The Angel Of Devil's Camp
by Lynna Banning, historical (2003)
Harlequin Historical, $5.25, ISBN 0-373-29249-X

Lynna Banning has a nice voice that comes through in her writing. Her prose is sunny, for the want of a better word, and The Angel Of Devil's Camp is an invitation to join the author in some merry little excursion into 1872 Oregon. Still, me being cranky old me, I cannot get past the characters' childish bickerings and the heroine's constant reiterations of her stand when she's obviously in the wrong to fully enjoy the story.

Southern belle Mary Margaret Hampton's life just isn't what it used to be since the North and the South went to war. Now, the War is over but she is just pulling her life together again. She's seen her sisters married off to good men and now she decides that it's her turn to find her happily ever after. She marries, on sight unseen, one Walter Peabody, in hopes that she'll find the home and family that she dreams of having. Alas, when she reaches the lumberjack camp where Walter is at, she realizes that he died from an accident the day before her arrival. Heroines of this kind of stories tend to use up all their money on a one-way ticket to Palookasville and Mary is no different. She's stranded here in a lumberjack camp owned by our hero, ex-Yankee soldier Tom Randall.

Walter has left her a cabin and Mary decides to settle in that cabin while trying to figure out what she will do next. Tom isn't happy, firstly because she's a woman in a camp filled with rough men that have never been with a woman for a long time; secondly, he has issues with her Southern roots (they hanged his sister for being a Yankee spy); thirdly, he has issues with having to take care of helpless women when he's rather be cutting down the trees and all. Mary is not leaving however. This story is all about how they fall in love while Mary tries to fit in with the boys at the lumberjack camp.

The camp is a stereotypical Disneyland idea of a camp - all the men are protective and friendly sorts, from the Chinese chef to the Irish easy-going guy to the silent Native American. There is only one nasty bent-on-bad-things fiend in the story. Mary undergoes the usual Town and Country pitfalls that require her to wear flimsy nightgowns when Tom charges in to the rescue. She even accidentally shoots a deer dead and then sobs that it's a cute deer and she just wants to scare the deer away. Throughout it all, Tom and Mary are always arguing because he high-handedly wants her out and gone and she insists that she can take care of herself. The problem here is that Mary cannot take care of herself. When the fiend finally acts and threatens Mary, she proves that she is not up to the task. As a result, the whole argument between Mary and Tom is tedious because Mary is wrong and she comes off really badly for standing up to Tom and insisting that he leave her alone with the rough men she intends to sell apple pies to. Yes, these men are friendly and they respect her, but that's because the author made them that way. If this is a camp filled with lecherous pigs, Mary will be screaming the holy help-me hymn continuously to the bitter end.

It also doesn't sit well with me that both Mary and Tom insist on keeping that fiend just because Tom is understaffed at the moment. If he loves her like he says he does, he surely can choose her safety over his business, surely?

Nonetheless, despite the problems with the plot, I find myself liking Tom and Mary. Mary does some stupid things here, but the fact that she's out of her league plays a bigger part, I feel, to her incompetence. Mary is not a complete twit. Tom's baggages are pretty contrived, but his relationship with Mary has their moments. Throughout it all, the author sprinkles a lot of cheer and playful romanticism in her story, so much so that the most contrived scenes in this book still manage to wring a smile from me. The truly manipulative and transparent resolution will make me snort in derision if this book is written by someone else, but Ms Banning has me chuckling softly instead.

Ms Banning, it seems, has the subversive ability to make me succumb to her story even when the story tries so hard to be predictable and derivative. It's a scary ability, and I sincerely hope she finds a way to tighten her plot and put in some more well-drawn and less formulaic characters in her upcoming books to complement her writing style. Like Obi-wan Kenobi will say, use the Force but use it wisely. Or something. I'll have to toughen my defenses the next time I read this author's book.

Rating: 83

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