You’ll have to forgive my gushing in this post. I love Marjorie Farrell’s books so much, and this one in particular, that I really won’t be able to help myself. But if this post makes one person track down books by this marvelous author, my work here is done.
Marjorie wrote a number of short Regencies and a few single-title books in the 90s. Desert Hearts, as the title implies, is a western, but it’s unlike any other western you may have read. No cowboys, no machismo, no spunky schoolteachers, no cartoon-like Native Americans.
Instead, just an incredibly well-written, well-researched story about characters coming to grips with the horror of the Indian wars in New Mexico territory during the 1860s.
As a teen, Elizabeth Woolcott is the sole survivor of a massacre that kills her family on the Santa Fe trail. She is rescued by a kindly older officer who sends her to stay with his sister, and then later marries her. Elizabeth marries him out of genuine fondness, but not romantic love. As an officer’s wife, she enjoys a certain status and security that make the loveless marriage a comfort to her. She lives a closed-off existence, filled with fears of the Native Americans who live nearby, and looking down on the rough, uneducated, and often immigrant men her husband commands.
Michael Burke, an enlisted Irish immigrant who has risen through the ranks to the position of Sergeant, challenges her misconceptions about the Irish when he displays intelligence and sensitivity. As an Irishman, he has experienced the potato famine as well as oppression by the British army, and often finds himself the victim of anti-Irish sentiment in the US Cavalry. A skilled horseman, he befriends several Navajo through their shared love of horses and introduces these people to Elizabeth, challenging her bigoted notions. He finds himself beginning more and more to question the role of the US Calvalry, and to empathize with the natives rather than the US government he represents.
Elizabeth and Michael do not share a romance at first, just a slow-developing friendship. For the first half of the book, she is married, and faithfully so, to her older cavalry officer, Thomas. The older man is not a caricature–he doesn’t abuse her or belittle her. He’s not a villain.
But when he is killed suddenly in a raid, Elizabeth is faced with a dilemma. The fort is the only home she knows, but as a widow, she had no right to continue living there. The only way for her to remain is to marry another officer. After some hesitation, she chooses to marry Michael Burke.
The book represents a slow journey of healing and discovery for both hero and heroine. She must come to grips with the tragic loss of her family and her own narrow-minded prejudices. He must deal with the feelings of guilt and shame that his own background of dispossession causes when he must inflict similar suffering on Navajo families. It’s a very different depiction of the military than you often see in romance, where the US army are usually unquestioningly portrayed as “the good guys.” It is altogether a wonderful, nuanced, thoughtful story. Ms. Farrell comes from a psychology background, and it’s apparent when reading her books. I’ve come across few authors who have such a deep insight into their characters. Here’s a scene from early in the book, when Elizabeth is watching Michael compete in a horse race:
“Good afternoon, ladies,” said a voice behind them. It was Mr. Cooper. “I see you all have your eyes on my sergeant. We’ll see if the mick and his mare are any good today. He’s up against Antonio in this one.”
Mrs. Compton used to call them micks and Elizabeth sometimes had the phrase “dirty little micks” run through her mind when she would see a bunch of ill-dressed, boisterous Irish children on Boston Common. And she didn’t trust Sergeant Michael Burke’s Irish charm. She was sure it was all on the surface. But she also did not like Mr. Cooper, whose own brand of charm was . . . well, oily and less charming. Right away, she felt herself shift into a defense of Sergeant Burke. “I would assume that the sergeant has confidence in himself and his horse if he is entering the last race of the day, Mr. Cooper.”
“Oh, he wasn’t intending to race today, Mrs. Woolcott. He is in the race because I ordered him to ride. I’ve lost to Manuelito too many times, and Burke won that horse of his in a race. I have a hunch we’ll beat the Navajo in this one.”
Her Thomas would never have abused his power that way, thought Elizabeth proudly. He might only be a second lieutenant under this West Point bantam rooster, she thought angrily, but at least he was someone to be proud of.
This passage shows you Elizabeth’s essential fairness, despite her own bigoted tendencies. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. You can find use copies on Amazon Marketplace, cheap, here. Enjoy.