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    A gem of a novel about the Aborigine

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


    I defy anyone to pick up Australian Peter Shann Ford's debut novel The Keeper of Dreams and put it down any time soon. The early combination of incredibly vivid descriptions of the Australian Outback -- and particularly the natural wonder of Ayers Rock -- coupled with lessons in the mystical beliefs of the Aborigine people combine to put the reader in a virtual headlock of rapt attention. Once or twice, I had to remind myself to breathe.

    The principal story thread follows Robert Erhard, a full-blooded elder in one Aboriginal group, the Wirruntjatjara. Robert, kidnapped from his natural family as a child and raised by whites, has become a gifted robotics expert with NASA in Houston.

    But his people are in trouble. A billionaire adventurer, Owen Bird, has bought their stolen sacred stone, or tjurunga, from thieves, and without the stone, the Wirruntjatjara will die. Among the elders of the group are those who can sing people into oblivion, and they have worked their erasures on three of the four people responsible for the stone's disappearance. Their powers are not sufficient to reach Bird.

    Because of the racism to which the Aboriginal people are subjected in Australia, only Robert can go where he needs to go to confront Bird.

    Half a world away, Robert begins to "see" the elders beckoning to him, and he knows they want him home. He dreams about them. Finally, he cannot resist. Risking his career and the love of his life, he returns to Australia to deal with the crisis among his people.

    Up to this point, The Keeper of Dreams is incredibly wonderful, so wonderful that when author Ford diverts in a drawn-out flashback to Robert's younger years, his kidnapping, his white family and his natural family, his development as a young man, I was tempted to skip ahead and get back to the story I had grown to like so much.

    Ford, a former anchor for CNN and NBC News, eventually gets back on track, and the story moves to a fine conclusion in which all the threads are nicely bundled. One of the aspects of the book I appreciated is Ford's work with Aboriginal leaders to get it right. The story had a definite ring of authenticity.

    It has been a long time since I encountered a first-time novelist with Ford's pure talent with words. I wish he had gotten a little more help with the story's construction. Background is important, but when chapters and chapters of it are thrown at me without even a peak back at the action, I begin to feel antsy.

    Nonetheless, I hereby declare myself a Ford fan, happy -- eager, even -- to see what the future brings from him.

    Jean Heller is the author of the mystery thrillers, Handyman and Maximum Impact.

    The Keeper of Dreams

    By Peter Shann Ford

    Simon & Schuster, $24

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