The Outlaw's Woman
Upon returning from her husband’s funeral, Dena Clayter discovers a wounded outlaw in her kitchen. So begins Tanya Hanson’s promising, yet inconsistent debut novel.
Dena is an intelligent, well-educated woman who was raised in privilege and, due to a series of misfortunes, was forced to marry Gottleib Clayter, a much older farmer. She is dutiful to him, but he is both impotent and abusive, and she is not particularly sorry to see him go. She inherits his prosperous farm, which she is determined to run herself with the help of hired hands. When she encounters the outlaw, she is unexpectedly drawn to him. She bandages him and sends him on his way, but when a blizzard forces him to return she welcomes him back with relief and warmth.
The outlaw, who calls himself Thomas Howard (it is obvious from the beginning that this is an alias), is an associate of Frank and Jesse James, and is on the run for his life. Thomas admires Dena, both for her beauty and her strength, but he dares not stay – if he is discovered here, Dena could be implicated as an accomplice. They spend several days trapped together, united against the Pinkertons and others who are out to find him. During this time we get to know them fairly well, especially Dena, whose struggle between loyalty to her unloved husband and passion for this stranger is sympathetically rendered. By the time Thomas leaves again, their relationship has deepened into love, and he promises to return. They both know that’s a promise he may not be able to keep.
While there’s nothing terribly new here, the author does a very good job portraying the enforced intimacy of a couple trapped together by the snow. These early chapters are very romantic; they require that you suspend your disbelief about love at first sight, something I was happy to do in the case of these likable, vulnerable characters. Hanson also does a nice job showing us the rural Nebraska countryside and the farm community where Dena lives.
The book has several serious problems, however. Melodramatic prose intrudes and distracts, and the narration of the first couple chapters jumps around in time – a rather clunky attempt at foreshadowing. More gravely, the book’s middle sags. During this section, Dena and Thomas are separated, and meanwhile we are treated to a long digression about Sioux culture and the mistreatment of the Sioux people at the hands of white settlers. This is interesting but quite irrelevant to the central story.
When Dena and Thomas finally do reunite, they are stricken with a Big Misunderstanding. Typically, the misunderstanding is perpetuated at cost to the characters. There is no good reason for Thomas not to tell Dena his secret. There’s even less reason for Dena, until now a forthright and outspoken character, not to tell Thomas exactly what’s bothering her. They spend the latter third of the book trapped in a pointless refusal to communicate, and I, who had stuck by them all this time, felt I deserved better.
I believe all these problems to be symptoms of the author’s inexperience. A more practiced author would smooth out the early foreshadowing, and would know how to incorporate the material about the Indians into the plot, rather than tacking on a lecture in the middle. Many of the book’s flaws are, to some extent, offset by Hanson’s skill in portraying setting and mood. But not much can save a book from a the dreaded Big Mis.
If you like love-at-first-sight stories and you’re interested in the American West, you could do worse than to give The Outlaw’s Woman a try. It is a little too flawed to win a hearty recommendation from me, but I see enough promise here to believe that Hanson’s second book – about Dena’s rather stuffy brother-in-law Jonah – will be better.