As anyone who has read my submission guidelines knows, I’m all right with chick-lit and humorous women’s fiction, but romance isn’t generally my thing. That said, when a Native American focused Romance novel featuring modern indigenous folks as the primary cast landed in my inbox, I just couldn’t resist. That’s how I ended up reading Painted Girl, the first book in the Spirit Key series by R.A. Winter.
The book opens with Sara, a young Kiowa woman, getting into a car accident that takes the lives of both of her parents. The PTSD from this event haunts the rest of the book, and her reaction to this traumatic event is well realized and realistic. Shortly afterward we’re introduced to our second Point of View character, Grandfather, the Kiowa Elder who takes custody of Sara and teaches her the traditional ways.
Sara develops strong feelings for John Redhorse, the third protagonist in our story (though his point of view chapters come far later), who recently cut his hair for mourning the loss of his father. Throughout the story, we see both of them struggle with their lust and love for one another, John pressuring Sara into forsaking the traditional ways as he has and Sara resisting him because part of her wants to remain true to her culture.
The two of them go out to the woods alone after checking on the horses and decide to go fishing by hand to bring in some food for dinner. It’s clear at this point that Sara and Grandfather aren’t in the best financial position, and the fishing and farming we see in these opening chapters, along with John’s occasional hunting are helping to sustain them. Sara’s arms sink into the river clay and she has a vision of becoming one with the Earth, her mother’s song from when she was young filling her ears.
Her vision breaks when the song causes a panic attack and flashback to the day of the accident. As the story progresses and we discover that the Spirits are real and ancestors really can communicate with indigenous people, this turns out to be Sara’s major block to accepting help from the spirits and ancestors in her craft.
The pacing of this story is very slow, though I enjoyed the vignette style of many of the chapters and the immersion in the culture that the novel provided. Being from a Salish (not plains) culture myself, I enjoyed seeing a modern look at the struggles modern tribal folks face as they try to marry their modern lives with traditional values. The ending was a little disappointing, in part because of romance genre expectations, and in part because the main conflict of the novel really wasn’t resolved. It took the wind out of a story that I really enjoyed.
Winter’s writing style is simple and plain. There are some beautiful lines and interesting visual images sprinkled throughout, but for the most part the story is composed of simple sentences and repeated similar sentence styles. If it weren’t for the sexual themes, I’d say it would work as a middle-grade reading novel given the vocabulary used.
Despite all of the book’s faults, after a while I was drawn in by the hypnotic rhythm of the story and the intriguing cultural details. I wonder if the story fits better as literary or women’s fiction than romance, given the way the story ends and the hints about where the next books may be going.
3.5/5, not terrible but in need of an editor and a bit of study in the realm of story structure. That said, it fills in gaps in representation in a genre that rarely pays attention to indigenous people, and for that reason I recommend picking it up.