Check Out Calling Crow While You’re Self-Isolating

As of this writing, 49 states have reported at least one case of CV-19 and considering how fast the virus is spreading, it is very likely that most of us will spend the next few months self-isolating. What with all the extra time I now have, I have been reflecting more on the books I have read and I decided to write about Calling Crow this week. Whereas many historical novels focus upon the trials and tribulations of kings and queens, Calling Crow takes place in the American South of pre-Columbian times, a land where kings and queens do not exist. Instead, there are chiefs and mystics. The latter plays an important role in the story and gives readers a hint of the two events that will shape the plot of the story: a foreign invasion and a devastating pandemic. 

Calling Crow, the protagonist of the story and the inspiration for the title, hopes to become Chief one day and looks forward to the day he can marry his childhood sweetheart. After neatly resolving a conflict with a neighboring village, Calling Crow is quickly elevated to Chief but he has little time to celebrate because he is soon informed of a strange sighting. Mountain People have returned from the Far South and claim to have seen things that defy conventional explanation. Nobody in the village knows what to make of their “cloudboat” sighting but Calling Crow believes he has an obligation to investigate. 

Worried there might be a supernatural calamity afoot, Calling Crow enlists the help of the village mystic and consumes a noxious drink to travel to the spirit world. When it comes to my own writing, I tend to stay far away from magical divinations, but the novel’s brief turn towards fantasy works well because it foreshadows key plot points in a way that’s intriguing without being over-the-top. During Calling Crow’s drug-induced vision, readers are introduced to an eerie entity known only as the Destroyer. The identity and the motivations of the Destroyer are a mystery to us just as much as Calling Crow, but Calling Crow feels compelled to discover more.

Convinced he cannot do without going to the Far South himself, Calling Crow informs the villagers he will personally investigate the matter of the cloudboats and travels south with a handful of trusted warriors. Calling Crow underestimates the danger involved with getting close to the cloudboats, and they are taken captive by a strange white-skinned people who speak an unknown language called Spanish. 

Calling Crow’s captivity dramatically changes the direction of the story and author Paul Clayton introduces us to a fascinating pageantry of characters, some indigenous and some European. In the interests of not revealing all the story, I will avoid delving deep into the details but Calling Crow eventually escapes slavery and makes it back to his village after many years away. 

The village folk are pleased to see him again, but they do not know what to make of his ordeal or his unexpected return. Everyone assumed he was dead so a new Chief was elected and his former wife found a new husband. Calling Crow expected to be welcomed back a savior, but he is derided as a crazed fool instead. They have no interest in changing their comfortable lifestyle on account of some shadowy menace nobody has ever heard of and some people begin to question his sanity. After all, none of them have ever beheld the Spanish explorers so his stories regarding horses and cannons and rifles strike them as fantastical. 

Calling Crow is tolerated at first, but it does not take long for him to wear out his welcome. A strange sickness is stalking the village, one unlike any they know and one that did not exist before Calling Crow returned to the village. Men and women, young and old, are all susceptible and the sudden specter of death leaves everyone unsettled. Healers are powerless to help the afflicted, and many fear for their health. Aggrieved and angry, the villagers turn on Calling Crow and he is forced to flee the very same village he tried so very hard to save.

Calling Crow had no idea he could transmit smallpox to others simply by returning home and it’s not until he leaves that he realizes he is the Destroyer. The irony of this will be apparent to anybody who reads the book to completion and gives the book an ending both powerful and insightful. I highly recommend Calling Crow to readers interested in North American history, pandemic history, or indigenous history. Check out the book from your local library or find it on Amazon.

History as a cudgel

I knew I was going to major in history from the first day of college but I was interested in politics long before that. Whenever possible, I like to combine these two interests so I was much intrigued when I saw a Hillsdale College ad for a free online course titled Congress: How it Worked and Why it Doesn’t.

Truth be told, I had never heard of Hillsdale College before I saw the ad but I didn’t consider that to be all that notable. After all, there’s plenty that goes on in the world of online universities that I know nothing about. Moreover, I am always on the hunt for new podcasts so I figured I might as well give Hillsdale College a chance.

I only had to listen for a few minutes before I realized the courses offered by Hillsdale College, those related to Congress at least, aren’t really intended as history classes. Rather, they are intended as an introduction to strict constructionism. As far as judicial philosophies go, strict constructionism can lend itself to some extreme interpretations but it’s very popular with John Birch conservatives and serves as the bedrock for many legal opinions. I personally don’t subscribe to strict constructionism but everybody is entitled to their own world view. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend Hillsdale College’s Congressional history class.

It’s important, of course, to engage with differing view points and I appreciate that Hillsdale College doesn’t charge a listening fee. I don’t appreciate, however, their appreciate their attitude toward history. In all fairness, there is no one way to study history. Personally, I find it helpful to visit historical sites and to acquaint myself with secondary and primary sources. To research the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, I read primary sources like Cortes’ Letters to the King, Diaz Conquest of New Spain, Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, but primary sources come in many forms and styles. Not every primary source has the same impact on history and there are few that can measure up to the Constitution when it comes to American history.

Considering its hallowed place in American history, it’s quite understandable that Americans of various political persuasions hold the Founding Fathers in high esteem. Few can deny that Thomas Jefferson was an eloquent writer or that George Washington was a talented battlefield commander. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember these people lived in a time far removed from our own and that they could not have predicted the rise of the internet any more than they could have predicted the climate-altering consequences of oil dependency. In my mind, this means we have to sort things out for ourself and draw upon the advice of cyber experts and climate scientists when drafting legislation pertinent to those issues.

The lecturers at Hillsdale College, however, hold a different opinion and mention in their lectures that we ought to oppose the Clean Water Act, and similar types of progressive legislation, to stay true to the wishes of the Founding Fathers. Nevermind that we are not given any hard evidence to back up the idea that the Founding Fathers would be opposed to legislation intended to protect the environment and preserve our health–we are simply expected to trust that the Founding Fathers were monolithic in their thinking and their goals. After all, the lecturers wear fancy suits and have gray in their beards so we ought to trust them when it comes to matters like history and law. 

But what about the environmental scientists and the public health experts who must have some thoughts on the Clean Water Act? If we are to believe the lecturers at Hillsdale College, their input is not germane. Instead, we must enact legislation only if we are absolutely certain the Founding Fathers would have done the same. If we subscribe to this world view, history is little more than a cudgel that we use to beat back progressive impulses. It’s all too easy to imagine how such a philosophy straightjackets government and nullifies some of the most consequential legislation of the 20th century. After all, the Clean Water Act and Social Security and the Civil Rights Act are all equally invalid should legislation be bound by the dead hand of the past.

I see little good in this but I was curious to learn why the lecturers at Hillsdale College believe otherwise. I figured I would start off by learning a bit more about the qualifications of the professors so I went to the home page and navigated to the faculty section. To my surprise, it was not clickable. I figured it was maybe just some issue with Chrome so I tried on Safari. Safari didn’t work either and while I figure the information will eventually be provided to the public, I decided to do some digging. What I found was very interesting and very illuminating. 

Located in Michigan, Hillsdale College is not a nationally accredited college and does not receive federal funds. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Hillsdale College lacks for money though as it receives generous support from wealthy donors. To be fair, pretty much every university in America accepts charitable contributions. But whereas most universities rely on a robust alumni network, Hillsdale College relies upon a very different group: wealthy conservatives who have never set foot on campus. To convince these donors to open up their checkbooks, Hillsdale College advertises on Fox News and courts contributions from the Koch network. The Center for Public Integrity, Politico, and the Chronicle for Higher Education all have some great reporting on the subject and I encourage anybody interested in the school and its connection to Trump world to delve deeper into the issue.

All in all, I wouldn’t call the Hillsdale College classes bad. I just don’t think they are particularly informative. Maybe I just need to listen to more of the episodes, I listened to about an hour worth of content before I had to throw the towel in, but I can’t say it’s a high priority for me. There are so many better educational resources out there, not to mention more entertaining ones, and it will probably be a while until I get around to checking out more of the courses offered by Hillsdale College. Fingers crossed they have better content by then.

Here be a great book! A review of Penman’s Here Be Dragons

I first discovered Sharon Kay Penman in the Silver Spring library and I’m glad I did as I consider her to be one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Often times historical novelists can be described in one of two ways: they are either very good at prose or they are very good at research. Gore Vidal has a great talent for sentence construction and pithy sayings but the research that informed The Golden Age is sub-par to say the least. Evaluating the prose of a historical novel is inherently subjective, some of my friends love Hilary Mantel and some can’t get past the first chapter of Wolf Hall, but I think anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction has come across at least one well-researched novel they just couldn’t get into.

Sharen Kay Penman, however, is different: she excels at prose and research. Her stories are filled with beautiful, heart-rending scenes–colored by Penman’s vivid imagination but always informed by pain-staking scholarship–and there may be no better example of this than Here Be Dragons.

The story begins in the late 12th century and within the first fifty pages, we are introduced to a litany of characters. Many of these characters have little importance to the plot, some never show up again, and some readers will probably find this off-putting. Historical fiction has many unwritten rules–stick to one POV per section, avoid omniscient narrating, stay away from confusing names–and Penman breaks pretty much all of them. Nonetheless, her writing and her research are so compelling that I think most readers can forgive her these sins.

At times the number of characters we are supposed to keep track of can get overwhelming but the first half of the book revolves largely around three characters: John, Joanna, and Llewelyn.

Each character is interesting in their own right but John’s POV was unexpectedly moving. By and large, we don’t have much reason to like John. He is a narcissistic philanderer with few redeeming qualities and he only becomes worse once he gains more power.

In his mind, he is ever the victim, even when is carrying out terrible atrocities, and he cannot comprehend why anyone would dare to disagree with such a simple truth. Unwilling to heed the advice of learned statesmen, he careens from crisis to crisis with alarming speed and Englanders soon grow weary of his ineptitude. By the end of his life, John has lost favor with just about everyone he holds dear: his wife, his relatives, his advisors, even his children. His final days are filled with unbearable pain, but he accepts it all with impressive equanimity. The imminent prospect of death inspires no small amount of introspection and John remarks, “I think I always knew I would die alone.” It is his most powerful line in all the book and I often find myself thinking on this line when I reflect on John’s storyline. John is an undeniably cruel man and while the line doesn’t justify his cruelty, I think it does help explain his vindictive tendencies and his bitter persona. 

John, however, is by no means the only interesting character in the book. His illegitimate daughter, Joanna, makes for a fascinating character and her decisions often drive the plot. Many readers will probably find her thought process frustrating, I often put down the book because I’d be so upset by Joanna’s actions but then I’d have to pick it up again to see how things would play out, but I suspect there are few readers who hate or even strongly dislike her character. If that’s not a testament to Penman’s skill as a writer, it’s hard to know what is.

As for a character that’s easy to like, few of Penman’s characters can hold a candle to Llewelyn. An accomplished diplomat and a skilled warrior, Llewelyn dedicates his life to winning independence for Wales. His ambition is as consuming as it is absolute, but as Penman notes in the epilogue, his dream did not long survive him. Considering the many sacrifices that Llewelyn made on behalf of his country, his inability to win meaningful independence for Wales is all the more galling. 

Whether readers are interested in British history or social drama, I highly recommend Here Be Dragons and look forward to reading more of Penman’s work.

A Review of a Riveting Reconquista Podcast

I have only recently started listening to history podcasts and I discovered Flashpoint history while searching for a podcast about the fall of Granada. Flashpoint history has podcasts dedicated to various topics–the Punic wars, the exploits of Attila the Hun–but I decided to start with the Reconquista podcast because of its relevance to my own writing. Truth be told, it feels a bit disingenuous to call Nitin Sil’s work a history of the Reconquista since the series explores so many other topics. So far, 11 episodes have been released and the narrator covers everything from will the rise of Islam, the Arab invasion of North Africa, and the Moorish invasion of Europe. Even the First Crusade gets a special shout out. I, for one, really appreciate the narrator’s deep dive approach to history and considering the legions of listeners, I think it’s fair to say the same holds true for many others also.

History podcasts are becoming increasingly popular with the public and the crowded market space will probably doom many up-and-coming podcasts. I suspect that will not be the case for Flashpoint history, though. Pretty much anybody can create a podcast which is great from a plurality of perspectives standpoint, but terrible from a quality control standpoint. If there are no gatekeepers, how can we assess the accuracy of the information we are being given?

Sure, we can consult reviews, but what with the free-rider effect, this approach has some drawbacks. And while some podcast narrators are upfront about their credentials, many are not. To be fair, in many cases it doesn’t matter. Bill Burr may not have a degree in sociology but his social commentary is funny all the same. However, when speaking about mathematics or history or some other complex matter, I think intimate familiarity with the subject matters a great deal. Because of that, I really appreciate that Sil takes such pains to reference his sources. He draws heavily upon primary and secondary sources, sometimes reading texts verbatim for the sake of the audience. I can’t say I know many other podcast narrators who do the same but I really appreciate that Sil does and I think his willingness to do so makes his work more trustworthy.

To be fair, veracity is not the only metric worth taking into account when assessing the quality of a podcast. After all, a narrator could read verbatim from a dictionary and while such a podcast would technically be very accurate, it would also be dry as cassava bread. I think Flashpoint history deserves high marks when it comes to entertainment value and audiences must agree considering the immense popularity of the podcast. Part of the entertainment value comes from the narrator’s familiarity with the subjects being discussed. In addition to being well-read, Sil has also traveled to many of the sites mentioned in the podcast. As a result, he’s able to weave in many anecdotes and fun facts for the sake of his listeners. In addition to this, he also has a good sense of humor. The Vikings make a surprise appearance in the series–turns out they did battle with the Moors way back, which must have made for a really interesting clash of cultures–and the narrator could have just played it straight and recounted the facts. Instead, he encourages us to imagine the sense of confusion the Moors might have felt when the Vikings first started sacking their coastal outposts and plays an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. I thought it was a very inspired decision, and I suspect the same holds true for many others. 

I strongly recommend Flashpoint history to listeners interested in Mediterranean history, Islamic history, Christian history, or military history and look forward to checking out more of Sil’s work.

Sons of Texas review: Tons of fun and insightful, too

I never had much interest in Westerns when I was younger but I figured I would give Sons of Texas a read in the interests of trying something new. I’m glad I did as it’s easily one of the most engrossing books I have happened across this year. Considering we are not even one month into the new year, I know that may not mean much but I did really enjoy the book.

Sons of Texas starts in 1816 and transports readers back to a time when the west was a rough, dangerous place and borders were as fluid as the Sabine. Having spent all his life on a small farm in Tennessee, Michael Lewis has largely been sheltered from frontier violence but his wayward father, Mordecai, served with Andrew Jackson and know just how violent the western territories can be. Nonetheless, he can’t help but pine for the free lifestyle offered by frontier living.

The author makes it clear that Mordecai is far from the first Lewis to suffer from wanderlust, Michael wonders to himself at one point if his family would have ever crossed the Atlantic had it been any other way, but Mordecai’s wanderlust verges on deadly. Often times, he goes days without his food and weeks without seeing his children. Such hardship exacts a toll but Mordecai is quite content with “living on water and air for days at a time” because he figures that “a man was not so easily killed as was commonly supposed.” Nonetheless, his penchant for exploring and adventuring is not without risk and Mordecai has borrowed more than he can ever hope to pay back. Unless of course he can pull off his latest get-rich-quick scheme. To pull it off, all he needs to do is sneak into the mysterious place known as Texas, round up some wild horses, and then return to Tennessee with them. Only problem is Mordecai will have to break the law to do so and the Spanish authorities have little love for the “Americanos” who sneak over the border to help themselves to the bounties of Texas.

While Mordecai has little compunction about breaking the law, he fully understands that capturing the wild horses will not be easy. Convinced, however, the money is worth the risk he returns to Tennessee to recruit men and gather resources. His own children hardly recognize him, but Mordecai only stays a few days before he leaves Tennessee to return to Texas. This time, however, Michael follows him and learns for himself just how rough frontier life can be when he comes across two outlaws with a penchant for violence. He barely escapes the encounter with his life, but it will not be his final brush with violence. Michael assumes that he will be safe once he links up with his father’s posse, but a group of Spanish soldiers ambush them after they have caught the horses and Michael suffers a near-fatal injury.

In the interests of not giving away the entire story, I won’t say any more about the plot but it’s worth noting that Michael’s first encounter with the Spanish soldiers is not the climax of the story. It is certainly a high point, but the book does not lack for harrowing sequences, whether it’s an encounter with a murderous priest or a blood feud with a neighbor. As gripping as these plot points are, I think what I will really remember about this book is the way author Elmer Kelton makes us sympathize with characters we shouldn’t like.

There may be no better example of this than Mordecai. Mordecai is a terrible father–he provides next to nothing for his children and spends almost no time with them–but he’s a surprisingly sympathetic character. Absentee fathers are a staple in Westerns but Mordecai is different. He neglects his family not so he can tend the bottle or chase skirts, but to search for greener pastures. He’s convinced that he can always find something better for his family and constantly casts his gaze west in search of that better living. He can’t give up on the hope that greener pastures can be found elsewhere so he can never be there for his family as he should be. There’s something very heart-rending about that and I suspect that readers will remember the characters of Sons of Texas long after they finish it. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in frontier history, Antebellum history, or Texas history and will be sure to read more of Kelton’s work. 

Malintzin’s Choices

By the time I read Malintzin’s Choices, I already knew that I was going to write a historical novel about the Spanish-Mexica war. I picked up the book not so much because I liked the cover or because I knew the author but because I knew I wanted to read a book about Malintzin. I’m glad I picked up Townsend’s book as it ended up being one of the best history books I have ever read. 

Considering my strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war, I will be publishing the second installment in the Tenochtitlan Trilogy later this year and wrote my undergraduate history on the subject, I figure this type of praise may be easy to brush off. After all, nobody would be surprised to learn that a francophile enjoys macarons. But if I am going to be completely honest, I really didn’t know much about the Spanish-Mexica war (better known to the general public as the conquest of Mexico) prior to reading this book. 

The thing is, I thought I did. After all, I had learned about the event in my AP world history class as well as my intro to world history class at GWU. My knowledge of the conflict was admittedly shallow but I was quite familiar with the legend that Cortes was perceived as a returning god. The idea that Cortes could return the exact same year the god was fated to return, and that he even shared a similar complexion, was incredible to me and almost Shakespearian. As it turns out, this great coincidence is more fiction than fact and Townsend makes a convincing argument that Cortes, like the Spaniards before and after him, were not perceived as gods. Those interested in the particulars of this argument ought to read the book and can expect to learn a great deal by doing so.

In all honesty, I did not expect a book about a long-dead translator to delve so deeply into Mesoamerican theology or the politicization of history, but that’s part of what makes the book so great. It’s so much more than a biography–it’s a reflection on how we study the past and which narratives get prioritized. History books, the good ones at least, ought to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons, and I suspect Malintzin’s Choices has done that for a great many readers.

Townsend’s interests can be admittedly niche, I have yet to meet the layman who can expound at length upon the complex political alliances of central Mexico in the early 16th century, but even readers who do not have a strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war will find much to enjoy in this book. Townsend’s prose is both engaging and insightful, investing her book with the type of energy and wit more typical of fiction than non-fiction. I strongly recommend the book to readers interested in women’s history, Amerindian history, or historiography, and I look forward to reading more of her work.