War Cloud's Passion
Nowadays, authors who want to write historical romances with American Indian heroes must find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Judging from our reviews, historical-wallpaper romances with imposing braves grunting pidgin English and carrying off squawking female captives seem to be out of favor, and I’m all for that. But War Cloud’s Passion shows that it’s possible to go too far the other way, into modes of thinking that are popular now but very unlikely for their historical characters. While I found this to be a readable, enjoyable romance, too many glossed-over details strained plausibility past the breaking point.
Anna Wiley is a young woman leading the last dozen children on an “orphan train” out West to find families for them. When Anna sees an Indian child bound in chains she tries to intervene, and when the child escapes from his captors she hides him under her skirts. Soon after the train is attacked by a band of Indians, who methodically kill every man, woman, and child on the train, including the other woman traveling with Anna. Only the Indian child’s intervention saves Anna and her dozen orphans from the massacre. The boy is Lame Bird, the younger brother of War Cloud, the Cheyenne leader of the band attacking the train. War Cloud is clearly in charge, and makes it plain he would prefer to kill Anna and the orphans on the spot, but somehow Anna manages to gloss over these details since she doesn’t actually see him kill anyone. By dusk of the day of the massacre, she’s already agog at War Cloud’s masculine beauty and wishing she weren’t so plain. Anna is resolute to do her best for the orphans, so she offers War Cloud anything he wants in exchange for safe passage to a white settlement. When he suggests that sexual favors might be required, she’s more than a little intrigued.
That intrigue is the first of what I found to be many gaping implausibilities. War Cloud speaks fluent English because he was once a scout for the army, so he and Anna can talk with no difficulty. However, Lame Bird speaks no English and yet Anna is able to communicate equally well with him, because she spent a whole month studying Indian sign language in Kansas City. On the one hand, I really liked it that War Cloud’s and Lame Bird’s conversations in their own languages were translated as eloquently as the main body of the text, if not more so. But the equally fluid translations of Lame Bird’s and Anna’s conversations rang completely false. While I don’t doubt that Lame Bird can sign “To lose an enemy, it is necessary to be able to disappear. One cannot do that easily in a large group, but splitting up into smaller and smaller units, one can at last lead the trail into nothing,” I really can’t believe that after a month Anna could understand all of it.
Following the group across the plains to War Cloud’s tribe, threatened by whites and Indians alike, provides an interesting story. And yet there’s too much focus on Anna’s wounded self-esteem and whether War Cloud will sleep with her and too little focus on the business of how they survive in the wilderness with a dozen orphans. All of the practicalities are glossed over a bit too much; only three of the orphans are ever named and they are all completely ignored unless they’re dredged up to give a needed nudge to the plot. The happily-ever-after is the same way; this is a case where I really needed to hear some details of how this unlikely couple will manage to have a long and happy life together, and none are forthcoming. What bothered me most of all, however, was that Anna’s attitude towards War Cloud simply did not read like a believable woman of her times. I really think I’d need more than a few hours after a massacre before noticing that my captor was quite the hunk. While the author clearly made an effort to present both sides of the conflict fairly, I think it would have been a better book if the understanding between Anna and War Cloud had been a bit harder-won. As it is, Anna is so readily able to see the Indians’ side of the story that she sounds like a college student from the 1960s, not a sheltered city girl from 1869.
If I was able to ignore the historical implausibilities and read this as a pure romantic fantasy, I would have had a much better time. There’s a nicely mythic framing legend of a family curse that War Cloud and Anna must defeat, with the occasional intervention of War Cloud’s departed ancestors. The prose is well-written, sometimes elegant. The action was often gripping and when the cultural conflicts did surface, they were interesting too. I would far rather read this book than the typical “Indian romance” of the past. However, while I prefer this view of history to the one that came before, I would still rather have a story that scratched deeper than the surface of such a challenging conflict.