On the surface, Keowee Valley, the debut novel of Katherine Scott Crawford has all the right ingredients of a corset-ripping romance. There's a voluptuous blonde heroine with a heart of gold, a muscular tomahawk-wielding hero that no woman can tame, and simmering sexual tension all in an exotic setting on the verge of cultural transformation. If judged on the basic tenets of a romance, Keowee Valley is a satisfying read yet this novel is much richer, much deeper than its cover suggests.
Quincy McFadden is a 25-year-old Scottish immigrant residing in Charlestown, S.C. in 1768. She is compelled to rescue her cousin, Owen, from the Shawnee Indians that roam the southern Appalachian Mountains. Yet she also desires freedom and hopes to trade goods with the Cherokee for her own parcel of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains that mark the rocky confluence of North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Quincy has a dream of her own homestead, far from government intrusion and the culture of a woman's expectations; she's a pilgrim running from the politics of oppression created by earlier pilgrims. With a family protector along as guide, they make their way from the city lights to the rugged country side where she spies her first Indian and finds herself fascinated.
Both men were shirtless but the younger... looked somehow wilder in his deerskin leggings, a dangerously long knife tied with a leather strap to his waist. His black hair was shorn into a single, spiky line that became a long tail at his nape... I stood transfixed... I'd never seen men who looked as they did. Their skin looked the color of burnt cedar that gleamed in the sunlight. They were tall and leanly muscled, and for the most part, strikingly handsome.
Eventually Quincy makes her trade and settles into the Blue Ridge where she soon meets the man that will find Owen as well as her heart, Jack Wolf. Although at their first meeting, Jack ends up on the wrong end of Quincy's pistols, her pounding heart is fascinated:
I could see beneath the battered hat he wore that his eyes were green as the moss growing on the boulders in the creek... He shifted to remove his hat and my eyes went to that arresting face, with its long, aquiline nose and hooded eyes. Surely he was Indian, I thought, though his hair was the color of a well-worn leather saddle, the tips dipped in white paint.
It's obvious from this moment that Jack and Quincy are destined for each others arms. Jack is a half-breed, part Irish, part Cherokee, educated by a Scottish missionary and a Cherokee tribe, with a wit as sharp as his tomahawk. As he and Quincy verbally joust, first over the search for Owen then over their simmering desire for one another, Mrs. Crawford's skill and love of language shines forth. Throughout Keowee Valley, she gives life to Charlestown businessmen, English soldiers, early American settlers and most daunting, the Cherokee nation. Quincy and Jack spar in a cleverly crafted half-Scotch, half-English dialect that's peppered with Cherokee and filled with tension, nuance and playfulness.
As I read Keowee Valley I sunk into its stunning vistas, cool mountain streams, and spit-roasted wild game. Mrs. Crawford's vivid characters and striking scenery leaped off the pages; gunpowder stung my nose, raindrops splashed across my face and the crispness of the mountain air revived me. In one of my favorite scenes Jack and Quincy hike behind a waterfall as Jack speaks of the ancient Cherokee spirits that inhabit such a place. I've hiked that trail myself, stood on the same mossy rocks, squished through the same mud and also found myself pondering ancient Cherokee spirits. It is a breathtakingly beautiful area where little Cherokee influence (save for the casino that draws gamblers into the town of Cherokee) remains.
If there is a downside to Keowee Valley, it is in Quincy's ability to see the future. She has been gifted "The Sight" and the scenes of her visions add a slight awkwardness to a fine novel.
At its heart, Keowee Valley is an exquisitely crafted love letter to a land and culture swallowed up by an encroaching civilization and inescapable change.