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So Wide the Sky

 
Color of the Wind
by Elizabeth Grayson
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58010-8
*****
Ardith Merritt promised her dying sister Ariel that she would take her teenaged niece and two young nephews from Boston to the Wyoming Territory. Ardith is embarking on the journey with reluctance and not only because of the strain of travel in the 1880's. She dreads seeing the children's father Baird Northcross again. The night before she and Baird were to marry he and the sixteen-year-old Ariel eloped to Gretna Green.

To escape the embarrassment and scandal, Ardith left England for America where she has been living with her uncle and has established herself as a successful author and illustrator of children's books. She has a romantic interest in her publisher, Gavin, but believes that it is impossible that he a younger man will ever return her feelings. In her mid-thirties, she has accepted with sad resignation that the life she had wanted, that of a wife and mother, will never be hers.

Baird has been sent to Wyoming by his uncle to manage a cattle ranch for British investors. He has devoted much of his life to world exploration (his children, China, Durban, and Khyber, are named for where he was when they were born), but his last trip ended with the devastating death of his cousin. He hopes that his father-in-law will save him from banishment in Wyoming if Ariel and the children, whom he scarcely knows, are forced to share it with him. After a bad beginning, however, Baird finds himself drawn to Wyoming and the ranching life.

Ardith is confronted by Baird's lack of advanced planning for their arrival and cannot simply abandon the three children who are becoming increasingly dear to her. She agrees to stay at the isolated ranch for the children's sake for a limited time until she feels Baird is ready to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood. She, too, is drawn to the majesty and openness of Wyoming. Her letters to Gavin feature illustrations of the people and scenery of the west. Gavin, in return, seems to be developing a deeper interest in Ardith. (Their letters add another dimension to the story.) With his and Baird's encouragement, she expands her artistic horizons to include western subjects.

All is not idyllic at the ranch. A large number of cattle are missing; Baird's inability at math is hindering his management; the children have problems of their own. The heart of the book is how the individual characters mature and adapt to the challenging conditions.

Color of the Wind is closer to mainstream fiction than pure romance. There's a lot more going on than simply two people slowly finding their way to each other as appealing as that may be. The plot is sufficiently absorbing to maintain the reader's interest, but where this book really excels is in its characterization and use of setting.

Both Ardith and Baird are sympathetic characters. The conflict between the two does not arise from Ardith's wounded sensibilities over having been left at the altar. Ardith is an adult character. She doesn't waste time on useless recriminations. She regrets the loss of the life of wife and mother she would have had, but her present goal is to be certain that her sister's children are not neglected. She is a woman a reader can admire for the way she has dealt with life's disappointments and challenges.

The author has been particularly successful in her portrayal of Baird. His past actions and present resentment at his situation would seem to categorize him as more villain than hero. He was an absent husband and an indifferent father. In the twentieth century he'd be a classic case of arrested development; his adult life could be properly termed an extended adolescence. It is only when he's nearing forty that he begins to examine his life and the choices he's made and admit his mistakes and failures. It is an indication of the author's talent that she is able to make his development from the irresponsible wastrel into a caring and responsible man convincing.

Few romances feature a strong evocative use of setting. The Color of Wind is a rare exception to the rule. The author has created vivid images of the locations of the action in her story. Her descriptions of the open spaces and majestic mountains of Wyoming are particularly remarkable. That Ardith and Baird are both moved by the inspiring country is a first indication that they are capable of putting their differences to rest and ready to build a new loving relationship.

There are few writers who set their books in the American West who can match Ms. Grayson's skill. (Readers who are familiar with the author's previous books will recognize characters from So Wide the Sky.) This book is recommended for all romance readers regardless of preference of place or time period.

--Lesley Dunlap


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