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Dangerous Gifts by Haywood Smith
(St. Martins, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN- 0-312-96883-3
I face this review in a quandary. There is so very much that I like about this book. I find the characters unusual and gripping. I find the premise compelling. I find the historical background, well, schizophrenic. Much of it was well drawn except for one fact. Smith set her story in England in 1095-1100 and the England of these years was not very much like the England she describes. But since many readers don't have a great deal of detailed knowledge of English society during the early Norman years, this should not be a problem.

Dangerous Gifts begins when the heroine, Claire De Peche, learns that her husband has died on the crusade he undertook in thanks for the birth of their son William. Claire knows that her husband's death will change her life but she has no idea how dreadful this change will be. Claire, although lady of the castle, was not born to that position. Her husband married his mother's maid in the face of family opposition. Now she is left defenseless against her hateful in-laws, especially her brother-in-law Robert. Claire is given a terrible choice. If she leaves the castle and her beloved son, he may survive. If she does not, he will die at his uncle's hand. And so she departs.

Next we meet the hero, but he is far from England. Palmer Freeman is in a monastery in the Carpathian mountains, contemplating suicide. Two years earlier he had, like so many other misguided souls, joined the crusade of Peter the Hermit to retake the holy places in Jerusalem. The crusade had been a disaster, culminating in the sack and destruction of a Christian town in Hungary. Palmer was wounded in the attack and still is weakened. But what leads him to contemplate taking his own life is the guilt he feels about his part in the sack of that town. He has lost his once fervent faith in a good and loving God.

The two come together in a most unusual fashion.

After two years of homelessness, alone and almost without money, Claire is directed to seek shelter at the home of the widow Dame Nonna Freeman, Palmer's mother. Nonna greets Claire as if she had been expected, welcomes her into her strange home, and suggests that Claire become her apprentice. Nonna is a healer and the descendant of a long line of healers. Now Nonna is alone and facing the gradual loss of her faculties. She needs Claire, since her son is away on a crusade.

Claire agrees to stay, but Nonna wants more. She claims to have received a letter from her son in which he agrees to marry Claire by proxy so that she can truly become a member of the family. Claire agrees to become the absent Palmer's wife. She becomes a healer of great talent like her "good mother" and is made privy to the family secrets which contain medical knowledge far in advance of that currently practiced.

And then Palmer comes home. By now, Nonna has lost much of her memory and does not even recognize her son. Claire is left to deal with a man who claims to have no knowledge of the supposed marriage, a man whom she finds very attractive but a man who claims he cannot stay.

This is the story of two gravely wounded souls who must find their way to healing. Palmer must learn to forgive himself so that he can accept the happiness he can find with Claire. Claire must learn to forgive God for the hardships she has faced. This healing will come from their growing love for each other.

This is one of those books that make me wish my knowledge of English history was a little less complete so that I could enjoy the story without cataloging problems that many readers won't notice. Even Smith's clever way of trying to explain why the Freemans were so atypical didn't completely work for me. But I wanted it to.

So I am recommending Dangerous Gifts. I did appreciate a medieval romance without lords and ladies and courts and jousts and all of the trappings. Instead, Smith has provided a rich and moving tale of two extraordinary ordinary people. I cared about Claire and Palmer and I think you will too.

--Jean Mason

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