At first. . .[Wilderness] appears to be derivative and ridden with cliches. . . .If you can hang on. . .the author builds a powerful adventure story, animating everyone. . .in a gorgeous, vividly described American landscape. People
Much touted by its publicist, this first novel features Englishwoman Elizabeth Middleton, who hardly expects to fall for an American frontiersman when she travels to the New World.
It is very rare that debut novels reveal much mastery of craft, character, and story. But in rare instances, they do. Margaret Mitchell, with Gone with the Wind, created a masterpiece, which was unfortunately her only novel. Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear was another first novel that soared. Well, let me introduce you to one of the best new storytellers to come around since Diana Gabaldon.
Sara Donati is truly amazing.
She has with this, her first published novel, created a lush canvas of richly drawn characters and fascinating stories all in one great fictional world. I am so used to reading hyperbole about new fiction that I'm immune to most of it at this point. So I was pleasantly shocked as I read Into the Wilderness, turning page after page, trying to find a place where I could put it down, and found that I could not stop reading. Do not pass this book up. Do not let it get by you. Sara Donati is the real thing, and Into the Wilderness will no doubt become a popular classic.
In her acknowledgments, Donati thanks, among others, J. F. Cooper. The "J. F." stands for James Fenimore, and Donati is gracious to thank him. Into the Wilderness owes a delicious debt to the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper, and even those who haven't read him are sure to know the hit movie of a few years' back, "The Last of the Mohicans," based on his novel of the same name. There are echoes of this story within Into the Wilderness, but they serve more as reference points than anything else. Donati has created a wholly original tale, using the background of 18th-century North America and the mingling of Mohawk and Six Nations culture with the growing pioneer culture of the post-Revolutionary War.
I cannot recommend this book to you highly enough. There are a lot of wonderfully romantic novels out there, but this one goes beyond most. It is a startling story, one that moves smoothly and manages to create a world for the reader to fall in love with and take to the heart. But I'm sure you want to hear more about it, so here goes:
Elizabeth Middleton never considered herself an outsider until she left her secure existence in England for the wilds of America. It's the winter of 1792, and she did not know real cold until she arrived in the forests of upstate New York, where her father owns an immense property called Paradise.
She has come to teach all the children of the area, but upon her arrival she finds several roadblocks to this goal, not the least of which is that her father has not really prepared the way. Instead he has been trying to arrange a sensible marriage between Elizabeth and Richard Todd, a well-to-do doctor. Elizabeth learns why: Her brother Julian not only lost their dead mother's inheritance to Todd in gambling but even cut into his father's money with his debts. Now their father is cash-poor. A good marriage for his daughter would not only make the old man happy but also ensure that a wiser man than Julian would be at the helm of the vast estate their father has spent his life building.
Elizabeth is horrified at her father's scheming, even while she understands the dilemma. She's ready to bolt back to England. But the sparks fly when Elizabeth meets Nathaniel Bonner, the white son of Hawkeye, who in turn is the son of Chingachgook. Those familiar with James Fenimore Cooper's stories will recognize a bit of this lineage. Nathaniel is white in skin only. He is wholly Native American. He and his family, which includes a young daughter by a wife who died in childbirth, survive by the good graces of Elizabeth's father. But they seek to somehow purchase the mountain they occupy from him in order to allow the area to maintain some kind of permanent dignity.
Elizabeth is the only white person in the area to appreciate the humanity of the local Indians. The white families all around her fear them, and have created myths about them. Someone has even gone so far as to steal from Nathaniel and his relatives so that they have been destitute during the long winters. As her respect and admiration for Nathaniel Bonner grow, so does their love for each other. But within the very community in which Elizabeth lives, something far greater threatens their future happiness.
No synopsis of this story will do it justice. It is all too rare that a first novel leaps into the imagination as quickly as does Into the Wilderness. The author's ability to create both romantic sparks and historical depth around a fascinating epic story is masterful, to say the least. Miss this at your own risk.
--Jessi Rose Lucas
Jessi Rose Lucas's first romance novel, The Swan Prince, is forthcoming. She lives on the New England coast and is currently working on her second novel, The Tarnished Knight, a medieval romance about Lancelot and Guinevere.
At first. . .[Wilderness] appears to be derivative and ridden with cliches. . . .If you can hang on. . .the author builds a powerful adventure story, animating everyone. . .in a gorgeous, vividly described American landscape. -- People
Elizabeth Middleton is a 29-year-old spinster who leaves England in 1792 with her brother Julian to join their father, a judge with significant land holdings in upper New York State. She plans to establish a school where she can teach the children in the village of Paradise, but has not counted on the sexy, diverting presence of Nathaniel Bonner, a white man raised as a member of the Mohawk tribe. The attraction is immediate and mutual, and the two quickly become involved in a steamy affair. Elizabeth must take great pains to keep their romance hidden from the narrow-minded villagers and from her father, who wants her to marry the local doctor, Richard Todd (Todd's ample funds could help pay off the judge's many debts).
When she defies her father and elopes with Nathaniel, her family and the village are horrified. The lovers disappear into the woods, where Todd tracks them ruthlessly. When Nathaniel is wounded by an accidental gunshot, Elizabeth travels solo for days to seek aid for her now-husband. Along the way, she's captured and nearly killed by the evil Jack Lingo, who is pursuing long-lost Tory gold that he believes Nathaniel has hidden away. When she and Nathaniel finally return to Paradise, it's only to face the hamlet's ingrained bigotry. Exemplary historical fiction, boasting a heroine with a real and tangible presence.
Read an Excerpt
"I have a question for you."
"Yes, Mr. Bonner?" She did not raise her head.
"Will you please say my name?" he said with an intensity which caused gooseflesh to rise on her arms.
She hesitated. "Nathaniel."
"Look at me and say my name."
Elizabeth looked up slowly.
Nathaniel saw in her face an overwhelming confusion. He saw that she had never stood like this with a man, that she had never imagined doing so, and that she was flustered and even a bit frightened, but not unhappy to be here with him.
"What did you want to ask me?"
"How old are you?"
Elizabeth blinked. "Twenty-nine."
"You've never been kissed, have you?" The white cloud of his breath reached out to touch her face. His hands jerked at his sides but he kept them where they were. Now she would tell him to mind his own business, and he could put this woman out of his head.
"Why?" said Elizabeth, raising her eyes to his with a critical but composed look. "Do you intend to kiss me?"
Nathaniel pulled up abruptly and laughed. "The thought crossed my mind."
Her eyes narrowed.
"Why do you want to kiss me?"
"Well," Nathaniel said, inclining his head. "You seem set on going back to England, and the Mahicans say that you should never return from a journey the same person."
"How very thoughtful of you," she said dryly. "How benevolent. But please, do not discommode yourself, on my account." She began to turn away, but Nathaniel caught her by the upper arm.
"Now I, for one, hope you don't rush off," he said. "But I want to kiss you, either way."
"Do you?" she said tersely. "Perhaps I don't want to kiss you."
Elizabeth was afraid to look at Nathaniel directly, for how could he not see the doubt on her face, and the curiosity? And what would that mean, to let him know what she really thought, how confusing this all was to her? To tell a man what she was truly thinking--this was a thought more frightening than any kiss could be.
"I didn't mean to get you mad," Nathaniel said softly.
"What did you mean to do, then? Have some fun at my expense, but not so much that I would actually notice that you were making a fool of me?"
"No," he said, and Elizabeth was relieved to see all trace of teasing leave his face. "I'd like to see the man who could make a fool of you. I meant to kiss you, because I wanted to. But if you don't like the idea--"
She pulled away from him, her face blazing white. "I never said that. You don't know what I want." Then, finally, she blushed, all her frustration and anger pouring out in pools of color which stained her cheeks bluish-gray in the faint light of the winter moon.
"So," Nathaniel said, a hint of his smile returning. "You do want to kiss me."
"I want you to stop talking the matter to death," Elizabeth said irritably. "If you hadn't noticed, you are embarrassing me. Perhaps you don't know much about England--I don't know why you should, after all--but let me tell you that there's a reason I am twenty-nine years of age and unkissed, and that is, very simply, that well-bred ladies of good family don't let men kiss them. Even if they want to be kissed, and women do want to be kissed on occasion, you realize, although we aren't supposed to admit that. To be perfectly honest with you"--she drew a shaky breath--"I can't claim that anyone has ever shown an interest in me at home--at least, not enough interest that this particular issue ever raised its head. Now." She looked up at him with her mouth firmly set. Her voice had lowered to a hoarse whisper, but still she looked about the little glen nervously, as if someone might overhear this strange and unseemly conversation. "You'll forgive me if I question why you would be thinking of kissing me."
"It's a wonder," Nathaniel said. "How purely stupid Englishmen can be. Scairt off from a pretty face--don't you scowl that way, maybe nobody ever thought to tell you before, but you are pretty--because there's a sharp mind and a quick tongue to go along with it. Well, I'm made of tougher stuff."
"Why--" Elizabeth began, sputtering.
"Christ, Boots, will you stop talking," said Nathaniel, lowering his mouth to hers; she stepped neatly away.
"I think not," she said. "Not tonight."
Nathaniel laughed out loud. "Tomorrow night? The night after?"
"Oh, no," Elizabeth said, trying halfheartedly to turn away. "I cannot--pardon me, I must get back."
"Back to England?" he asked, one hand moving down until he clasped a mittened hand. "Or just back to your father?"
Nathaniel saw Elizabeth jerk in surprise. She looked up at him sharply, her eyes sparkling. At first he thought she was angry again, then he saw that it was more complicated than that: she was furious, but not at him. Not at this. This almost-kiss, the idea of it, had released something in her.
"It isn't right that my father misrepresented things to me, that he brought me here under false pretenses, that he made plans for me that I want no part of."
"You don't want Richard Todd," Nathaniel prompted.
"No," Elizabeth said fiercely, and her eyes traveled down to focus on his mouth. "I don't want Richard Todd. I want my school."
"I will build you a school."
"I want to know why you're so angry at my father, what he's done to you."
"I'll tell you that if you really want to know," he said. "But someplace warmer."
"I don't want to get married."
He raised an eyebrow. "Then I won't marry you."
Her eyes kept darting over his face, between his mouth and his eyes, and back to his mouth, the curve of his lip. He saw this, and he knew she was thinking about kissing him. Nathaniel knew that this was a conflict for her, one not easily reconciled: she did not want marriage, and in her world--in this world--there could not be one without the other. This struggle was clear on her face, and as he expected, training and propriety won out: she was not quite bold enough to ask for the kisses she wanted. This disappointed him but he was also relieved. He didn't know how long he could keep his own wants firmly in hand. And this was not a woman who could be rushed.
"I want . . . I want . . ." She paused and looked down.
"Do you always get everything you want?" Nathaniel asked.
"No," she said. "But I intend to start."
Elizabeth let Nathaniel turn her back toward the house. Her hands and feet were icy, her cheeks chafed red with the cold, but she was strangely elated, her head rushing with possibilities. She felt that she could face her father now and that she must, she would, have her way. She had no intention of mentioning Nathaniel to him, of what had passed between them, although she recognized, she knew, that this was not over. She knew that it had just begun, and that it would take her places she could not yet imagine. It frightened her, how far she had come in just a few days, but it was also deeply exciting.
A strange thought came to Elizabeth: if her father would not give her what she wanted, Nathaniel might help her take it. He was a man such as she had never known before, and she wondered if he could be a part of her life and not an obstruction in it. She cast a wondering and speculative sideways glance at him, and shivered.