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Three moon gifHarperCollins (Paperback), ISBN 0-06-101394-3
David Cole's Butterfly Lost kept bringing the word "unusual" to mind. This first novel, set mostly on the Navajo and Hopi reservations of Northern Arizona, offers exceedingly well-written descriptions of its desert settings, but ultimately grabs and holds your attention with its non-formula protagonist. 

Book: David Cole, Butterfly LostUsing the alias Laura Winslow, a forty-something, Ritalin-addicted, Hopi computer whiz tracks young girls for the school system. "Laura" also works with an unreliable bounty hunter. But when she reluctantly agrees to find an old man's granddaughter, the quest sends her into a search for other missing girls, horse mutilators, thieves, murderers, vandals, phone stalkers and her own identity. Along the way, Laura becomes embroiled in the ugly side of the rodeo, law enforcement turf wars and the disrupted life of a young rape victim.  

If all it sounds complicated, that's because it is. Cole includes about as many subplots as an author can get away with, and way too many secondary characters. I started thinking of them as "hit-and-run" characters, because they'd show up for a chapter and vanish -- or maybe reappear 150 pages later for a page or two. Cole's occasional factual errors didn't help. (For example, children did not get Social Security numbers at birth in the 1950s.) He could have scaled back the Ritalin-abuse scenes with no loss to the story, and the final confrontation could have been a bit tidier. 

On the other hand, by the time I hit last 100 pages, I needed to finish the book in one sitting. Anyone who ever made the long drive to the large Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona, and the Hopi reservation in its center, will appreciate Cole's sense of scale, his subtle description of the vast distances that must be traveled just to go to the supermarket. 

Cole also takes advantage of the dearth of tribal police by letting Laura and others get away with things that simply can't be done in more populated areas. I also liked the way he seamlessly integrated information about life in the two Native American tribes, geographically bound together like Siamese twins but otherwise extremely different from each other. Cole writes strong characterizations, as well -- even of the hit-and-run characters. He also crafted the best no-sex sex scene on the bookshelves today, a little gem that by itself makes the book worth buying. 

But Butterfly Lost always comes back to Laura Winslow. I would like to see her again, and though Cole didn't make it easy for himself, he didn't block himself out of a series, either. In any case, I look forward to Cole's next effort.  

Elizabeth Sheley

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