The Sweet Blue Distance

Written by Sara Donati
Review by Fiona Alison

Another inviting plunge into 19th-century America, Donati’s long-awaited novel sits between the Wilderness series (1792-1824) and the Waverly Place duology (1883-1885). When New York midwife Carrie Ballentyne accepts a nursing position with a Santa Fe doctor, her inquisitive younger brother, Nathan, offers welcome companionship on her months-long journey. Carrie is drawn to fellow traveler Eli Ibarra, a Mestizo surveyor, while widowed Eva Zavala, taking her son, Beto, home to Santa Fe, offers frank and friendly talk about what Carrie should expect socially and professionally. The Santa Fe trail stagecoach is stopped within days by three trackers, with an urgent message that Carrie is to be escorted on horseback to Santa Fe. Eli is with them, and riding is much faster. Nathan feels compelled to protect Eva and Beto, and the siblings reluctantly part ways. Carrie, raised part-Mohawk by her grandfather’s second family, is skilled with horses and weaponry. Dressed like a wrangler, she embarks on the 800-mile trek over plains, desert and mountains, the ride strengthening the bond between Carrie and Eli in a world equal parts danger and wonder. Once in Santa Fe, her midwifery position seems in jeopardy from the outset.

Having read the previous books, I settled into a comfortable feeling, as though I’d never left, and eager to learn more of the intriguing, mixed-race Bonner-Savard-Ballentyne clan, although The Sweet Blue Distance stands well alone. Meticulous research, a host of fictional characters, backstories woven seamlessly into historical settings, and Donati’s marvellous storytelling all prove fertile ground to sow details of the American West, white colonialism, and the genocidal annihilation of tribal life. It’s immersive and compelling, with a delicate balance which never oversteps itself. Written in the tradition of the best of historical fiction, Donati’s sweeping novel is as expansive as the magnificent land through which Carrie and Eli ride.