I didn’t like her much, this heroine. In spite of her determination, resiliency and resourcefulness, I struggled to identify with her. Her choices angered me. Her independence and chilly demeanor almost hurt my feelings.
It takes an extraordinary writer to plant within the reader reservations about the protagonist, to engender a dislike, and then to cultivate and tend that emotion until it evolves into humble respect, indeed genuine affection. Lori Benton is such a writer.
Willa Obenchain is introduced in the first chapter of Benton’s novel, Burning Sky. However, she remains nameless, and therefore seems almost heartless, for many pages. She is first observed in an act of charity, rescuing a wounded Scotsman, who fell from his horse and lay alone facing certain death in the wilderness of northern New York during the volatile years of the Revolutionary War.
But Willa’s kindness is an act of duty, not of tenderness. Repeated loss blunted her ability to give or receive love. As the story unfolds, Willa’s own past is revealed piece by piece, always against her will. Rarely does Willa admit any of her story to another, instead holding all things close and tight within.
Willa had been kidnapped by Indians when she was a mere 14 years old. She spent twelve years in an adopted family, steeped in a culture considered foreign and savage by her race. Willa eventually found peace within the tribe and her position in Wolf Clan. But again, death and violence raped her sense of safety and belonging. Her Indian husband was killed in battle, her two daughters perished and finally, even her adopted mother died. Isolated, rootless, Willa trudged alone back to the people of her birth, not sure if they still lived or would welcome her.
There Willa’s two lives intersect. When she arrives back at the cabin of her youth, her biological parents are gone, likely dead. Along her travels, she has acquired the wounded Scotsman, planning only to tend his wounds and bid him leave. With nothing and no one to claim, she plans to live out her solitary days on her parents’ land.
Perhaps this is why I found Willa so unlikable. I haven’t the fortitude to accept such loss, turn and challenge life to embrace me alone, with nothing else to lose ever again. I am far to needy, far to easily broken. I must gather all possible sources of life and cling to them, nurturing every relationship for mutual sustenance.
Brilliantly, Benton brings new characters, one at a time, into Willa’s tight circle. Each one in a sense, pitching stones against her resolution to remain lonely. There’s the convalescing Scotsman with his Bible, bold faith and budding affection for her. An Indian harboring love for her as well, but vacillating between a longing for her as a clan sister or a wife. Long lost relationships with the people of Shiloh, the nearest city, are shaky. How should she be considered: Recovered daughter of their own, or as if she represents all their fears of the mysterious indigenous people?
Benton’s description of the New York landscape is exquisite. From broad colorful strokes of the countryside, to the minute details of Willa’s eyes and the Scotsman’s voice, her story vibrates with almost tangible realism. In this context, like a potter at his wheel, continuously shaping a vessel, Benton sculpts and refines Willa’s character to the very last page.
I write this review humbly. Benton skillfully wrought from me admiration, even affection for Willa Obenchain.
Burning Sky is a rich experience, not only of historically accurate imagination, but of personal revelation for the reader.