Winter Woman by Jenna Kernan
(Harl. Hist., $5.25, PG) ISBN 0-373-29271-6
****
Debut author Jenna Kernan has written an engaging epic filled with adventures that at times are a bit far fetched – but hey, it is the Old West.

Cordelia Channing survived the winter…barely. Left alone when she and her husband were separated from their wagon train, then when her husband got himself killed while out hunting, Cordelia is the stuff of legends. She holes up in a crude shelter and lives to tell the tale of a winter in the Rocky Mountains. When the Flathead Indians find her, she is skin and bones, but still walking.

These Indians take her to their trapper friend, Thomas Nash, and give her to him. He takes her, only because he can’t in all good conscience leave her to die. His plan is to get her to the Rendezvous and put her on a train back East. But Thomas still has two months of trapping before the big end of the season event and he needs this time to collect more beaver pelts. So he takes Delia with him.

Their adventures include battling a grizzly, Crow and Blackfoot Indians and raging rapids. Delia is green but she is courageous, lively and a fast learner. With no family left back East, she came west with her minister husband determined to “tame the savage beasts” and with stars in her eyes. She quickly lost the stars and now realizes how naïve the missionaries were when they set out. Determined to survive, she sets out to prove herself to this man who at first reminds her more of an animal than a man.

Thomas Nash has been trapping for five years. He spent the first year in the wilderness with the Flathead Indians and knows his way around the mountains. He is a lost soul, however. He grew up in Philadelphia and was engaged to be married until his fiancée died from injuries suffered in a carriage accident. He is heartbroken and full of misplaced guilt. No way is he going to lose his heart to any woman again, nor does he want the responsibility for one. But Delia is like no woman he ever met.

Their adventures are just flat out fun to read, even if pretty amazing. The grizzly attacks and they each put the other in danger to draw his wrath. Thomas gets the short end of the stick, but is saved by Delia’s quick thinking and decent shot. Injured, he is laid up for a few weeks. Delia not only nurses him back to health, she does the trapping, cooking, and hunting.

In some ways, the ingenuity of these two reminds me of the MacGyver TV series. No matter what they are confronted with, they use the available resources and make their way out, without the explosions, of course.

As they go through their journey, they start to fall for each other. After all, they are a man and a woman alone together. Delia is a little hesitant to consummate what she sees as a sinful relationship, but once she succumbs she realizes she is in love with Thomas. She has hopes that they can have a future together. Thomas too, starts to see a future. But adversity abounds in the Rockies and they must overcome many things before they can reach that happy ending.

Part of the adversity is their pasts and the feelings each bring into their relationship. This is the one area that causes a mild irritation. At different points, they each are resolute to keep themselves apart from the other. This stubborn determination lasts just a shade too long. Indians are depicted in some cases as smart with a unique culture, but also at times as savages. This depiction may not sit well with all. But the strength of the story pulled me through.

This story works due to a well-paced narrative with just enough relationship building in between the adventures. Depiction of life on the trail seems realistic. Thomas emerges from the caricature of a mountain man into a man who has strong emotions behind his bluster and demeanor. Delia finds her strengths and isn’t afraid to do what she needs to survive, even while marveling at herself.

With this strong debut, Jenna Kernan puts her name on the list of writers to watch for and Winter Woman may just be the start of a long career.

--Shirley Lyons


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