After dreaming of the deer woman at the age of seventeen, Kezawin is considered wakan, or holy, by her people. At that time, she also had a vision of a white deer who would bring her a rare plant and who would be her protector. In the seven years since she had her dream, Kezawin has become a respected medicine woman, but the belief that her "magic" is strong also makes her feared by most. Even Kezawin believes that it was her "magic" which led to the death of her husband and brother, so she lives on the fringes of her tribe, always present in their activities but rarely interacting except when they need her help as a healer. Most of the men will not dare come near Kezawin for fear of her power, and she also worries that her "magic" might endanger them. Therefore, she lives a rather lonely existence, resigned to the fact that she will never marry again.
James Garrett is a respected Harvard professor and botanist. He came west on a scientific expedition to find and catalog new plant species. One day, while searching on a river bank, he finds a very unusual specimen and also chances to see a lovely Indian maiden on the opposite bank who is laughing at him. During his journey, James has spent a great deal of time among the Indian people, and knows that to laugh out loud in such a way is considered very unladylike. Her expressiveness intrigues him, and when he discovers that she is the daughter of a Lakota shaman with whom he has been seeking an audience, he offers his rare plant in exchange for an introduction. Kezawin eventually takes James to her clan's camp where he learns all about the medicinal uses of the plants he has discovered, as well as the mysterious ways of the people. He later returns to the East, but when his sponsor tries to take away James' journals and publish them as his own, not only is James upset, he also knows that the man will never understand the Lakota way. Instead, James absconds with the journals and having nowhere else to go, he returns to Kezawin and her people. The couple's affection for one another continues to grow, and although Kezawin is fascinated by the fact that James does not fear her the way most of her own men do, she cannot help but fear for him. It is not until James' spirit vision reveals the reason he was brought to the Lakota that they have a chance for a happy life together, but it all may be cut short by his very purpose for being there.
Kathleen Eagle is an author I have come to respect for her care and attention to the historical and cultural details of the setting she is portraying. Medicine Woman is just such a book, as it delves very deeply into Native American culture. There are many details of day to day life in a Lakota camp in the early 1800s, as well as legends, myths and spiritual beliefs. Some of these things were quite fascinating, while others could sometimes become almost overwhelming to someone like myself who has never been exposed to the Native American culture in more than a cursory way. Particularly on a spiritual level, the book was steeped in mysticism, which I didn't always understand. Even though I think I got the basic gist of things, there were times when I wished that the author would explain things better, because I felt like some of the characters were speaking in riddles. I came to realize by the end that this was all part of a culture in which the belief is that a man (or woman) must find his/her own way, or vision, in order to be whole, and no one else can tell them what to do. I guess it all boiled down to me often wanting to know "why?", but "why?" is not a question that the Lakota dwell on. Even though the cultural aspects were kind of a mixed bag for me, I did enjoy the historical elements. The author took the time to mention some real-life naturalists of the day who James admired. She also didn't shy away from the very sad, prejudicial attitude of many whites in that era toward Native Americans. I would say that the biggest thing though was her portrayal of how whites brought the smallpox to the Indians and the tragic impact of the disease on them. In general, all these things came together to create a very different kind of romance novel.
I think I was expecting a rather awkward character in James, since he is a scientist and a Harvard professor, and while his obsession with plants technically makes him a geek, he doesn't have the stereotypical geek personality. If anything he's pretty confident, maybe even slightly cocky on occasion. Early on in the story, he could seem to become a bit petulant when Kezawin didn't react in the way he expects her to or he thinks she isn't paying attention to his accomplishments. I finally came to the conclusion that this was the author's way to express his initial ignorance of her culture, and as he learns more, he becomes very sweet, attentive and protective of her. James was rather prideful about his work though, and eventually had to learn what truly meant the most to him in life, and how to balance his scholarly nature with the Indian way. I did like that there were some behaviors which were simply ingrained in his nature from being raised in white culture and that he never fully gave up the white ways. More than anything, this story is probably about James' quest for a sense of belonging and purpose in life. When he finally discovers "why" the spirits brought him to the Lakota, it was a very poignant and emotional scene.
Kezawin is a woman who lives a rather lonely and separate life from the rest of her tribal group, because of a vision she had as a young woman which led her and her people to believe she is wakan (holy). Her vision was both a blessing and a curse. Because of it, she is a knowledgeable and talented healer, and she knew that James had a purpose among the people from the moment she met him. However, it has also made her feared among the people because of her "strong magic." She also believes that she cannot have a relationship with any man without stealing his "magic," and possibly even killing him. She is rather floored by James' lack of fear around her. Kezawin was a very strong woman in more ways than one, as well as very brave to do what she did to rescue James from an enemy camp. Although I know that it was also simply part of her culture to be that way, she was just so subdued for a large part of the story that I felt like I couldn't quite get a feel for who she really was inside, but in spite of that, she was still a very admirable character.
During the first 2/3 of the book, I found the actual romance and sexual tension between James and Kezawin to be pretty minimal. I could tell that the characters were growing to care for one another through their actions, but I just couldn't seem to feel it very much. Although it took a while to get to them, there were finally some sweet romantic scenes for this couple. I really enjoyed them taking part in the traditional Lakota courting ritual under the blanket. I also liked the wedding night, but found it a little frustrating that Kezawin was still holding back out of fear that she would become the deer woman and hurt James. The pair have a number of mild misunderstandings which in my opinion, made it seem like they weren't communicating well enough, but I suppose some allowance could be made for the language barrier. It is implied that Kezawin does not speak English, and although James can speak Lakota, there are some English words that simply didn't have a Lakota equivalent. Overall, I felt like they were a well-suited couple who expressed their love for one another primarily through actions rather than words.
Medicine Woman was a book that had both strengths and weaknesses. In my opinion, one of it's weaknesses was a decided lack of facial expressions or gestures during the dialog which made it rather difficult to sense the emotions of the characters as they conversed. I also thought that the story needed a little more introspection for much the same reason. Especially early on, I had a hard time getting a feel for the characters and understanding their motivations and what they were thinking, but at least, most things started to become clearer as the story went on. I know that the Native American lifestyle is a pretty laid back one, and Medicine Woman seemed to mirror that languid pace of life within its pages. There is a certain beauty to that, but readers who prefer lots of action or a faster pace, probably won't care for the focus on internal and spiritual conflicts within the hero and heroine as the primary drive behind the plot. Also, since Medicine Woman is steeped in Native American culture, I think that at least some interest in it is a must to properly appreciate this book. Otherwise, the reader might find it a bit dull. The bottom line is that anyone who enjoys Native American ways, and doesn't mind a slower, more artistic pace with lots of authenticity, will likely find it to be worthwhile. Medicine Woman was among some of the first books that Kathleen Eagle wrote, and even though it didn't quite measure up to her wonderful Fire and Rain for me (the first book of hers I read), I still found it to be a good story, and I'm looking forward to further exploration of her backlist soon.
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