by Judie Aitken, time-travel (2003)
Berkley, $5.99, ISBN 0-425-19211-3
Judie Aitken must be commended for writing a meaty story involving a less explored aspect of Native American history: the Native American boarding schools set up by the American government during the 19th century, supposedly to "civilize" young Native Americans and you know what happens when idiots get the idea that their race is the Master Race that every other race should aspire to emulate. Jesse Spotted Horse is an award-winning filmmaker that intends to make a documentary about these boarding schools and he chooses the DuBois Indian Industrial School as his subject. He also has a personal reason to choose this school: his great-granduncle was dragged to this school and he was never heard of again. He intends to search the archives of the school, now a museum, for clues to his great-granduncle's fate.
Kathleen Prescott's family runs the school since its founding, and now, the archivist-cum-curator of the museum is against the idea of Jesse coming here. I must say that the author made her first blunder here. If Katie is afraid of Jesse digging the skeletons from her family's closet, her opposition to Jesse's plan will be understandable. But Katie's reasoning is that there is no way that the school did nasty things to its students because her family is perfect, perfect, perfect, so there! Such devotion and zeal to one's family is admirable as long as these people don't live in the same continent as I am, I guess, but at the same time, the author has already started the preaching: Katie is, of course, obviously wrong and Jesse will be always right from now on.
The author says in her foreword that she doesn't want to preach, but it is hard to buy that. Every chapter of this book starts off with a documented racist and ignorant remark from White people or laments from Native Americans. I'm not denying that the atrocities committed on Native Americans, just to make this clear, I'm just saying that the author doesn't actually have any right to say that she is not preaching when she's already taking sides and beating me in the head about which side I should be siding.
I'm bringing this up because as readers will soon see, while Katie and Jesse play their roles on the documentary, a fire takes place and these two end up being sent back to 1886. Jesse will have to play a student and Katie a teacher as they figure out a way to get back to their own time. Along the way, Katie will realize that her preconceptions are all wrong and that the DuBois Indian Industrial School is Charles Dickens' long-lost Bleak House. Here's the problem: the author tells me that Katie is wrong, but Ms Aitken also simplifies the whole boarding school situation towards the end so that it seems only that Nasty Greedy Villain and his bitter accomplice are the source of all evil in DuBois. Everyone else, including Katie's great-great-great grandfather, is just misunderstood or helpless to overthrow this prime evil duo. Talk about perplexing: Ms Aitken works herself up for a fiery soapbox session only to throw in the towel, blame everything on some stock and cartoonish villains, and neatly avoids any uncomfortable questions that arise from her story. Distant Echoes takes an issue it is clearly passionate about and dumbs it down into a bad action movie pastiche. I'm quite disappointed by this turn of events, to say the least.
But let's ignore the premise and disappointing plotting aside. How are the characters? Katie and Jesse are actually stock characters. Jesse is the Angry Native American that's all huffy and puffy with issues but the moment he sees a cute White girl, he's all hormones as well. Way to go, buddy. I also don't like how he calls Katie "Katie-girl" pretty much the moment he meets her, but then again, I can't stand guys that take liberties at using cloying monikers for the women they just meet.
Ms Aitken somehow treats the characters' antagonism with each other and their attraction to each other as two different entities, and the result is me wondering whether these two characters are schizophrenic in some way. How can you justify this lusting after someone you have issues with as a realistic affection? Katie is one of those heroines best described as a plot contrivance: she is either "Bible belt smalltown nitwit" or "transplanted nun from a historical novel" stereotype where her values regarding sex and dealings with authority figures are concerned. One of Katie's more annoying habits is to not saying the words that need to be said when she's in a situation that demands her to stand up and make her opinion heard.
If I come off as really dumping on this book because of my excessive nitpicking, well, I actually like this book. It's my disappointment at the author's formulaic treatment of the plot's resolution as well as her characters' relationship to each other at work here, and my disappointment is intensified tenfold because dang it, this book could have been so, so good. Ms Aitken does a great job in depicting the horrific conditions of the boarding school and stating a case for awareness and affirmative action and the premise holds great potential. While we're at it, let's nitpick on the premise as well. Won't this book be more effective as a straight historical? If it's a straight historical, Jesse and Katie can ride off into the sunset and make some difference to the Native American people. It seems like a neither-here-nor-there situation to have these two sent back in time to the school, smash the villains, and then head back to the present to get married. The whole "heighten awareness and make a difference" thingie seems diluted into some selfish crusade to fall in love and win an Oscar when time-travel is involved. (Oh, and I don't also think that Julia Roberts will ever present... oh never mind.)
Anyway, lest I make this book come off as totally unreadable to you, let me say that it is not bad at all. Distant Echoes is a very readable story and while Jesse and Katie have their annoying moments, they are generally decent and likable people. The boarding school premise is not an easy read at times, but on the whole, this book is also an affirmative action in the making: readers will learn a thing or two, gasp at the things they are reading, and think about what they have read. Despite being too obviously lopsided for its own good, Distant Echoes succeeds in combining issues with a story that is very readable. This book definitely qualifies as one of the better written and more intelligent Native American romance novels out there.
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