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Into the Wilderness: The Long Hunters
by Rosanne Bittner
(Forge, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-765-30066-4
Once upon a time in America the western frontier was east of the Mississippi, and the French, along with the eastern Native American tribes, were very real threats to the English colonists. With the first book in her new Westward America! series, Bittner takes on the 1750s and the French and Indian War. Iím happy to report that this well-known author of historically rich 19th century western sagas is equally at home in the 18th.

Noah Wilde is a ďlong hunter,Ē someone who hunts game for settlements and forts. When French-loyal Iroquois warriors slaughter his young wife, he seeks his revenge by becoming a spy for the English. Noah has the perfect cover; his father is French, so he speaks the language fluently, and his occupation makes him an excellent scout and interpreter.

Jessica Matthews is out gathering firewood when she is attacked by Ottawa Indians. Luckily, Noah happens on the scene, saving her life, but becomes injured in the process. As he recuperates at the Matthewsí cabin, he and Jess fall in love. Unfortunately, he was on his way to report to his superiors in Virginia, and must leave Jess and her family in order to carry out his mission. He promises to return, so they can marry and start a life together.

If only it were that simple - Noah is delayed in Virginia, and is then roped into a new mission helping a young George Washington. Anxious about Jessís safety, he leaves the Washington party only to discover he is too late. Jess has been captured by Delaware Indians, and Noah immediately sets out to find her.

The authorís handle on the time period, and the historical detail, really are what make this story stand out. Just by reading the first few chapters, itís clear that the author really threw herself into research. Besides Washington, several other real historical figures stand alongside those that are solely the authorís creation. In particular, there are two maternal characters that are real standouts.

One canít talk about Rosanne Bittnerís writing without mentioning her complex Native American characters. She continues to be one of the few writers that doesnít resort to bloodthirsty stereotypes or noble savage nonsense. In a story where it would have been very easy to write one-dimensional Indian villains, the author adds depth.

Readers should be aware that Into the Wilderness is not a conventional romance. The love story between Jess and Noah plays more of a secondary role, and isnít as fleshed out as the nuances of the French, English and Indian conflicts. The couple has a quick courtship, and Jessís early feelings for Noah seem more like puppy love. There is a sizeable age difference between the two - Jess is 16 to Noahís 29 - which may bother some, but I found barely an issue given the time period and circumstances. Likewise, while there is a happily ever after, it comes at a high price - readers are left with the feeling that it isnít going to be all sunshine and rainbows for the couple in the years to come.

While war is often used as a backdrop in many historical romance novels, it is rarely addressed with the savagery as it is here. While tame on a sensuality level, there are more than a few gut-wrenching moments. Readers with weak stomachs, or those looking for something light, should consider themselves warned.

Into the Wilderness marks the beginning of Bittnerís second hardcover series for Forge. Each subsequent book will move forward in time, and take the reader farther west. Historical romance fans tired of looking at wallpaper may be more than ready to hop on the covered wagon.

--Wendy Crutcher

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