Twin Willows by Kay Cornelius
(Harper, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-101376-5
****
Kay Cornelius is an experienced author who has learned her craft writing inspirational novels. Her first historical romance shows that she has learned very well. In Twin Willows she has written an exciting and engaging tale with a neat twist. We get not one but two touching and delightful romances, an engrossing plot, and a well-drawn portrayal of America at the end of the Revolution.

In a Delaware village in 1764 a lovely Indian woman, Silverwillow, is in labor. Her husband, as is the custom of her people, has been sent away. Her attendants are her foster mother, Bear's Daughter, and a friend. The labor is hard for Silverwillow bears twin girls and dies as a result. Bear's Daughter, in her grief, decides to keep one of the children from Silverwillow's white husband, Ian McKnight, to replace the daughter she has lost.

Seventeen years later, Anna Willow McKnight is a student at Miss Martin's School for Young Ladies in Philadelphia. The schoolmistress accepted this unusual pupil at the insistence of her nephew Stuart, who had served with Col. McKnight in the war. She is not particularly happy about educating a half-breed, and the other girls mostly treat Anna with disdain.

The only friendly face Anna sees is Stuart, who occasionally teaches Latin to the girls, during his breaks from his studies at Princeton. Anna and Stuart develop first a friendship and then something else again, but must keep their affection for each other secret from the disapproving Miss Martin. When Anna finishes her studies, she must leave Philadelphia and Stuart. She returns first to her cousins' home in Bedford, but, unwelcome there, makes her way to her father in the far frontier of Kentucky, where her destiny will become surprisingly entwined with the twin she never knew she had.

This sister, called Willow, resides in a Shawnee village with the woman she believes is her mother. Like Anna, Willow looks different from those she lives with, but the Shawnee are much more tolerant of this distinctiveness. Indeed, the warrior Otter is seeking Willow in marriage, a marriage she does not welcome. To avoid Otter's suit, Willow and Bear's Daughter leave the Shawnee village, a journey that will lead Willow to find love in the person of a Shawnee brave, White Eagle.

To be frank, the plot does not lend itself to a simple synopsis. Not that it is overly complex, but rather it is richly textured and cleverly drawn. Cornelius interweaves the stories of the two sisters until, at the end, she brings them and those they love together in a most satisfying fashion.

Between the meetings of the two pairs of lovers and the most satisfying conclusion, there are adventures aplenty: a journey by horseback across the Allegheny mountains, flatboat journeys down the Ohio, Indian attacks, kidnappings, rescues. Cornelius provides as well a fine depiction of the culture of the Shawnee and Delaware as they face the ever increasing threat of white settlement. She likewise describes the dangers and hardships those hardy pioneers who opened up the first frontier.

Readers who prefer stories that concentrate, almost to the exclusion of everything else, on the romance may find Twin Willows less satisfactory than I did. The heroes and heroines are often separated by events in this novel. Nobody enjoys an intense romance more than I do. But I also enjoy well told stories with well drawn characters who pit themselves against dangers and difficulties on their way to their happily ever after.

Recently, there has been a long and interesting thread on one of the romance lists about the "sameness" in so many romances these days. Cornelius has dared to be different. No tortured heroes, no tormented heroines, no big misunderstandings. Just four attractive people who face great challenges and prevail.

This one may well go on my keeper shelf. Any book that can keep me reading while the Super Bowl is on (of course, the Steelers weren't playing) must be pretty compelling. If you are looking for something just a little bit distinctive, try Twin Willows. You just might like it as much as I did.

--Jean Mason


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