Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed

Title: The Spirit Keeper
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!

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Spirit Keeper to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and Canadian readers, ends 12/20.  Only one entry per person; do not enter alternate email aliases or emails belonging to other individuals.


  1. Thanks for your review, Audra, and for hosting the giveaway. I keep seeing this book in the bookstore (the cover draws me to it) and have been wondering if it would be a worthwhile read. It sounds like it is, although I'm still a little hesitant given your edited note.

    1. I know, I was so hesitant to post it, but I was afraid someone would read it wonder why I never broached it; as it is at the end, too, it really lingers! It's still a good book, and getting good reviews on the tour, so don't take my word for it. I'd love to know what you think when you read it -- it's the kind of book I wish I had a book club to discuss it with!

    2. I agree with both you on this,... as I read The Spirit Keeper myself not so long ago: http://bit.ly/18GqnAc

      I think you might have forgotten I wanted to discuss this book with you after you read it! As I had the same experience -- its not a story that can simply be absorbed fully in the sitting as you read it, but rather, is a book which evokes conversation & discussion! Dissecting it from different angles, and pulling the layers apart in full examination for what is truly lit behind the context of the scenes! :)

      I went into a lot of details as far as what I felt matched your own issues with certain bits that unsettled you after the book washed in and out of your consciousnesses! :)

  2. Thanks for your honest review. The premise makes me uncomfortable for the same reasons you listed, even though the time period and other aspects of the storyline intrigue me. So I don't know whether I'll read it or not, although I picked up an ARC at a conference earlier this year. I've been dithering about it ever since!

    1. It's v complicated -- and that it happens so late in the story means discussing it is a spoiler!

  3. It sounds quite good, but definitely one to lower expectations for (maybe doing so would make it better?) I like that you came back and edited your review, whilst it may have been a negative point it really added to the whole.

    1. Yeah, I don't know if it's an expectation thing or not -- I really think it is about one's ... attitude about responsibility and what women have control over. The writing is lovely, as I said, but I'm so philosophically the opposite what the author had occur I just can't get past it! So ... yeah. I don't mean to be vague, but I don't want to spoil anything for anyone.

  4. The lack of any historical note bothered me. I really want to know about the author's research for this book! Also, I wished the end of the book hadn't basically shifted focus from what Syawa saw as Katie's role to her relationship with Hector. I think I know what part you're discussing in your edit, and I found that entire situation messed up. But, otherwise, I really enjoyed this book - probably one of my favorites for the year.

    1. The lack of a historical note really is a big knock for me with any historical novel. I was so betrayed by the end bit and that whole mess that it's really changed my feelings for this book -- as I told someone else, it felt like a betrayal that Laugheed had built up Katie so much, empowered her to own herself, her choices, and her body, to knock her down so brutally. I can't fathom why the author went there or why she included it at the end of the book -- I wonder if it was perhaps midway in the arc of her original MS -- because otherwise, it left such a 'ew' note for me.

    2. On booklikes, I say straight out what bothered me -- for anyone curious, it totally spoils the end of the book so read at your own risk!

    3. Audra,

      You and I read books and synthesize their effect in such a mirror way, that it nearly felt as though I could sense what you were going to say next! If you have the chance, do check out my own ruminative thoughts on The Spirit Keeper! As I wasn't remembering if I had outed this particular part of the story as something that I had included in my own posting or not... I do know it was one of the more unsettling scenes for me! (for every reason you gave on here & BookLikes!) My biggest issue was the 'cliffhanger!' :(

      I, like you, wrote my review 'in the glow of reading the novel' and had more reflective musings alight in mind afterwards!

  5. I took a class in college that was all about the frontier experience, specifically that of people kidnapped by and adopted into Native American tribes. It was fascinating, and I'm really looking forward to reading this book because of that class.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  6. Thanks for linking this up to the Immigrant Stories Challenge - I love the variety of books you have read for this challenge! I will be hosting again in 2014 and hope you consider joining!