"The Bend in the River"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 27, 2005)
About once a year I decide to pick up a “western” or in this case a novel about a frontierswoman. O.K. let’s be straight – an historical romance set in the wild west. When author Susan Gibbs asked if MostlyFiction.com would review her novel I read the chapter excerpt and flagged the request as a possibility. Later, when I kept wondering what would happen next, I decided that I’d accept a review copy, with the caveat that it could take a while for the book to be reviewed.
So when it arrived, I set it in the usual “TBR” pile – since it is essentially a self-published novel, I didn’t have high hopes that the book would stand up to my scrutiny. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I picked it up to skim through it. It was the Saturday in the middle of the long Thanksgiving weekend, I’d been on the go and was so tired that I couldn’t get out of my own way. So I went from skimming the novel sitting at my computer to sprawling out on the couch. I read nonstop for the next six hours, made dinner (barely) and continued to read until near midnight. The next day I practically had to lock the book up so that I wouldn't open it. The day was busy and I didn't get back to it until near bedtime when I decided to just read for "a bit" before going to sleep. Right. I couldn't find a spot to put the book down until I had reached the end.
So what makes this book so addictive? It is the simplicty of the writing style coupled with the spellbinding events of this young woman's life set in a time and place that has evoked curiousity and wonder in me since childhood. Ironically, it is not all that happy of a story, but that, I think, is one of the reasons it drew me in. Though I'd like think that I'm not curiously morbid, well the author seems to knows better.
Not quite seventeen-years-old, Emma Jordon and her family have been living off the land sharing a remote soddy just north of Indian territory in Kansas. It is 1877 and Emma is uneducated, except for the books that she gets everytime her parents take her to the distant trading post. A tragegy causes Emma to bury both her parents and to set off for the security of that trading post. When the novel opens, Emma is nearly frozen-to-death under a tree, when she is found by a half-breed Cherokee warrior Indian, named Shea Hawkshadow. He brings her back to his people and restores her health. Naturally, having been raised to fear Indians, Emma is frightened and plans to escape. But it is winter and not a good time to travel, especially without a horse or supplies. The Chief decides that Emma should repay their kindness by teaching Shea how to read so that he can know what the next new treaty offers before they sign. But this being a romance, means that Emma soon discovers that she is in love with Hawkshadow. As for Shea, he is wild about Emma. Moreover, meeting her releases him from the loneliness he faces since no Cherokee woman will want to breed with him since he is the son of a white man. Once things get beyond carried away, Shea does propose to Emma. The Chief tries to dissuade it, he knows the trouble it is likely bring to his people as this will be seen as an unnatural union in the eyes of most white people, made all the more upsetting since Emma is a natural beauty. Emma and Shea have their way, though, and are married the next day.
Though this is a tale about Emma Hawkshadow and her most unusual life; it is also a very damning story about what life was like for the Native American population as the white government reneges on promises and takes advantage of the illiterate population --- especially as the railroad tracks make westward expansion all the more popular.
Soon after Shea and Emma marry, the government wants to move the Cherokee to Kansas but the Cherokee want to return to Yellowstone county. Chief Little Wolf knows that Emma should leave them because of what they are about to undertake. But when Emma figures it out, she chooses to go along with them. Thus, we follow Emma through the Cherokee breakout in 1878 when they sneak away in the middle of the night (and under the watch of the calvary) to make their way north. This is a bloody and dangerous journey in which the Cherokee know that they will lose much of their population but it beats the alternative of living on land that is barren of wildlife. Emma is eventually caught and brought back to Fort Robinson where she is treated with much prejudice as an Indian’s wife and as a prisoner as they try to break her until she reveals the whereabout of her husband's people who are months later, still alluding the calvary. Here she suffers harm by one of the soldiers and witnesses the torture and and massacre of a group of Cherokees that had been traveling with her husband's tribe.
Emma does eventually achieve freedom and is led by a reporter to Shea and his people. What seems like an ideal location and treaty – the Cherokee are awarded some land in the territory that they were trying to escape to – they still can't escape hate. A local militia intent on teaching Emma and Shea a lesson about intermarriage disrupt the peace and once again Emma and Shea are on the run. They finally settle down in an abandoned cabin near a Washington lumbertown. At this point Emma is 8 months pregnant. Lucky for them, the owner of the hunting cabin lets them stay partly because he recognizes them from the newspaper reporter's series of stories and partly from the moment he meets Emma he is in love with her. And, so begins another chapter in her long life.
The novel is bridged by one tragic event after another with brief periods of happiness. Very simple stuff but fun to read since it lets us experience the west in its wilder days. From the beginning, we know there is something fishy about Emma's story as to why Shea Hawkshadow finds her where he does. Though pieces are revealed at suprising times, the truth serves as a mechanism to explore other aspects of this time period, including much later when she experiences an addiction and a psychiatrist breakdown. There are many men besides Shea who will love and cherish Emma. And as a reader, it is easy to cheer her on as she overcomes one hurdle after another, a flawed character who continually grows. Even when shown at its most violent, their is romance in the wild west.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Bend in the River at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Bend in the River (October 2004)
- The Widow's Walk
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- The Compulsive Reader review of The Bend in the River
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About the Author:
Susan Gibbs was born in Anchorage, Alaska. She knew from an early age that she wanted to write. After sixteen years, she left a career with a computer services company to pursue who desire to write. With her husband and brother, she formed a publishing company and to begin writing her novels.
Susan lives with her husband in Michigan.