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. 

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