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Mystic Dreamers by Rosanne Bittner
(Forge, $23.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-86511-2
***
Mystic Dreamers is the first novel in a new hardback series by Rosanne Bittner, an established author of romances set in the American West. Mystic Dreamers is unusual in that the hero and heroine are native Americans and whites play a minor role in the story. For those of us who cringe over the ubiquitous romances featuring the nubile young Indian maiden who drools over the white hunk's powerful chest (and other body parts) or the bronzed Indian brave who lusts after the innocent white virgin, this comes as a welcome relief. I was disappointed, however, in that the source of much of the conflict arises from one of the old over-worked plot devices.

The story takes place in the region now known as Wyoming and South Dakota and in the years 1832 to 1834.

Night Hunter is an Oglala (Lakota Sioux). In a vision, the Feathered One who represents the power of the Oglala tells him to seek the woman blessed by the white buffalo for his wife. He will now be called Stalking Wolf.

Star Dancer is a young maiden of the Sichangu (Lakota Sioux) tribe. Night Hunter's uncle approaches her father and petitions him to agree to wed her to Stalking Wolf. Her father defers his decision until the Council where all the tribes will meet.

Star Dancer is reluctant to wed a stranger no matter how brave and honorable he may be. She does not want to leave her family, particularly her mother and beloved grandmother, and prefers Kicking Bear, a member of her own village.

At the Council, Star Dancer meets Stalking Wolf but is not convinced that she should wed him. When Kicking Bear challenges Stalking Wolf's claim to her, her father devises a contest the first man to kill a hump-back (grizzly) bear will win Star Dancer as his bride.

Stalking Wolf is the winner, and a reluctant Star Dancer travels with him to his village and her new life as a married woman. Because they are practically strangers to each other, she insists that they not begin a physical relationship until they know each other better.

She is welcomed to his village by his mother and sister but feels isolated. She soon learns that Fall Leaf Woman had hoped to wed Stalking Wolf herself. Fall Leaf Woman is a poor loser. She tries to encourage distrust and hostility towards Star Dancer and enlists her brother into discrediting Star Dancer in the eyes of her husband and the whole village. This will eventually lead to tragic consequences and life-threatening challenges for Stalking Wolf and Star Dancer.

In order to appreciate this story, readers must approach it from the perspective of the Lakota. Dreams and visions are not mere fantasies but rather determinative in the direction of one's life. Life is sometimes brutal (there's plenty of blood and gore), and the famed Sun Dance is a noble and meaningful sacrifice rather than a gruesome ordeal. The characters and their actions cannot be judged by present standards.

I am not very familiar with the details of Lakota beliefs and traditions, but it appears that the author has done diligent research into the historical and cultural background. The story is replete with atmosphere it is impossible to imagine it set in another time or place. The effective use of setting is the most notable aspect of the book .

The book is more historical fiction than traditional romance, but the romance theme is strong. Star Dancer finally realizes she loves Stalking Wolf at a critical (and cliched) moment, but the gradual affection that develops between the two of them is convincing.

All of these admirable features were somewhat marred by the Bitchy-Other-Woman-Makes-Trouble plot device. Because so much of the story is original, it was disappointing to see the author employ such a formulaic device. Unfortunately, this is the source of a central conflict, not a minor issue, and it encompasses much of the story. If the author had found a more original motivating force for the plot conflict, the book would have been better for it.

Nevertheless, there is enough that is original in this story that it deserves checking out. This isn't a pretty romance, but the unusual approach and the solid characters of Stalking Wolf and Star Dancer (by the end of the book they're called Rising Eagle and Buffalo Dreamer) will have some readers anticipating the sequel.

--Lesley Dunlap


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