, she is to come back home, marry, and settle in Van Buren.
Hattie is definitely a fish-out-of-water, for she is not prepared for the rigors of stagecoach travel nor for the need of personal protection in Indian Territory where gentlemanly behavior is in short supply. When the stagecoach is robbed, she witnesses the murder of two passengers, and she must spend a horrific night alone on the plains in the bitter December cold with no food, shelter, or adequate clothing. Physically and emotionally exhausted the following day, she mistakes the small group of Indians who find her for savages prepared to do her harm. In fact, these Indians are from the Arapaho tribe and have a good relationship with nearby Fort Reno and cavalry officer Lieutenant Jack Hennessey, who supports the Darlington School where Indian children are educated and acculturated to the white man’s world.
Jack is attending his commanding officer’s wedding when a message arrives from the Chief of the Arapaho requesting urgent help with the crazy white woman found on the prairie. When he arrives at the village, Jack is astounded to recognize the “crazy woman” as Hattie Walker whom he admired as a schoolboy and for whom he has carried a torch for years. The fact that she does not immediately recognize him dents his ego, so Jack devises a plan to play the hero. His scheme is to ‘negotiate’ for her release and ask the Arapaho to turn her over to him in a lavish ceremony to portray him as the competent officer he now is.
Too late, Jack realizes that the tribe has mistaken his request as a desire for a wedding ceremony. Because of Hattie’s Denver plan and her lukewarm reaction when she does recognize him, Jack knows she will want no part of marriage to him, but it is crucial that she play along. Jack has found his purpose on the Arapaho and Cheyenne Reservation as liaison to the Indian residents. Hus marriage signals to the elders of the tribe that Jack has become a man who appreciates the emotions and values of a husband and father. If he disregards the marriage — one of the tribe’s most important and sacred rituals — his role as liaison and the future of the Darlington School will be seriously damaged.
He strikes a bargain with Hattie. If she will play along with the charade of marriage, he will ask his commanding officer for reassignment elsewhere and set her free to go to Denver. With some skepticism, Hattie agrees, Denver firmly in her mind.
The author then takes us on a journey of two childhood friends who are forced to see how years of experience have changed them. We witness the effects of PTSD triggered by Hattie’s ordeal on the plains and the way her artistic talent flourishes when inspired to draw portraits rather than landscapes. Ultimately, with Jack’s support, Hattie’s talent for drawing faces leads to a sketch of the stagecoach murderer for the US Marshal. Hattie and Jack help planning and decorating for the Christmas pageant at the Darlington School and spend hours together on the wagon ride there. Every interaction is an opportunity for them to see each other in a new light, and as time passes, both come to realize how much more complicated and alluring the adult in front of them is.
The novel does not attempt to judge the situation between Native American tribes and the US Government during this period. It does portray a local situation where a military officer understands the government ‘resettlement’ from the Indians’ perspective and is doing all he can to smooth the way for an outcome in which the white settlers and the Indians can live together in peace. The author shows how people following God’s call can make a difference when one class of people have power over another. The Indians trust Jack because he –
“learned who we were before telling us what path to take. We trust you will know our children, too. You will know who they can be in the new world because you know who they were in the old world.”
A strong lesson about encountering unfamiliar peoples and cultures wherever we may meet them.
The characters relate to God in a comfortable way, and the author’s spiritual portrayals are right on track. When Jack meets Hattie again after years and miles of separation, his first reaction – and mine – is to shake his head at the unbelievable coincidence. After some reflection, and consistent with his faith, Jack decides if God arranged something this big, it is worth his full attention. Prayer is important to both Hattie and Jack, but they understand that they may not receive direct replies and rely on God’s gifts of perception, observation and intuition to seek their path. Because of their experience with Native American spirituality, they recognize that God has been on the land long before there was any religion, and they look on Him as a presence, provider and guide without particular dogma attached.
The portrait of God and the portrayal of reservation life are the two strongest aspects of this novel. The author uses an observer perspective with an analytical eye that makes for good description but leaves the flow of the romance at a surface level. Occasional modern phrases like “he was clueless” and “messed it up” lifted me out of the time period and the story sometimes, but overall, I enjoyed reading The Lieutenant’s Bargain, and I feel romance readers will feel very satisfied with this novel of inspiration and history.