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.

Take a chance on the new Chancellorsville novel

Ralph Peters is one of my favorite historical fiction authors still writing today. While I disagree with many of his political positions and think he has a bit too much sympathy for the Confederates, I have a great deal of respect for his writing abilities and his research process. I have read all of his Civil War novels, except for Hell or Richmond, and I think Darkness at Chancellorsville will probably be remembered as his best work. 

Like all of his Civil War novels, Darkness at Chancellorsville is a multiple protagonist novel that explores the conflict from the perspective of Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. Some of these characters are featured in his other novels—Meade, Sickles, and Lee for example—but some characters—like Jackson, Howard, and Schultz—have never appeared in Peters’ work. For the most part, the characters are engaging and lively and I can’t think of any character POV that I found disagreeable. Lest anybody accuse me of fanboy adulation, I should note I’m not a fan of all the characters included in the Battle Hymn Cycle. Neither Cobb nor Grant’s formerly enslaved aide brought much to the table, just my opinion though, and I probably would not have liked Darkness at Chancellorsville as much had these characters been included.

In terms of newcomers, Schurz’ character stuck with me the most. Peters’ has a penchant for including the POVs of fiery abolitionists in his novels and Schurz definitely fits the mold. Nonetheless, I think Schurz’ character was, in many respects, an improvement on many of those other characters. Some of this deals with Schurz’ backstory. A German revolutionary, Schurz saw firsthand how the 1848 revolutions of Europe failed and understands that kind sentiments are not enough to change the world. Whereas others might give in to bitterness and regret, Schurz resolves to fight on and travels to the United States to aid the abolitionist cause. Backstory aside, I think Schurz’ POV stands out because Peters’ does such a great job of capturing his frustration. Schurz and many of his fellow officers suspect that the Confederates are attempting a flank and bring warning to their superiors. His superiors refuse to take heed of his advice, or any advice coming from the “German quarter,” and Schurz is essentially forbidden from making proper preparations. Ultimately, Schurz’ warning proves correct and Jackson’s flanking maneuver almost destroys the Union army. 

When it comes to recurring characters, Sickles’ POV packed the most punch for me. I think almost anyone who has read Cain at Gettysburg, or just knows a decent amount about the Gettysburg battle, would not be inclined to extend Sickles a great of respect and I was surprised by Peters’ portrayal of Sickles. While it wasn’t positive per se, I think Peters makes it clear that Sickles did acquit himself relatively well in the Battle of Chancellorsville and gave good insight into Sickles’ thinking. Hooker made a serious error by ordering Sickles’ to abandon the high ground, essentially ceding the best artillery position to the Confederate forces without a fight, and Sickles’ contempt toward Hooker’s decision is very easy to understand.

The information goes a long way towards explaining Sickles’ actions in the Battle of Gettysburg and makes his tragic decision to disobey Meade’s order much more understandable. I doubt any agent or editor encouraged Peters to include Sickles’ POV in Darkness at Chancellorsville but I am glad he did as I think it will encourage readers to take a more holistic view of historical figures. To judge Sherman solely by his worst performance in battle, say Shiloh, would be unfair and the same holds true for Sickles. Sickles was by no means a battlefield genius but it’s very likely he understood that Hooker’s decision to cede Hazel Grove was a serious tactical error.

Unfortunately for the Union, it was just one of Hooker’s many tactical blunders. If we are to judge Hooker solely by this one battle, his command of the Army of the Potomac was an absolute disaster. Like McClellan, Hooker deserves a great deal of credit for reorganizing the army and improving morale. He had a great deal of talent for logistics but when it came to fighting, Hooker and McClellan both proved far too timid. Worse yet, Hooker was extremely rigid when it came to battle strategy. This made for a terrible combination as Hooker proved unwilling to go on the offense when Lee was vulnerable and discouraged his subordinates from adequately preparing for flanking attacks. As a result, the Union played a poor offense and a poor defense in the battle. Fortunately, the Union army was not completely destroyed in the Battle of Chancellorsville and Lincoln relieved Hooker of command a short time later, allowing the far-more competent Meade to face off against Lee in Gettysburg.

Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg gives more insight into this battle but for readers who are mainly interested in learning about the Battle of Chancellorsville, I would highly recommend Darkness at Chancellorsville. It is an excellent read and extremely informative, and I highly recommend it Civil War buffs as well as historical fiction enthusiasts. 

Seven Reasons to Read Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

I majored in history at George Washington University and had to read a number of history texts for my studies. Some of them were incredibly dry, like Death Valley dry, and rather forgettable but some of those texts hold an honored place on my bookshelf to this day. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest was definitely the latter.

There’s quite a bit I like about this book, but what I really enjoy about this book is the engaging prose. Matthew Restall is extremely well-versed on matters related to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, as one would expect for the Director of Latin American studies at Penn State University, but he never comes across as pedantic or self-absorbed in his writing. Rather, he comes across as conversational and earnest and I imagine there are a great many readers who could appreciate this. But putting aside Restall’s talent for wordplay, I think readers will also be able to appreciate the historical argument that undergirds Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

The answer will probably differ from person to person, but I personally believe the reason we study history is to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is a great resource in this regard and I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about the European colonization of the Americas, a monumental event that reshaped the global balance of power for centuries to come, or anyone interested in learning more about the way that history is remembered to consult this book. My strong suspicion is that readers who give this book a whirl will discover that the version of events they learn in school—whether it’s Cortes being perceived as a god or the idea that the locals were simply passive victims—bears little resemblance to truth.   

I have a very strong interest in the “Spanish conquest,” I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I am writing historical series on the subject, but I think the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The book explores a number of issues related to race, gender, and class that are still very much relevant today and since 2019 is the five hundred year anniversary of Cortes first landing in Mexico, I think the book is especially relevant today. But for anyone not convinced they should check out the book, I would like to offer seven reasons worth considering:

  1. It’s a good read
  2. It’s an informative read
  3. It’s an easy read
  4. It’s a short read
  5. It’s a timely read
  6. Reasons 1-5
  7. Reasons 1-6

If those reasons aren’t good enough, I suppose nothing is. In any case, happy reading everyone!

**This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries**