Touched by Fire
by Gwyneth Atlee
(Zebra, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6227-3
***
Touched by Fire is an interesting debut by historical author Gwyneth Atlee. Set against a little-known disaster, namely the Great Fire of Wisconsin in 1871, it's the tale of a desperate woman who lies her way into a mail-order bride situation, only to have it fall apart on her.

Hannah Shelton is a social pariah. Divorced by her adulterous husband Malcolm on trumped-up charges of adultery herself, she's lost her father's land and is ready to take a desperate chance in order to ruin Malcolm. She uses a bucket of blood stolen from the local butcher to fake her own death, then hops on a train and heads for Wisconsin, where a mail-order husband awaits. John Aldman need never know what she's done or that her real name is not Mercy Wilder.

John is not there to meet her as she steps off the riverboat in Peshtigo. Instead, a giant of a man who identifies himself as Daniel Aldman, John's younger brother, greets her. Daniel and Hannah take an immediate dislike to one another. He's suspicious; she's afraid he'll see through her. But Hannah boards with Aunt Lucinda and Daniel's little daughter Amelia, who welcome her. And the stiff-necked, pious John seems pleased enough with his pretty bride-to-be. Perhaps this will work out after all.

Disaster strikes in the form of a telegram sent to John, inquiring into the whereabouts of one "Mercy Wilder", who is really Hannah Shelton. Malcolm is hot on Hannah's trail, determined to clear his name and see her dead for good. John and Aunt Lucinda promptly turn their back on Hannah in disgust, and in order to survive while waiting for the next riverboat, Hannah does mending and boards in a rundown house with an elderly couple. Daniel is reluctant to listen to Hannah's side of things, but neither of them can deny their deepening attraction to each other.

Then the winds start to whip and the forest goes up in flames, taking all of Peshtigo with it.

The section of the book dealing with the fire's devastation is possibly the most gripping account of a disaster I've ever read in a romance. Gwyneth Atlee deserves kudos and applause for her realistic portrayal of a town in its death throes, and the people who die with it. It's not a pretty read, but you won't be able to put it down. And the images may haunt you.

The rest of the book deals with Hannah's continued attempts to escape the brutal and sadistic Malcolm, and the Aldmans' realization that she is a woman of courage and honor after all.

The writing is clean, the characters are sympathetic, and Touched by Fire has a lot to recommend it. There is a fun secondary romance between John and the irrepressible daughter of a wealthy family who forces him to unbend. Amelia is cute without being too precious, too.

It did feel too long, though, as though the story was dragged out. Malcolm began to take on "Chuckie doll" overtones of being the villain who will not die, and after he attacks Hannah, the mood of the story changes from one of "thank God we're alive" to "nobody could ever love me after what he did to me." The story became darker, if that was possible, and the focus shifted from Daniel and Hannah to a plot-driven story structure where the romance took a back seat. For most of the second half of the book, Daniel and Hannah hardly spend any time together. So while I was happy to see Malcolm get his ultimate comeuppance, the romance left me fairly unmoved.

But Touched by Fire is a strong debut that deserves a look based on its setting and use of a fascinating historical event as a catalyst. I'll be looking forward to Gwyneth Atlee's next book. Romance needs more authors who are willing to step out of the box like this.

--Cathy Sova


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