Truthfully, when I think of Native American characters in romance fiction, the first image that comes to mind is a bodice ripper from the 1980s with a bare-chested Native American hero on the cover and a distressing use of stereotypes between the covers. Then, I remember the books of Kathleen Eagle and am reminded that my first image is not the whole of Native American romance.
Eagle, who won the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart Award for her first novel, Someday Soon (1984), has written a handful of historical romances, but most of her more than forty books published over nearly three decades of writing are contemporary romances, single-title and category. In many of these books, Eagle draws upon her knowledge as a former teacher on an Indian reservation and as the wife of a Lakota Sioux to write with authority and sensitivity about the lives of Native American characters on the reservation and in other settings. Bridging two cultures is a recurring theme in her books; she often pairs a character from an American Indian tribe with a character from the white middle class and sometimes creates a character, usually the hero, who is the offspring of such a union.
As early as her second book, A Class Act (Silhouette Special Edition #274, 1985) with a hero and heroine described as “the Indian boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and . . . the uptown girl, the concerned liberal, teaching in the reservation school,” Eagle was bringing two worlds together. Between 1985 and 1992, Eagle published almost twenty books, most of them Silhouette Special Editions or Silhouette Intimate Moments. Five of her Silhouette titles from this period and all three of the historicals she wrote for Harlequin featured Native American protagonists. The categories featured such issues as alcoholism in the RITA-nominated But That Was Yesterday (1988) and casinos and gambling in Black Tree Moon.
In 1992, Eagle began a string of fourteen single titles, nearly all of them Native American stories. This Time Forever (1992), which won a RITA for best single-title contemporary romance, features rodeo cowboy Cleve Black Horse and nurse Susan Ellison. Cleve, on trial for murder, is innocent of the charges, but no one believes him—not his lawyer and not the jury. The novel deals with the prejudice that colors Cleve’s life as well as the adoption of Native American children. In one moving moment, Cleve explains to Susan why his identity as a rodeo cowboy was vital to him:
“You know what being a cowboy mean to me? It meant not being an Indian. I mean, when I was winning, you know? When I was the man to beat. I didn’t have to be an Indian every time anybody looked at me.”
Fire and Rain (1994), another RITA finalist for Eagle, is a story within a story about two pairs of lovers a century apart. The historical story covers the years leading to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and beyond, including the massacre at Wounded Knee. Historical characters such as Crazy Horse and Red Cloud make appearances in the story. The contemporary story, no less rich in details, includes the racism that persisted into the twentieth century and the award of $106 million to the Sioux as compensation for the United States breaking the Treaty of Fort Laramie that guaranteed the Sioux ownership of the Black Hills after the discovery of gold there. Reason to Believe (1995), my favorite Eagle book and one of my all-time favorite romance novels, is the story of Ben Pipestone, a recovering alcoholic and his former wife who, at the request of their troubled teenage daughter, join Ben’s father in the annual 232-mile journey that retraces the steps of Ben’s Lakota ancestors, ending at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The novel is both a deeply emotional reunion story and a powerful, detailed account of the memorial Ride. Each day honors a different group—from the generations of the past to the generations yet to come. The demanding ride through the Dakotas in December challenges the bodies, minds, and spirits of those who make it.
In Sunrise Song (1996), Eagle brings together Zane Lone Bull, a wounded hero and Viet Nam veteran who was once an activist for Native American rights, and Michelle Benedict, a teacher who inherited the medical files of her uncle, the only doctor at the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians. The files hold the secret of Zane’s identity and evidence that will convict a murderer and help Zane reclaim ancestral lands. Eagle skillfully weaves together events from 1932 and 1973 and in the process makes horrifyingly real to the reader the offenses that occurred at the actual Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, established by Congress in 1898, just eight years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, which for 31 years housed hundreds of Native Americans.
Eagle uses Native American themes more subtly in The Night Remembers (1997) in which Jesse Brown Wolf, a Native American, serves as a mysterious guardian to an abused woman and Tommy T, a troubled, mixed-race boy. In What the Heart Knows (1999), she mixes a secret baby plot with the Bureau of Indian affairs, corruption in casinos, basketball, and the effects of white adoption on Native American identity and showcases her ability to make the most tired romance clichés seem fresh set against a background of cultural conflict. The Last Good Man (2000) introduces Native American Rights activist and outlaw on the run, Kole Kills Crow, as a secondary character. Kole is the hero of You Never Can Tell (2001). In addition to Kole’s decision to leave his sanctuary to march in protest against the portrayal of Native Americans in a movie, Eagle explores the practice of hazardous waste dumping on Indian lands.
Night Falls Like Silk (2003), A View of the River (2005), and Ride a Painted Pony (2006) are less overtly political. Tommy T from The Night Remembers is the hero of Night Falls Like Silk. Now known as Thomas Brown Wolf, African-American, Lakota Sioux and “a little bit white,” has become a well-known creator of comic strips and author of graphic novels. Valuable Native American ledger drawings that Thomas wants to return to the reservation figure prominently in the story. A View of the River features Birch Trueblood, an Ojibwe medicine man who has lost any real belief in the rituals he practices, but both he and his former lover, the even more skeptical Rochelle LeClair, soon find themselves true believers as they are led to truths that reveal old secrets. Nick Red Shield, the hero of Ride a Painted Pony, rescues Lauren Davis, a battered woman on the run, and her young son and takes them back to his home on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Along with the rescue thread, Eagle weaves Indian casino gambling, illegal sports gambling, horse breeding, and horse racing into the plot.
Mystic Horseman (2008), the last of Eagle’s single-title romances, features Dillon Black, introduced in Ride a Painted Pony. He and Nick Red shield are partners in cattle ranching and breeding horses that are supposedly the descendants of the horses of Sitting Bull. Dillon also runs on a dime a summer program that brings at-risk Lakota youth together with these horses. The issues of contemporary Native American life and family-centered themes that are central in this novel are quintessentially Eagle, but she adds a new twist with the heroine, Ella Champion, star of a reality makeover show. Ella, the daughter of an Indian activist and half Santee Sioux, has rejected her tribal identity. A theme Eagle has used several time with her heroes plays out here with the heroine’s struggle. As she and her TV crew learn the history and the present of this people, so too does the reader.
In 2009, Eagle returned to writing category romances. In the past four years she has published seven Harlequin Special Edition novels, six of them in her Wild Horse Sanctuary series. In Care of Sam Beaudry (2009) loosely connected to the Wild Horse Sanctuary books, was another RITA finalist. The stories may be shorter and the political edge less in evidence, but Eagle’s favorite heroes are still “Indian cowboys,” as she describes them, not coincidentally the term she also applies to her husband. Her category heroes are cast in the same mold as her earlier heroes with many of the same concerns about their Native American heritage. For readers who prefer longer, more complex books, six of her older, single-title books have been reissued recently by Belle Books and are easily available. But whether she is writing single-title or category romance, Eagle remains a superb storyteller who creates compelling, complex characters. That she often also gives them a poignant, powerful take on contemporary Native American culture is a bonus.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.