The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed
Author: K.B. Laugheed
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Pennsylvania / Irish Immigrants / Native Americans / Prophecy / Cross-Cultural Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume (9/24/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: In 18th century Pennsylvania, a teenaged Irish girl is taken in by two Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest to fulfill a seer's prophecy.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: Yes, it's quite pretty; as our heroine's red hair is constantly commented upon, the focus on it is fitting, as well as the small touches reminiscent of art from Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
First line: This is the account of Katie O'Toole, late of Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, removed from her family by savages on March the 2nd in the year of Our Lord 1747.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.
Why did I get this book?: I'm always interested in historical novels from less frequently featured eras.
Review: I was so unexpectedly taken with this novel!
Opening in 1747, the story is told by 17-year old Katie O'Toole, the thirteenth child in a massive Irish family who are homesteading in Pennsylvania. One March day, a band of Native Americans raid their farm but before Katie is killed, she is singled out to be saved. Very quickly, we learn that two participants in this raid are not local, but rather from the Pacific Northwest, searching for the blue-eyed, redheaded woman who is the crucial part of a seer's vision. Our heroine, Katie, is deemed the one.
On that basic premise, I nervously continued reading. I'm apprehensive of novels that set up white folks to be the heroes for indigenous peoples and the first few chapters didn't allay my fears. The two Native Americans tasked with saving Katie are Syawa -- a goofy, seemingly-besotted seer -- and his boon companion and bodyguard, Hector. (Katie calls him that because she can't pronounce his name.) Syawa is abundantly generous to Katie, bending over backwards to provide for her comfort, and quickly, Katie decides to throw in her fate with him and his companion rather than fight to free herself and her surviving family members. (In what is both super stereotypical and probably accurate, Katie was horrifically abused, growing up in a mean and rough family. That she decided to leave that horror for something unknown isn't totally surprising.)
The three break off to travel West to return to Syawa's tribe. While I found that Katie came to trust her captors too quickly to feel believable, once that obstacle was overcome, the relationship between the three grew fascinating. As a non-native, Katie's ignorance allows the reader to learn a great deal and Laugheed manages to educate Katie and the reader in a way that felt natural, forward-moving, and plot relevant. At no point did I feel pulled out of the story by any kind of infodump, and the narrative never felt split between 'learning' scenes and 'doing' scenes. The journey continued to move forward, as Katie, Syawa, and Hector meet a variety of US tribes, French and Spanish traders, and rebellious raiders.
There's a romance in this, which I couldn't totally buy -- I kept thinking 'Stockholm syndrome'! However, Laugheed goes out of her way to have Katie explain to Hector more than once that she's never truly been free -- the obligations of her family entrapped her, much as she anticipated her future marriage would -- and that her choice to travel with them out to the Pacific was both a decision she made freely and one she made out of obligation. I rather appreciated that nuance, for Katie is a feisty heroine who thankfully stays on this side of anachronistic. She's bold and wild in ways I believed, and her world isn't black-and-white.
In the end, despite my hesitation, I was sucked into this story and raced to the end. There was a heartbreaking point that brought tears to my eyes, and I eventually came to root for the burgeoning romance. I really was very enamored of Katie!
I only have two real complaints. First, I wished the book was longer -- there were moments that were rushed through, and I would have preferred to spend more time on them; it would have been a richer story -- and the ending felt a bit off. (As it turns out, according to the author, the novel was much longer, and there is a part two that may or may not be published. Gah!) My second is that the book lacks an Author's Note about the historical elements of the novel -- I would have loved to learn what elements of the story were historically based and which were fully invented.
Otherwise, I've no quibbles with this book. It was a fast, adventurous read set in a wild era and featuring cultures not often seen in historical fiction. A lovely debut; I'm eager to see what Laugheed does next!
Edited to add: I wrote this review immediately upon finishing the book, but some time later, I have to admit that a thematic element/plot twist in the last third of the book is so bothersome I'm contemplating changing my rating. It was mildly offensive, I think, and disappointing. Katie is blamed for something out of her control and punished out of proportion to it. She accepts domestic abuse and excuses her mother for staying with an abusive husband. It's left an unpleasant taste in my mouth!
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