Beyond the Trappings of Traditional War Fiction: a review of Zoe Saadia’s Beyond the Great River

Beyond the Great River is a historical novel that takes place in the Great Lakes region during pre-Columbian times. I have spent little time in this part of the world and know little about the history of this region but I still found it quite easy to enjoy this novel. Military conflict, as is often the case in historical fiction, plays a large role in the story but, unlike many other war novels, Beyond the Great River does not build toward a pitched battle. In some respects, it may not even be appropriate to think of Beyond the Great River as a war novel. After all, the invading force in the book constitute barely 20 warriors and the village being invaded is not especially large. Moreover, there is little examination of battle tactics and no great general who we are supposed to root for in the story. Whether it is to be considered a war novel or an examination of a long-ago skirmish, Beyond the Great River has quite a bit to say about military conflict and human nature.

War has long been thought of as a young man’s calling and most historical novels are told exclusively from this perspective. However, Beyond the Great River chooses a different tack and we see the conflict mainly through the eyes of Kentika, a young girl who happened to spot the invading force as she was out exploring the forest. Desperate to save her home, Kentika rushes back to her village to inform her elders of what she saw. As it turns out, this ends up being a costly mistake. Not only do her elders initially dismiss her account, but she ends up leading the invaders back to her village because they are able to follow her fresh tracks. It’s a great example of how good intentions don’t always lead to good results and how defeat can often be brought about by very wise decisions.

Some readers will certainly find this counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about defeat as a culmination of bad choices, whether it’s Hitler’s decision to invade Russia or Napoleon’s decision to invade Spain. What makes Beyond the Great River such an interesting read to me is that it ponders the alternative: how battle often punishes the people who make smart decisions.

Moreover, the reader is also encourage to wonder about war itself. Might is right has been the norm for most of human history and Saadia’s depiction of the Ontario region during the time of the Great Law of Peace leaves little doubt this mentality was endemic even then. Saadia’s intent is probably not to insinuate that the Great Law of Peace was some sort of farce, a great many scholars think the Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy played a large role in the democratization of colonial societies in North America as well as Western Europe, but it should encourage introspection on the part of readers. Semantics often color our approach to history, whether it’s how we think of Alexander the Great or Shingas the Terrible, and I appreciate how Beyond the Great River encourages readers to think of how much different history can be when we incorporate the perspective of marginalized peoples as well as powerful societies.

Kentika’s attempt to inform her village of the danger posed by the foreign warriors is just one example of this. All throughout the story, logical and understandable decisions often backfire horribly and the reader is forced to wonder how much of victory depends not on genius strategy but dumb luck.

All in all, Beyond the Great Rivers is a brisk read and a great start to an interesting trilogy about pre-Columbian North America. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys stories with a strong female protagonist and to readers interested in learning more about early American history.

This novel is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and in paperback.

Review of Apocalypto film

I first saw Apocalypto in high school and enjoyed my first viewing immensely. I had little to go off when it came to assessing the accuracy of the movie but I found the actions sequences very entertaining and enjoyed the fast-paced, straightforward narrative. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about Mesoamerican history and I understand much better the problematic elements of the movie. The movie suggests the post-Classic Mayans carried out human sacrifice on a scale completely incongruous with the academic consensus and that people who lived in the hinterland had yet to transition to an agricultural lifestyle but did have to worry about getting raided by distant city-states. In reality, the Mayan people had been practicing agriculture for centuries by this point and warfare was carried out by major polities against other polities, not tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. For that matter, the idea that villagers would practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintain no connection to any sort of major metropolis contradicts a great deal of what we know about the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1500s. As someone who takes a great interest in history, especially history related to the European colonization of the Americas, these inaccuracies are troubling to say the least.

Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the quality of the movie, it is important to note that Apocalypto is a rather unique movie. After all, the box office is not exactly overwhelmed with movies set in pre-colonial North America, let alone movies filmed entirely in maya t’aan. I don’t think this should make audiences necessarily forgiving of the many inaccuracies included in the film but I think it does put them in context. At the end of the day, movie studios are profit-seeking organizations and the movie was intended for a general audience, not academics that specialize in Post-Classic Mayan history. To be fair, the many inaccuracies of Apocalypto could be attributable to shoddy scholarship but I think it stands to reason that some can be attributed to studio executives believing it would be alright to compromise the historicity of the movie for the sake of narrative cohesion.

I think it is also important to note that the movie does not claim to be based on a true story. This simple proclamation can generate understandable interest from audiences and helped power the financial success of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Apollo 13. If promotional material for the movie had featured language like this, the movie’s casual approach to history would be far more troubling in my opinion. Putting aside matters of historical accuracy, Apocalypto has many standout scenes. The scene where the village gathers to hear the story about the hole in Man has to be one of the better parables put to film and contains some incredibly rich symbolism. Audiences more interested in action than lengthy parables will also find plenty to enjoy in Apocalypto. The second half of the movie functions largely as an extended chase sequence but, owing to careful build-up beforehand and thoughtful pacing, never feels tiring. Some of the scenes in the movie are disturbingly bloody but even movie-viewers who tend to avoid the macabre will be able to appreciate the stunning photography in the movie.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Apocalypto. The movie took an approach to history too casual for my tastes but I appreciate that the movie explores a time and place largely ignored in film. Additionally, I appreciate that the movie worked well on a narrative level and that it gave performers from traditionally under-represented groups the chance to showcase their talents for a wide audience. I would not suggest the movie to anyone looking for an accurate depiction of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico but I think movie-viewers who enjoy straightforward stories and long chase sequences can find a lot to enjoy in Apocalypto.