Pocahontas, Whitewashing, and Playing the Long Game

I have not seen the movie Pocahontas since I was a small kid. Truth be told, I don’t remember that much of the movie. I remember that the English looked very Spanish in the movie, what with their glittering armor and their Morion helmets, and I remember that Pocahontas sings something about the color of the wind or something like that. If I remember correctly, there was also a raccoon that was supposed to be pretty important to the story. Were I to rewatch the movie today, I doubt I would enjoy it much.

Truth be told, there are a variety of reasons why. Part of the reason is I’m not that into musicals–the suspension of disbelief is usually too much for me. Part of the reason is I missed out on the chance to see the Matrix in theaters because I had to stay home to watch Pocahontas with my younger brother. As someone who really enjoys film and philosophy, I am still aggrieved that I missed out on the chance to see the first Matrix on the silver screen. But if I am going to be completely honest, what really bothers me about the movie Pocahontas is the lack of respect for the history and the people involved in the story.

I understand, of course, that Pocahontas is intended for a young audience and that young kids aren’t necessarily interested in a historically accurate tale. Nonetheless, I still find it disturbing that Disney took so many creative licenses with the historical facts related to the Jamestown colony and disagree with the idea that historical fiction ought to be sanitized if it’s intended for a young audience. For proof why this is not the case, I would urge readers to pick up Blood on the River.

Blood on the River was required reading in my elementary school and my first introduction to historical fiction. The book is very much intended for a young audience but I suspect if I were to re-read it today, I would still enjoy the book. Told through the eyes of a young orphan forced to join the Virginia Company, the story does a great job of capturing the wonder, confusion, and fear a young boy may have experienced upon arriving in 17th century Jamestown.

Well-known historical figures like Pocahontas and James Smith both make appearances in the novel, but unlike Disney’s Pocahontas, Elise Carbone never tries to suggest the two had any kind of romantic relationship. Moreover, Carbone does not try to elide the fact that Pocahontas was pretty young when she met the English, likely 12 or so, and her decision to stay true to the established facts should be commended.

As almost anyone familiar with the history of Jamestown knows, it has a pretty sordid history. The colonists who founded Jamestown brought little in the way of practical skills, but they did bring plenty of gold-mining equipment, and knew next to nothing of living conditions in the Chesapeake region. Some of the people who were most knowledgeable, the Powhatans for example, did share information and resources on occasion, but the English had a bad habit of attacking Powhatan settlements which kind of put a damper on peaceable cross-cultural interactions. Owing in part to their inability to forge a positive, working relationship with their indigenous neighbors, and their profound ignorance of agriculture, the colonists often went weeks without food. These food shortages were often times severe, so much so that more than half of the colonists died during the Starving Time, and drove many of the Christian settlers to cannibalism.

Genocide and famine don’t exactly make for light reading, but I think Carbone does a good job of alluding to these events in a way that won’t be off-putting for young readers. Moreover, I think the way the protagonist, a real-life historical figure who went by the name of Samuel Collier, deals with these crises make for compelling reading. At one point in the book, the protagonist has to decide whether he will kidnap a baby from his mother to save the child from coming famine or if he will leave the baby with a mother who insists the Jamestown food shortage is no serious matter. The choice that Collier makes sticks with me to this day and gives the book an emotional depth unmatched by the Pocahontas movie.

In all fairness, Disney is in the money-making business, not the telling historical-stories-accurately business. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Blood on the River was a big success with readers. The book has over 4,000 ratings on Amazon and averages 3.99 stars which is pretty good by most metrics. Moreover, it’s also a top-seller in multiple Amazon categories which is impressive considering the book was released only 12 years ago. I’m sure Pocahontas helped Disney bring in tons of money, but I suspect the movie will fade from the cultural lexicon in the years to come and will hurt Disney’s brand in the long-run. Whitewashed historical fiction just isn’t as popular as it used to be and fans have increasingly high standards when it comes to historical fiction. Owing to Carbone’s respect for history and people involved in the Jamestown colony, I suspect Blood on the River will continue to rack up many positive ratings and will continue to be read by young students all across the country.

Cortes enters Tenochtitlan

This excerpt comes from The Bend of the River, the sequel to The Serpent and the Eagle. At this point in the campaign, Hernando Cortes has already won many important victories over the local forces and has forged key alliances with aggrieved Mexica vassals. For the sake of context, it is also worth mentioning that Mexica people are often referred to as Aztec today and that Doña Marina is better known as La Malinche today.

Cortes stared over the edge of the stone causeway. Built a lance above the water’s surface, he doubted a fall would hurt all that much. Nonetheless, he suspected a tumble would be fatal since his heavy armor would ensure he sank to the bottom of the murky lake. He shuddered. What kind of people would  build a city in the middle of a lake?

Whatever their reason, the Mexica were obviously blessed with gifted architects. The stone causeway would put the Romans to shame, one section of it stretched for almost two leagues, and not one corner of the city touched dry land. He took a deep breath. By mid-morning, he would be entering the floating city with his army.  

And when we leave the city, we will possess an incredible fortune. He shaded his eyes to study the army’s formation. Footsoldiers made up the bulk of his army, and the various contingents were separated by a single row of eight horsemen riding abreast of one another. It had taken half an hour to assemble his men in the proper arrangement and, had it been necessary, he would have spent half the morning organizing them. 

He wondered what Motecuhzoma, Great Speaker of the Mexica nation and undisputed leader of the Triple Alliance, felt when he looked upon Cortes’ army. Hopefully fear. The Great Speaker also had an eye for pomp and flair so the careful organization was probably not lost on him. Motecuhzoma perhaps had too much interest in such matters—Cortes and his men had been standing on the causeway for almost an hour now because they were being treated to an extended dirt-kissing ceremony. Cortes’ mare pawed the ground, and he dismounted so he could rub Arriero’s neck and whisper comforting words.

Whether it was the heat or the waiting that bothered Arriero, he did not know. Doña Marina did not seem bothered by either, and her remarkable composure was just another reminder of her impressive strength. He reached out to squeeze her hand, but a quick glance from her made him think better of it. 

“Do you remember what I told you?” she asked. “About the way Motecuhzoma will speak?”

He nodded. “Yes, yes. In opposites, I remember.”

“Not with everything but with much. If he says he has greatest respect for you, he has little respect for you. If he insults himself, it is to show you his greatness. 

He smiled. “Our nobles employ quite a bit of false flattery, too. Usually have to bring out some wine to get some honesty.”

Doña Marina furrowed her brow and said, “He could use many honorific titles to address you, but he would do same with any visitor. The praise is hollow so do not think much of it.”

Cortes nodded. “Thank you for the explanation. I am in your debt.”

She looked at him askance. “Are you in Aguilar debt, too?”

Cortes turned away from her. He did not want to explain again that Aguilar had to be included even though she was a better translator. There were some aspects of Spanish culture she would never understand. 

Up ahead, a series of conch shells blared in unison. He clambered onto his mount for a better view and was delighted to see that the army was finally moving again. As the rearguard trudged forward, he realized the stone causeway often gave way to removable wooden sections. If the Indians removed the wooden planks, his army would be unable to escape the city on foot. 

He cast his gaze toward the island of Tenochtitlan. Connected to the mainland by three different causeways, he wondered if all of them were built with the removable sections. Intuition told him yes, but he had every confidence he could compel the Mexica to repair the causeways if need be. Even the proudest of warriors could be forced to grovel and beg if their families and their homes were threatened.

Still, it would be wise to have a contingency plan. What with the army’s experience in Tlaxcala, he understood quite well that some Indians had more tolerance for suffering than others. He glanced at some of the canoes floating nearby. Some were so large they could accommodate dozens and some were so small they could only carry one person, but all of them sat low in the water. The lake seemed shallow in most places, many of the boatmen plied the placid surface not with paddles but with long poles, but he doubted it would be possible to walk or even swim to shore from Tenochtitlan. We will need to build shallow-draft ships.

He pursed his lips. Judging by the sheer size of the city, tens of thousands lived inside Tenochtitlan and he was sure he could find some ship-building supplies at one of their markets. It would take a few weeks to build ships of the proper size, cordage and sails would have to be sent from Vera Cruz, but that would be more than enough time to convince the Indians to accept him as their lord. 

Cortes straightened his back. He had never entered such a large city before and figured the city had a bigger population than Seville or Granada. He knew for a certainty, however, that even the highest castle towers in his hometown could not match the height of the stucco-covered pyramids or the blocky palaces of Tenochtitlan. How could a place this beautiful stay hidden for so long?

The causeway soon gave way to a very wide and very beautiful avenue, and flat-roofed houses, crafted from a combination of pale adobe and dark stone, now flanked him on every side. Curious onlookers studied his army from behind ledges and half-open windows, but they offered no kind words of welcome. Nor for that matter did they jeer. For the most part, they were silent besides the occasional whisper. If the Mexica intended to ambush his army, it was very likely a signaler was hidden amongst the onlookers. He squinted to study each face. No warmth in any of those stoic expressions. So why are they letting us enter their city and meet with their sovereign?

The army ground to a halt, and the vanguard stopped in front of a large group of Indians. Cortes tensed and dropped his hand to his sword hilt. If the Mexica meant to ambush his army, the soldiers would make sure they paid dearly for the mistake. Not one crossbow needed to be loaded and not one gunpowder weapon needed priming; Cortes had every hope his army would be peaceably received but that was no excuse to shirk battle preparations. 

The loud bang of a drum prompted him to turn around. A litter-bearing delegation was approaching his army from the rear. He turned his horse around and ordered the rest of the rearguard to do the same. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and watched as a group of attendants, dressed in splendid cotton robes that melded colors of varying hues, swept the avenue with long, bushy brooms.

Much as their colorful robes demanded attention, it was the jade-studded litter that truly captivated him. Coated in silver and gold, it was festooned with feathers as long as his forearm and wreaths woven entirely from flowers. The attendants carrying the litter stopped twenty paces away and lowered it to the ground with a practiced grace. 

Cortes dismounted from his horse and gestured to his translators. Today, Doña Marina and Aguilar would be more valuable to him than his guards. He handed the reins of his horse to a nearby servant just as a man stepped out of the litter.

Taller than him by half a hand, the man had a well-defined midsection and thighs the size of tree trunks. Besides the small wrinkles around his eyes, few of his features betrayed age. His thin beard, trimmed short, contained no gray hairs and if there were any on his scalp, they were completely hidden by his massive, green-feathered headdress.

While he could not tell if there were gray hairs on his scalp, Cortes was confident the man carried no weapon. His finely embroidered loincloth seemed ill-suited for such a task and he wore no other article of clothing, save a shoulder-draped robe and some thick sandals.

What he lacked in clothing, however, he made up in piercings. Plugs the size of plum pits dangled from both his ear lobes, and a brilliant gold labret hung from his lower lip. The man strode toward him, utterly sure of his power and his wealth. Cortes’ heart skipped a beat. The man in front of him could only be Motecuhzoma.

The Difficulty of Artsy Dialogue and Real Life Antagonists: A Review of the Deadwood movie

I first developed a strong interest in historical fiction during college and made a point to watch every historical series I could find. Some never clicked with me—never got into Frontier or The Tudors—but I enjoyed Deadwood a lot. And while some shows take quite awhile to get good—looking at you, Serenity—I enjoyed Deadwood from the very first episode. Years have passed since I first watched the episode but I can still remember the shootout that ended the episode. Having enjoyed the first episode immensely, I went on to watch every episode in the series. I developed a deep interest in characters like Al Swearengen—by no means a sympathetic character when we first meet him—so I was excited to hear HBO would be releasing a Deadwood movie. I figured the movie would be a way to add some closure to the series–the show got canned in its third season, despite being envisioned as a five season series–and would be a fun way to check in with the characters. Having had many weeks to mull the movie over, I have to admit that I did not enjoy it.

From a stage production standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with the movie. The costumes are great and the performances are stellar. The writing, however, left a bit to be desired. Just to be clear, I don’t think David Milch is a bad writer. If that were the case, I never would have finished the Deadwood show. However, I do think the Deadwood movie had some dialogue issues and some plotting issues.

The dialogue was never the main reason I liked the show, but it never something that bothered me either. Truth be told, I enjoyed many of the era-specific turns of phrase and I suspect the same holds true for many other viewers. Maybe those same viewers liked that so much of the dialogue in the Deadwood movie was written in iambic pentameter, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. To me, it felt forced and artificial which, ultimately, made it difficult for me to invest in the dialogue. In any case, it wasn’t just the dialogue which rubbed me wrong and I also took issue with the plotting.

For the most part, the plot of the Deadwood movie revolves around George Hearst’s return to the town of Deadwood. George Hearst is a real-life historical figure and, like the show suggests, was very involved in the mining business. However, Hearst did not die while in South Dakota, nor did he ever come to any serious harm while there, which meant Milch had one of two options: he could either completely ignore the historical record or he could make sure Hearst survived his trip to Deadwood. Ultimately, Milch decided on the latter. Why he did so is not a question I can not answer but I think it created some narrative problems for the movie since Milch also chose to insert him into some very trying situations.

The best example of this may be when Bullock, the sheriff of Deadwood, discovers that Hearst ordered the killing of his friend. Putting aside the contrived nature of the killing, it really felt like Milch just wanted to make sure that Bullock and Hearst butt heads during the movie, Bullock’s reaction doesn’t make that much sense. Rather than putting the hired gun in a cell, or getting his confession in writing, Bullock hauls the hired gun before Hearst and his well-armed goons. He then tortures the hired gun, in front of Hearst and all his men, to make him confess the details of his perfidy. Sure that a confession would implicate their benefactor, a Hearst loyalist shoots the man before he can admit to anything incriminating and Bullock loses his best witness. The sequence is frustrating, and more than a little predictable, but it had to be included because Milch was determined to give Hearst a way out. This “need” to make sure Hearst never comes to any serious harm means many of the characters have to make decisions that don’t make sense and I think it ultimately hurt the plot.

I’m sure there are many viewers who disagree with my take. After all, critics from Boston Globe and CNN gave the movie stellar reviews and the audience score, according to Rotten Tomatoes, stands at 97%. It is entirely possible I am being too harsh and might enjoy the movie better once I have had more time to mull it over. As of right now, I am in no rush to rewatch the movie and have to admit that I am disappointed the Deadwood series will end on such a weak note.

Pause what you’re doing and read Panther in the Sky

In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, I feel I should write about James Alexander Thom’s Panther in the Sky. As far as I can remember, this was one of the first books I ever read that was told primarily from the perspective of indigenous characters and remains, to this day, one of the best books I have ever read. Prior to read this book, I knew next to nothing about Tecumseh. His name was vaguely familiar to me, my father had tons of books about Tecumseh all about the house, but I don’t remember learning much about him in my history classes. I suspect I am not alone in this regard and that’s a shame because Tecumseh is a fascinating historical figure and James Alexander Thom does a great job bringing him to life in Panther in the Sky.

It is worth noting that Tecumseh was an enemy of the United States government. It would be wrong, however, to equate him with the likes of Emperor Hirohito. Whereas Emperor Hirohito was an enemy of the US for launching a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Tecumseh was an enemy of the United States government because he sought to protect his homeland from a US invasion. America is an exceptional country in many regards but we are not an exceptional country in how we gained territory—like pretty much every other country in the world, we invaded neighboring nations, killed the military leaders who opposed us, and then defended the land from anyone who tried to take it from. Might is right has been the governing philosophy of nations for millenia, it really only stopped being the international norm this past century, and such thinking played a key role in the westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century.

The Shawnee nation, like many of the other indigenous nations, could not compete with the United States military. Tecumseh understood this well, as did many of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, Tecumseh was not the surrendering type and came up with a rather simple solution to this vexing problem: he would make the Shawnee nation more powerful by allying with other indigenous nations. But whereas others might have been content to ally with one or two other nations, Tecumseh had something much bigger in mind and sought to create a confederacy that would draw in every indigenous nation that stood to lose territory to the United States. It is hard to overstate just how revolutionary an idea this was. Many of the nations that Tecumseh sought to draw into his confederacy had been at war for generations, centuries in some cases. While the concept of pan-Indianism is fairly entrenched in the modern political ethos, it had few proponents in the early 1800s and Tecumseh was very much for unique for putting credence in a pan-indigenous identity.

In some respects, he might have been better off had been less unique in his thinking. Prominent spokespersons found his thinking alien and rejected his overtures of friendship–the best example of this may be when Tecumseh travels south to recruit allies and basically gets told to get lost by a very eloquent tribal leader. Nonetheless, Tecumseh was still able to cobble together a fairly strong military coalition by 1811 and ended up attracting some unwanted attention from the US military. He did not, however, believe in rushing into war and insisted upon waiting for the opportune time to strike, much to the chagrin of some bellicose followers. The insistence upon waiting, however, ended up being a smart gamble. War broke out between the British and the US in 1812 and Tecumseh capitalized on the chaos by attacking key military strongholds, often times with the support of the British. In doing so, he wrested control of Fort Detroit from American forces, despite being outnumbered by the defending force, and embarrassed the US military so thoroughly that General Hull, former commander of Fort Detroit and veteran of the Revolutionary War, was forced to go before a court martial to explain his humiliating defeat.

Unfortunately for Tecumseh, Hull’s successor ended up being much more competent. William Henry Harrison may not command much name recognition today—try to name an American general in the War of 1812 other than Andrew Jackson—but he was an undeniably talented general. Those talents availed him greatly in his battles against Tecumseh and he eventually triumphed over him in the Battle of the Thames. As readers of the afterward know, Harrison’s military triumphs eventually paved the way for his Presidential run and for a few precious hours, he held the most powerful position in all of American history. Why such a short period of time? Well, as Thom notes, Harrison was never the type to use one sentence when two would do and ended up contracting pneumonia during his marathon inauguration speech.

Considering the rich history that made up Tecumseh’s life, it’s a wonder more historical novels have not been written about him. Alas, the failure of other writers to mine this rich vein is James Alexander Thom’s benefit as Panther in the Sky will probably be the authoritative novel on his life for many years to come. Thom’s novel is rather exhaustive, it follows Tecumseh’s life from his birth to his death, but it was never a slog to read as Thom does such a great job of fleshing out the characters. Tecumseh’s friendship with Brock, Tecumseh’s various shenanigans as a child, Tecumseh’s conflict with his brother are still vivid in my memory, despite not having picked up the book in almost half a decade. I think it is important to note, however, that Tecumseh is not the only narrator in the story. Many sections are told from the perspective of other characters, though the vast majority are told from Tecumseh’s perspective, but I can’t think of any POV I found boring. Considering how long the book is and how many different characters are included in the book, this is quite the accomplishment. This is not the first James Alexander Thom book I have read, my first was Follow the River, but Panther in the Sky is a great introduction to do his work and fits in well with the larger body of his work. Those who have already read novels like The Long Knives will find some of the events or mentions familiar, but there is no reason this should be a deterrent to reading Panther in the Sky. If anything, it’s more of a reason to read the book as fans will get the chance to experience events through a different perspective. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Amerindian history, American history, or biographical novels. 

Jonesing for a good Jamestown podcast?

Podcasts have never interested me much. I often find them easy to tune out and rarely feel like I have time to listen to one. Yes, I could listen to a podcast as I am walking around the neighborhood or making my way to work but that just seems so isolating. If there is a single piece of technology that communicates a complete lack of interest in interacting with other humans more than headphones, I have yet to come across it. Nonetheless, headphones are practically a necessity for anyone who works in an office setting and considering all the time I spend in front of my computer these days, I slip on the headphones almost every day now. In the interest of trying new things, I figured I would listen to a podcast rather than some random song on Spotify and visited my favorite new sites to find an interesting podcast. In the process, I found a great history podcast about Jamestown on the Curbed website.

Truth be told, I would not have figured Curbed would be a good place to find a Jamestown podcast. After all, Curbed is a news organization dedicated to mainly writing stories about mass transit, urban policy, and zoning restrictions, none of which seem terribly related to a failed colony in early 17th century Virginia. Nonetheless, the content creators did not seem too put off by this–much to my surprise, they actually had a pretty good raison d’etre for the episode–and I think listeners will find a lot to enjoy in the Jamestown podcast.

Prior to listening to the Jamestown podcast, I did already know some information about Jamestown. I learned about in elementary school (Blood on the River), I learned about in high school (AP US history), and I learned about in college (introduction to early American cultural history). As a result, a decent amount of the information discussed in the podcast was familiar to me already. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the podcast a great deal anyway.

Part of this deals with the narrator. I don’t remember her name being mentioned but whoever she is, she did a great job of making the piece interesting. Some narrators try just a bit too hard (cough cough, citylab) but I think the Jamestown narrator did a good job of threading the needle. Certain tidbits of information, such as the cannibalizing of the dead bodies, could have come across as needlessly macabre on an ordinary podcast but the narrator made this one of the funniest moments in the podcast. That may seem really odd but I challenge anyone to listen to her hypothetical about being cold and being hungry and then having to deal with someone licking blood off your face without finding at least some amusement in it.

Lest I give the impression the Jamestown podcast is all giggles and laughs, I should note it does deal with a number of serious topics, prejudice for example, and I would not suggest it to anyone looking for something “light” to listen to. All the same, I highly recommend the podcast to anyone interested in indigenous history, European history, or colonial history. The podcast has some great information related to the key figures in the Jamestown colony, as well as some of the lesser-known ones, and I think almost anyone who listens to it will come away better educated. And if y’all are anything like me, I suspect a great many of the people who listen to the Jamestown podcast will go on to listen to many more of the history podcasts in the Utopia collection. 

The Second Empress

For whatever reason, I have not been able to find that much historical fiction that deals with Napoleon. To remedy this, I recently read The Second Empress by Michelle Moran and enjoyed it immensely. Napoleon is known to posterity for his immense skills as a general, his dedication to restructuring European political systems, but The Second Empress takes a much narrower approach by focusing on Napoleon as a husband. To be fair, writing about Napoleon’s love life does not provide the most complete portrayal of him and readers who want a gripping, blow by blow account of the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Trafalgar should probably look elsewhere. Having said that, Moran does an excellent job of providing insight into Napoleon’s court and makes great use of first-person perspective to do this.

Whereas most authors who write in first-person tend to stick to one character, Moran opts instead to give us the POV of three different characters that are all written in first-person. Something like this could be very confusing, even if no chapter contains more than one POV and the order of the POVs does not change, but Moran rises to challenge with grace by giving each character a distinct voice. Maria Lucia, the Archduchess of Austria, loves painting and fine art and when we are in her POV, Moran often makes reference to the famous artists of the era or a specific painting technique that only a learned painter would know. In doing so, Moran reminds readers of the specific interests of Maria Lucia and makes her POV distinct from the other characters who do not think about how the sky looks as if it were painted in watercolor and oil.

Additionally, including multiple POVs allows Moran to explore a diversity of perspectives and develop more empathy for the characters that populate Napoleon’s court. While Moran does not try to condone Napoleon’s wars of conquest, Pauline Bonaparte’s chapters provide useful insight into Napoleon’s upbringing to help us understand his grievances and his motivations. Moreover, Paul Moreau’s POV helps us understand the human cost of Napoleon’s ambition. Paul hails from Haiti, a country that has been devastated by the French invasion, but his relationship with Pauline ensures he has a place in Napoleon’s inner circle. While Paul’s advice for Napoleon is often ignored, now and then Napoleon gently remonstrates Paul for his “obsession” with freeing his countrymen, Napoleon respects his intellect and takes him into his confidence on multiple occasions. Sometimes, this means Paul is roped into discussions about wedding decorations but on other occasions, it means Paul is roped into discussions about the feasibility of a military campaign against Russia. 

Owing to Paul’s lack of mention in the afterword or the historical note, it is very likely that Paul is an invented character, perhaps based on a real historical figure or perhaps included just to offer a different angle, but no reader should take this to mean that Moran cut corners when it came to research. To be fair, one can be forgiven for assuming that Moran invented certain details, like Pauline owning serving bowls modeled on her breasts, but as far as I know, this seems to be based on documented fact. Perhaps the best proof of Moran’s dedication to research comes from her familiarity with the primary sources. Many of the chapters are preceded by quotes from private letters and contemporary memoirs that are relevant as well as insightful. In addition to this, Moran provides a list of the biographies she considered “indispensable” so readers who doubt her research are free to check her sources. All in all, I think Moran has written a compelling novel that will appeal to anyone interested in Napoleonic France and while it does not provide much information regarding military matters, I think readers will find much to enjoy in the book anyway.

A Review of Harald Johnson’s 1609

New York has always been one of my favorite states to visit and I picked up 1609 because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the history of the place. There’s no shortage of historical fiction set in New York but I think the vast majority is set in the 19th or 20th century and I really appreciate that Harold Johnson tried a different tack by setting his story firmly in the early 17th century. Moreover, the story is told largely from the perspective of Amerindian characters which appealed to me on a narrative level as well as a historical level.

The protagonist of the story is Dancing Fish and we learn that early on that he is no stranger to tragedy. He loses his parents when he is just a child and constantly grapples with the guilt that comes with being a lone survivor. Nonetheless, he is fortunate to be accepted by the Manahate people and cares deeply about the well-being of his adopted family.

Consequently, the arrival of Captain Hudson and his crew, on an island now known as Manhattan, piques Dancing Fish’s interest. Captain Hudson and his men speak languages none of the Manahate have ever heard of and travel in ships unlike any they have ever seen. Determined to learn more about these strange people, Dancing Fish agrees to accompany them on a journey upriver.

After all, doing so will help him learn more about the inland nations and learn more about the people who have just recently arrived in his home. What he learns distresses him greatly and he quickly realizes that Hudson and his ilk have sinister designs for his homeland. Convinced nothing can be gained by staying with Hudson, Dancing Fish abandons ship after seriously injuring one of Hudson’s crew members.

In the process, he suffers a pretty serious injury himself but I think what I found most memorable about this scene was the interaction between Hudson and Dancing Fish. Hudson is confounded that Dancing Fish would want to abandon his company and entices him to return by telling him “our world is the future.” Hudson’s appeal falls on deaf ears and Dancing Fish responds by letting him know “I see only how you look to our land, to our animals, even to us. We are only for your using. This is not the way to be brothers in peace.”

In some respects, the characters talk past each other during this exchange and I think that’s part of what makes this scene powerful. Neither character can deny the charges made, Dancing Fish understands the Manahate are too few in number to successfully oppose the Dutch East India company and Hudson understands that he is more invader than savior, but neither want to admit this truth. Ultimately, they both seem to realize that dialogue is futile so long as their world views cannot be reconciled and relations between the Manahate and the Dutch East India company become irreparably strained. 

Owing to the emotional stakes of this scene, I imagine it is one that most readers will remember long after they finish the book. Having said that, I think there are some scenes that readers will remember for the wrong reason. The scene where Willow and High Limb first become intimate did not sit right with me, it made little sense from a character standpoint and validates a really awful way of thinking, and I wish the scene had been nixed since it has little importance to the larger story. For that matter, I do also wish 1609 had been a bit longer and I am glad the omnibus version combines the sequels because I think some of the sequels were too short to stand on their own. In any case, I enjoyed 1609 quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of European colonization of the Northeast or Amerindian history.