by Jennie Hansen
Michele Ashman Bell
Long after I turned the last page of this book, I couldn’t get the characters or the story out of my mind and I was sad the book had ended. For me these are the qualities of a “great” book. . . a gripping plot, characters that linger in your mind, and a sense of sadness that the story has ended. These stellar qualities distinguish the good books from the great ones.
High Stakes, a historical Western, is one of those “great” books and not your usual LDS fiction. It reads like national best-seller, and is every bit as good, or better. High Stakes, without a doubt, is some of Jennie’s Hansen’s finest writing and for Jennie to outdo herself is a feat in and of itself. Some of the passages in this book actually read as lovely as a sonnet. There isn’t a moment in the book that the reader isn’t engaged in the well-paced plot and development of characters that truly tug at your heartstrings. It’s a story of vengeance and letting go; of pain and forgiveness; of abandonment and love.
The story begins with a mother dying after giving birth to her daughter, Maddie. The father attempts to raise the daughter in a world of gambling, dishonesty and running from the law. A brief encounter with a young Mormon girl on a riverboat, gives Maddie a chance to see how a family can be happy and filled with love, something she has never known, but wishes dearly that she had.
Also in the beginning, we meet young Luke, who witnesses the murder of his parents at the hands of cattle rustlers who steal his father’s herd and burn down their ranch. Luke is shot and left for dead, but his wound isn’t fatal and he gathers enough strength to bury his parents. Then, with no home left to go back to, he sets out to follow the trail of the cattle rustlers.
What he discovers is that a man named Duncan has paid a gang of outlaws, led by Jethro Blackwell, to kill Luke and his family, so he can have their property and the rights to their water, thus increasing his wealth and power. Luke watches from a hiding place as Duncan and his own posse meet up with the Blackwell gang but instead of paying Blackwell and his gang, they kill them, except for two of Blackwell’s men who get away.
Luke’s life becomes a vendetta to find the two escaped members of Blackwell’s gang and to find a way to prove Harrison Duncan guilty of his parent’s murder.
In the years that follow Luke grows into a man, still driven by the desire to avenge his parent’s death. He has developed a reputation as being a skilled gunman, and has his own face on a wanted poster for crimes he didn’t commit. But that doesn’t matter because the men after him would rather shoot first and ask questions later.
Along the way Luke is befriended by a caring couple, the Pattersons, who actually believe his story and that he is innocent of any crimes. They become the family he doesn’t have and with their help, he is able to find a place of safety he can call home.
One night while trying to avoid being captured, he bumps into a young girl, who is also on the run. It’s Maddie, who’s father, the gambler, has gone too far this time. With nothing of worth left to his name, he has wagered Maddie in a bet and lost. If she doesn’t get out of town, she will end up property of a another gambling man and her life, what is left of it, will be ruined.
In good conscience, Luke can’t leave the poor girl in this horrible predicament so he takes her back to the Patterson’s house with plans to leave her with them. Maddie is welcomed with open arms but it is apparent that if Maddie is discovered, she will be returned to her father. Neither she nor Luke are safe and a plan is made to get them both out of Texas. But for the plan to work they have to marry.
High Stakes offers a gripping and satisfying read. Hansen paints vivid and unforgettable images and creates characters the reader immediately will care about. The reader will also feel as though they are right there, witnessing each scene as it is skillfully told, getting a sense that the story hasn’t been created from a writer’s imagination, but recorded from actual events.
And right in the middle of all the gunslinging action and high paced excitement, two unfortunate souls, Luke and Maddie, find love and learn about faith and the workings of the Spirit. Luke learns that a life focused on revenge doesn’t allow room in his heart for love and God.
High Stakes will satisfy any historical fiction fan and make a fan out of those who aren’t fans of Westerns.
If you read any book this summer, read High Stakes by Jennie Hansen!
$14.95 Covevant Communications, Inc., 204 pages
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.