Best Man in Wyoming

Under Prairie Skies
by Margot Dalton
(MIRA, $5.99, PG) ISBN-1-55166-594-8
Mara Steen is single, nearing thirty, committed to her kindergarten class, and living proof that emotional blackmail works. Her mother had died shortly after her birth, her father remained unidentified and her grandmother Agnes reared her. Gradually as years passed, roles reversed, and Mara became the primary care giver. Her grandmother became terrified that she would be left alone.

Torpedoing every relationship Mara attempted, Agnes became more and more recalcitrant with each victory, more and more anxious that Mara would leave. Agnes had quite a repertoire of scenarios that she would use to insure that her granddaughter stayed faithfully by her side, running the gambit from accidents to sickness to pity parties.

Mara is resigned to her foreseeable future and we meet her teaching her kindergarten classes. Her attention focuses on young Michael who one month into the school year still refuses to become involved with her or the other students.

Calling his father, they arrange a time for him to visit the school to discuss the problem. Good looking widower Allan Williamson arrives and Mara quickly succumbs to his charms. He and Michael live outside of town where he makes a living as a prairie rancher. This apparently means that water is scarce and the land is not irrigated, so the work is hard and the rewards are few.

Michael and Allan both fall in love with Mara and the book is really about developing a relationship in the face of someone sending you on a guilt trip every time you are out of sight. The author has very strong secondary characters in her teacherís aides; Jeff is student teaching for credit at the university, and Lisa, a brilliant beautiful high school senior who is pregnant. When she refuses an abortion her widowed father tosses her out of his house.

This is a gentle story about life on the prairie; people who teach, and those who are taught. Daltonís expertise is evident as she deftly creates characters that the reader cares about, segueing seamlessly from one incident to the next. If you have ever been a victim of emotional blackmail you will understand how trapped Mara felt since it works best with truly responsible people. Even though it requires the consent of the victim to give in to the pressure, Dalton makes it easy to understand why people so often get away with it.

Given the plot line, Under Prairie Skies could be a downer and it is a real tribute to the author that it is not. In some respects the story has something for everyone, and therefore a strong recommend.

-- Thea Davis

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