I have to admit that when I read the description of Kathleen Eagle's latest novel I groaned in dismay. Oh no, not another "child he didn't know about" plot! Haven't we seen this before in a thousand other category romances? Couldn't Eagle think of a more original story line?
Thankfully, I was wrong. Extremely wrong. What the Heart Knows may be the best romance I've read by a prolific author who has released quite a few superlative novels. The bare bones of the plot may be familiar, but the characters and the context bring the story alive in a truly inventive way.
Helen Ketterling has recently returned to the South Dakota reservation where she once taught school. Now she works undercover for the BIA, investigating charges of corruption at the casinos that have sprung up ever since the recent passage of legislation permitting gambling operations on Indian reservations. Her contact is Roy Blue Sky, Lakota tribal councilman, who suspects that the company that owns the casino is engaging in profit-skimming. The benefits promised to the Indian community have not
materialized, and Roy wants to know why.
Thirteen years ago, Helen and Roy's son, Reece, had a passionate affair. Reece was on the verge of parlaying his height and athletic ability into a career with the NBA, while Helen was on her way to graduate school, so their relationship was short-lived. Now they come face to face again when Reece returns home to bury his father, the victim of a suspicious hit-and-run "accident." The two realize their attraction is still very much alive, but Helen is keeping several secrets from Reece, including the fact that he is the father of her 12-year old son. As they reestablish and redefine their relationship, Reece investigates his father's death and finds his own place in the Indian community. He also has to contend with his brother Carter, who was raised by a white family for many years, and is virtually a stranger to him.
Eagle has always been a strong writer, but she surpasses her previous efforts with prose that really sings. Here is Helen musing on her initial attraction to Reece:
Helen had loved Reece Blue Sky once.
She had lusted after him, anyway. From the moment her craving for him had hit her -- and it had hit her hard -- she had told herself that this was the Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love that could never last and should never be declared unless you wanted corpses lying all over your personal stage.
But he was a powerful temptation, and she had made little attempt to resist. She had denied love and fallen headlong in lust because he was the essence of her secret, silly female fantasies. The American West was etched on his angular, rough-hewn face, and he moved like a wild and natural creature, wondrously agile for his size. She knew full well that her fanciful fixation with the myth of the noble warrior had followed her into early adulthood, and it embarrassed her to
think about it.
She was an intelligent woman, mostly. Responsible to a fault, but when her faults shifted and her shield cracked, she had a bad habit of folding in on herself and tumbling into the fissure.
Eagle enlivens a tired plot by mixing in basketball, a rare heart condition and the mixed blessings of Indian casinos. The love story between Reece and Helen is unmarred by any Big Misunderstandings that tear the lovers apart. While Reece is angry when he discovers the truth about Helen's son, he is ready to discuss the situation the next day. Thank goodness Kathleen Eagle can create characters who actually talk to each other. And flirt, too -- I've always admired the way her heroes and heroines engage in such playful sexual banter. Their verbal foreplay and afterplay are more sensual than the physical love scenes.
Strong secondary characters, especially Carter and Roy Blue Sky, give the novel even more richness and depth. It is a story full of hope, with none of the gritty darkness of The Night Remembers.
I was fortunate enough to borrow What the Heart Knows from my public library, but I am planning to buy my own copy. I want to re-read it and place it on my keeper shelf where it belongs.