The one word that came to mind while reading Tykota's Woman was "unsophisticated." Unsophisticated plot, unsophisticated style, unsophisticated characterization. Consequently, while sections of Tykota's Woman worked for me, I frequently found the plot all too predictable and, in one instance, disturbing.
The year is 1849 and the Perdenelas Indians live an idyllic life in a hidden valley in western Texas. Although the land around Moon Valley is desert and mountains, a "swift, clear river" runs through the valley, providing water for the fruit and nut trees that sustain the tribe. The Perdenelas' prosperity is further insured by treasure hidden in a cave whose location only the chief knows. (Where have I encountered these ideas before?)
When Tykota is six years old, his father, the chief, exiles his junior wife after he learns that she has tried to kill Tykota so that one of her two young sons can inherit the chieftainship. Valatar gives his two sons by Petera the choice of staying in the Valley but living apart from the tribe or leaving with their mother. The oldest, "good" son stays in the Valley; the younger goes with his mother. Still fearing for Tykota’s safety, Valatar arranges for Tykota to be raised in England by a wealthy Englishman, George Silverhorn.
The year advances to 1865, and Tykota is en route to Moon Valley for the first time in 16 years. Among the passengers on the stagecoach is Makinna Hillyard. Following the deaths of her parents and her only brother, twenty-year-old Makinna is traveling from New Orleans to San Francisco to live with her married sister.
Even though Tykota is expensively and elegantly dressed, when Makinna’s companions on the stagecoach discover that he is an Indian, they are horrified. When they stop for the night at Adobe Springs, the station manager refuses to serve Tykota a meal and tells him to sleep in the barn. Although Makinna is wary of Indians -- she has heard that they are all savages -- she rebels against this treatment and takes him his supper.
Perhaps because of her consideration…and perhaps because she is a lovely young woman…when renegade Indians attack the station that night, Makinna is the only person Tykota takes with him when he escapes on foot from Adobe Springs.
The following 100 pages that chronicle the pair's flight across the desert make up the strongest section of the book. Makinna's initial fear of Tykota and her growing attraction to the man she depends on for survival both rang true (though the phrase, "Stockholm syndrome," did flit through my mind once or twice). Tykota, on the other hand, is torn between his feelings for Makinna and his recognition that his tribe will never accept her. Finally, unlike a myriad of romances in which the surroundings play little part, I liked the way O'Banyon's desert setting worked as an integral part of the drama.
As long as Makinna and Tykota were traveling toward safety, the narrative maintained a reasonably strong shape. Once they reached their refuge, however, the story became much more episodic and the episodes less interesting. New characters and additional complications were introduced with no other obvious purpose than to make for a longer book.
I found a sub-text of the story disturbing. Although Tykota values his Indian heritage, he has had a British public school education and is, in fact, more civilized than almost everyone else living in Texas right after the Civil War. The text seems to imply that a white woman could only be attracted to an Indian after he adopted European manners and dress. In the end -- 334 pages into a 390-page book -- O'Banyon did spell out the problems his upbringing caused Tykota. I doubt, however, that any Native American reader would have continued reading that far.
Although devotees of the western romance may enjoy Tykota's Woman, I would warn even those readers to approach this book with care.
-- Nancy J. Silberstein