Waltzing in Ragtime by Eileen Charbonneau
(Forge/Tom Doherty Associates, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-812-54468-4
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Do you ever experience "Book Radar?" Do you ever look at a book and just sense that it is going to be a good one? I picked up Waltzing in Ragtime once, put it down, then found it in another book store and felt sure that it was karmically meant for me. For the first hundred pages, I feared my "Book Radar" had deserted me, but then I realized that this novel had to grow on me, that I had to invest some time and energy in it. By the time I was halfway through, I was carrying the book around with me wherever I went like a talisman.

Waltzing in Ragtime is a good old fashioned historical set in the early years of the twentieth century, jam- packed with lots of action, good guys, bad guys and a romance of opposites. Olana Whittaker is a slightly spoiled young lumber heiress who is playing with the idea of being a journalist to avoid a Society marriage. Matthew Hart is a taciturn park ranger who lives in virtual isolation, protecting his beloved sequoia trees in northern California. Olana is assigned to interview Matthew, but first she manages to alienate him by questioning the need for environmental protection in an era when civilization is proud of its new industrialization and the supply of trees and wilderness seems limitless. Next, she attempts to follow Matt to his home and gets stuck in a blizzard. While recovering from near death under his care, she learns to appreciate his ideas and personality, and by page 50 they are surprisingly intimate.

But the lovers must go through trial after trial before they can truly be together. Over the course of the book Olana grows from an innocent Victorian girl who automatically spouts her father's beliefs to a courageous journalist who sees both sides of the environmental issue, helps Matthew midwife a birth and fights for her life against the bad guys. Olana and Matt are separated physically and emotionally by class differences, misunderstanding, marriage and tragedy, but very little of the book is wasted on the time apart. The bulk of it focuses on their romance and their relationship with a host of memorable secondary characters who give the novel a great deal of its richness.

Matthew Hart is one of the most intriguing heroes I've encountered this year. A man deeply rooted in nature and guided by an Indian step-grandfather, he experiences occasional visions of the future and hears voices of the dead as well. His only shortcoming is his self-imposed isolation from his family, including his young daughter who desperately needs a father. Just as he helps Olana grow up, she helps him reconnect with those who mean most to him. Together they combine the best of the old Victorian society and the new 20th century world where the elegant waltz collides with the lively rag. Their hard-fought happily ever after is well-deserved.

Ms. Charbonneau writes fluidly and powerfully with a great deal of insight and compassion. Despite the dramatic nature of the plot, there are humorous touches, notably the friendly midwife rivalry between Matt and his irascible grandmother Annie. At times the book reminded me of Celeste De Blasis' The Proud Breed. Anyone who is familiar with that classic historical romance author will know that comparison is not made lightly.

By the time the book culminated in a tense life-or-death struggle during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake I was yelling at any family member who dared to disturb my reading and hoping against hope that Ms. Charbonneau is planning a sequel. Waltzing in Ragtime does take a while to hook the reader while she is getting to know the characters and becoming familiar with its rhythm, but once caught I believe most readers will not easily walk away from it. My "Book Radar" did not fail me and I hope it will lead you to a truly enjoyable read as well.

--Susan Scribner


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