What The Heart Knows
Grade : A

"Oh, man," I thought, when I read the cover of Kathleen Eagle's new book, "not another secret-baby story!" But saying Eagle has written a secret-baby book is like saying Margaret Mitchell wrote about the Civil War. What the Heart Knows is a finely crafted and moving tale of love, loss, and a chain of events that will reunite a woman with the only man she's ever loved.

Helen Ketterling returns to the Bad River Lakota reservation for the first time in 13 years, as an undercover agent in a casino the Bureau of Indian Affairs is investigating. But the danger facing Helen has nothing to do with suspected illegal activities: she encounters retired NBA player Reese Blue Sky, her former lover. She never told him about Sidney, the son she was petrified Reese would take from her under the provisions of the Indian Child Protection Act.

Reese has come home for the funeral of his father, killed in what seems to have been a simple hit-and-run accident. It doesn't take him long to decide that there's more to it than that: his father was an outspoken critic of the way the casino is being run, and there are plenty of suspects to draw Reese's suspicions, including his brother Carter, the casino manager. Bumping into Helen after all these years is a real shock. Reese has never married, never had children, and seeing her again rekindles old desires. But he has a secret, too, one that threatens the life of the son he never knew about. And untangling all the twisted wires in his life - his father's death, his relationship with Carter, to say nothing of the shock Helen and Sid represent - will demand patience and understanding.

I did not dislike a single thing in this book. Eagle's intimate understanding of contemporary Indian life shines through in every sentence; her touch is deft and sure. The characters are immediately accessible to the reader, and their motivations, while hidden from each other, are crystal-clear to her audience. She's done mountains of research, and it shows in the best way: you don't notice it, you're never overburdened by it. And she delivers past history just right - a drop at a time, revealing the past layer by layer, so that the reader discovers things gradually. You never feel as if you're being hit on the head with it.

I've read too many secret-baby books to be fooled by the "hop, skip, oh, I have a child and I've always loved you, now let's be one happy family" approach. That doesn't happen here. Everybody - mother, father, son - agonizes and acts very human when confronted by each other. Helen's motives for keeping knowledge of Sidney from Reese are heartbreakingly plausible, and his reaction when he finds out is equally credible, while Sid reacts like a believable adolescent. The cast of secondary characters is just as well done, and although the illegal-activities plot acts as a scaffold on which to hang the more important love story, it makes sense and holds the reader's interest.

In true Eagle fashion, the setting adds rather than detracts. Reese is getting back in touch with his Indian roots, and the delicate dance he and Helen perform with each other - the love scenes are beautifully handled - takes place in this context. Surprisingly, one of the most important secondary characters isn't even alive, but he still has a deep impact on the story.

One of the rules of good writing is to write what you know. What the Heart Knows demonstrates that Kathleen Eagle knows this world, knows these people, knows about this kind of love. This book will not disappoint readers looking for a complex, heartwarming story. If you'll pardon the pun, I have no reservations in recommending it.

Buy it at Amazon/iBooks/Kobo

Reviewed by Nora Armstrong
Grade : A

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : August 2, 1999

Publication Date: 2000

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