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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Literary Radio Host Rills on Equality and "The Girl with Braided Hair"

Title ‘The Girl with Braided Hair’
Author Margaret Coel
Publisher The Berkley Publishing Group
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York
Price $16.29 Amazon
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Berkley Hardcover (September 4, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0425217124
ISBN-13: 978-0425217122

Reviewed by Connie Gotsch

Liz has to get off the rez, or angry AIM members will drive her off--into a grave. Packing her baby into her old car, she scrapes money together for gas, and heads for Denver.

With that incident, Colorado mystery writer Margaret Coel begins her thriller, ‘The Girl with Braided Hair.’ A professional historian, Ms. Coel has spent much of her career researching the Arapaho and their lives on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, first for nonfiction books, and now for novels.

She has written 13 mysteries featuring Arapaho lawyer, Vicky Holden, and Catholic priest, Father John O’Malley as protagonists. Together they solve murders. Sometimes the police, Vicky’s children, people working at Father John’s mission, or Vicky’s love interest, Adam Lone Eagle, help out. Sometimes they hinder the process.

In ‘The Girl with Braided Hair,’ Vicky and Father John must identify the skeleton of a person killed in 1973 and left to rot in a shallow grave along a highway. The plot has all the elements of a typical mystery: false leads, uncooperative witnesses, threats to Vicky and Father John, cliffhanger car chases, and an explosive climax that reveals both the killer and the victim’s identity.

This model might lead to repetitious themes and predictable twists, especially after 13 novels. Margaret Coel avoids that trap. The components required for a good whodunit serve her as a framework around which to weave thoroughly researched Arapaho history, adding education to the fun of a good thriller.

For ‘The Girl with Braided Hair,” Coel examines the American Indian Movement (AIM), its origins, the struggles that drew people into it, and the related attitudes about it that linger today on the Wind River Reservation.

Her characters come off as solidly three-dimensional against this background. Vicky Holden is a kind, sincere person who wants to use her education as a lawyer to do right for her people by supporting ordinary individuals. She eagerly accepts a request from her neighbors to find the identity of the skeleton.

Her lover, Adam Lone Eagle, carries on the struggle by looking at the actions of large entities, in this case corporations discriminating against Native Americans in hiring practices. He does not approve of Vicky’s choice to leave an important case and chase down the name of a long-dead person about whom no one has cared before.
Father John struggles with alcoholism, an impending transfer, and a spirit that would much rather deal with people than the invoices, checkbooks, memos, and papers required to run a mission on a reservation. Perhaps he also harbors a love for Vicky that he cannot fulfill

In the end, the murder victim while undeserving of death, has by choice trusted vicious people. Thirty years after the heyday of AIM, the individuals who both loved and hated this person suffer repercussions from their emotions, and related decisions.

However, strong characterization and presentation of Arapaho history alone do not raise ‘The Girl with Braided Hair,’ above the typical good ole murder thriller. Margaret Coel adds one more element to make that happen. She uses the story to introduce several good and universal questions that everyone must face in some way.

What is the right way to lead a struggle for equality? What’s important to fight for in that process? What do people do at any given time that leads to good or bad outcomes? What decisions haunt them 30 years later? How important is individual identity and why? How long should a person hold on to something he loves? When is it time to move on?

Margaret Coel’s approach makes readers think about their own life decisions, and the effect those decisions have on themselves and others. An author who does that is always fresh, even if she writes a thousand stories about a particular set of characters.
Reviewer Connie Gotsch is the author "A Mouth Full of Shell" and "Snap Me a Future" published by DLSIJ Press.
She is featured in "The Complete Writer's Journal" published by Red Engine Press
She is also a radio host for KSJE.

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