Jane Kirkpatrick again has succeeded in bringing to life not only appealing, authentic characters but also portions of the early west itself. With the Big Muddy Ranch in southern Oregon as the setting, she presents three separate stories that span one hundred years, from 1897 to 1997. In each story a woman of faith demonstrates unique courage and strength that is rewarded with hope, miracles, redemption and love.
In Part One Eva Cora Thompson Bruner gets her first delighted glimpse of the Big Muddy Ranch when she is merely four years old. Eva's youthful joy is short-lived. Her father kills a man and gets life, and her mother relinquishes hers to despair. Soon Eva finds herself being raised by her aunt and uncle. But her love for them and the Big Muddy grows, and at age 17 she falls in love with D.L. Bruner and becomes his child bride. Yet, once again, her joy is snatched away as Dee is accused of murder and seems destined for the same fate as her father. Eva is determined, however, not to follow the steps of her mother and is blessed with an inner strength that carries her through betrayals and the ordeals of his trial. She demonstrates her faith by setting up a homestead near the Big Muddy and prays for a miracle that will return her husband to her and their baby girl.
Part Two brings Cora Swenson to the Big Muddy. She is the daughter of a woman who had been close friends with Eva's grandmother. The year is now 1984 and the Muddy has been taken over by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. While purporting to be a mystic sect based on "oneness, obedience to the One, and the forsaking of individuality, including earthly goods," it is actually a cult designed by shrewd lawyers to bilk the rich and foolish out of enough money to support the Bhagwan, his 90 Rolls-Royces, and his team of fawning sycophants. Ultimately, a scandal caused by cult members who engineered a bio-terrorist attack ends the Bhagwan's reign, but many of the Sannyasins stay on and await his return, a testimony to the thoroughness of his indoctrination.
For those who remember the headlines during that time, Kirkpatrick provides a grim reminder of life on the Big Muddy under the Bhagwan's leadership. Where sexual freedom always trumped decorum. Where the faithful worked like slaves and their children were left to wander around, attended by all but cared for by no one. It is one of these children, her granddaughter Charity, whom Cora Swenson hopes to rescue from the ranch.
Part Three returns us to the Big Muddy Ranch in 1997 after it has been abandoned by the last of the Sannyasins and is now part of a land parcel that the Washington family wants to donate to Young Life, a non-denominational youth organization that serves teens. The conversion of this rugged, untamed land into a Camp for kids that promises them "the best week of your life" is both touching and telling as Kirkpatrick deftly parallels the conversion of the Big Muddy with the conversion of a skeptical sociology grad student. When Jill Hartley allows her love for husband Tom to nudge her toward faith, she begins to experience the love and miracles of God. Her questions and doubts are met with kindness and gentleness from those involved in this project of reclamation, and she soon finds herself caught up in the reality of a new life in Christ.
Just as there is a special place in Heaven for those who practice the tenets of God, I believe there is a special place in Hell for those who hurt their fellows in the name of God. Jane Kirkpatrick has an extraordinary talent for compelling us to explore our beliefs while telling a whopping good tale.
Reviewed by Maggie Harding on April 19, 2005