Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
(Bantam, $22.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-10736-4
***
Into the Wilderness is an ambitious, epic sequel of sorts to The Last of the Mohicans. Its imposing length intimidated me and made the reading experience less than ideal, but there are plenty of things to like about the novel.

Elizabeth Middleton, "twenty-nine years old and unmarried, overly educated and excessively rational" has journeyed with her brother from England to upstate New York in 1792 to live with her widowed father, a judge who owns a large tract of land he has named Paradise. Spinster Elizabeth dreams not of true love, but of starting a school to teach the white, black and Indian children who live in Paradise. She has not reckoned with the hard feelings that remain between whites and Indian, although the Indian wars have recently ended.

Almost immediately, Elizabeth meets several charismatic men. Dan'l "Hawkeye" Bonner, hero of the famed James Fenimore Cooper classic, is now an elderly widower, his beloved Cora having died recently. His tie with the Mohican nation continues to be strong; his son, Nathaniel, was married to a Mohican woman for several years before she died in childbirth, and several of Nathaniel's in-laws live with the men.

Elizabeth also meets Richard Todd, a well-respected physician. Elizabeth soon finds herself in the middle of a situation she has not caused, but one she can directly impact. The Mohicans, represented by Hawkeye, Nathaniel, and his Mohican in-laws, want to buy back Hidden Wolf Mountain, which is part of Paradise, from the judge. Richard, for reasons that are obscure at first, also wants to own the mountain. The judge fears letting the mountain revert to Indian possession because it might bring too many Indians back to Paradise, and he is overeager to give the property to Elizabeth if she promises to marry Richard.

As she gets to know Nathaniel and his family, Elizabeth finds her sympathies moving in their direction. It is clear that Richard doesn't love her and only wants the land she can bring him, but what about Nathaniel? Unlike the other men in her life, the ackwoodsman is willing to treat her like a person and listen to her opinions. But does Nathaniel want her for herself or for the mountain as well? The attraction between Elizabeth and Nathaniel overcomes all of her resistance, and she plots a daring deception with him that leads to their elopement and flight from Richard's angry pursuit.

Nathaniel and Elizabeth are well-matched, mature characters. They declare their love in the first third of the book but then experience external conflict that keeps them apart and internal conflict that tests the strength of their love. Both are independent thinkers ahead of their time; both would have been more engaging if given a few human weaknesses. Richard Todd and Elizabeth's ne'er-do-well brother Julian are interesting, three-dimensional nemeses who are human enough to be slightly sympathetic. There are a few purely evil villains along for the ride as well, as well as some strong secondary characters, notably Nathaniel's half-breed daughter, a Scottish hermit and a freed slave.

My main quibble with the book was its intimidating length. The plot unfolds slowly throughout the 700 pages of the novel, and the reader has to have a lot of patience to keep moving. The adventures that befall Elizabeth and Nathaniel, with a few notable exceptions, are just not exciting enough to justify the epic length. The dialogue is interesting but doesn't sparkle, and the humor is subtle. If I'm going to commit my time and energy to a book of this size, I need larger than life characters, such as Jamie and Claire of the Outlander series (alert readers will note that Claire makes an all-too-brief cameo appearance in this story apparently Gabaldon and Donati are writing buddies) or an unusual plot such as the "dawning of mankind" Clan of the Cave Bear series. Into the Wilderness features intelligent writing, strong characters, accurate historical detail and a vivid setting, but there was just too much of it.

The twist thrown into the end of the novel suggests that a sequel might be in order, as one loose thread is left hanging. While I did eventually enjoy the last 300 pages of Into the Wilderness, when the pace picks up, I'm not sure I'd eagerly seek out another book about these characters, which substantiates my 3-heart rating.

If you have time on your hands this summer and can appreciate a thoughtful, well-written historical tome then you might want to check out Into the Wilderness. Those of you who need your romance kicks delivered a little more efficiently should pass on by.

--Susan Scribner


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