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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.