Confederate cavalry captain James McKane escapes from a Union prison camp in Nashville, Tennessee and makes his way back to his family plantation in Clarksville. He finds the place in ruins and what’s left of his family devastated. The crushing blow, though, is that his wife, Kate, and his children, believing him killed in the war, have gone off to Oregon Territory with Kate’s uncle. McKane is determined to find them. In the meanwhile, after Kate’s uncle is murdered by a treacherous business rival, she is facing her own dangers in the as yet untamed west.
Harrison’s Valley by Darrel Rachel tells the twin stories of James McKane’s fight to find his family, a fight against remnants of guerilla bands from the war, against attacking Indians, and treacherous river crossings, and most daunting, against his own prejudices—in particular his relationship with a black mountain man, Wilford Johnson, who he is forced to hire as a guide.
The author does a fine job of describing the social and political upheaval that followed the Civil War, and the mad scramble to acquire land in the west, often at the expense of the Indian tribes who had occupied them for thousands of years. He is best, though, in his treatment of the way characters react personally and individually. In James McKane, he has created a strong, but sensitive character, capable of self-reflection and growth. But, the strongest characters, without whom the book would be uninteresting, are Kate, a southern woman who has to learn to be strong and independent, and Wilford Johnson, a quiet, enigmatic man who refuses to allow society to decide who and what he is, and who demonstrates the loyalty and strength everyone would like in a friend.
Harrison’s Valley is a fantastic story of love, loyalty, determination, greed, and betrayal, in which all characters are credibly portrayed, complete with weaknesses and character flaws. A number of typos and missing words throughout the book, which could easily be remedied by a thorough proofreading, are the only thing in my mind that keep this book from being the best of its genre—it is, nonetheless, among the best of the genre I’ve read in a while.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. I give it three and a half stars.