Day 1138: The Vengeance of Mothers

Cover for The Vengeance of MothersThe Vengeance of Mothers is Jim Fergus’s sequel to One Thousand White Women, and telling about it faces me with a problem. If you are at all interested in reading either of these books, this is your warning that it’s impossible to tell anything about this one without mentioning the events at the end of the other.

One Thousand White Women was presented as the journals of Mary Dodd, who participated in a (fictional) U.S. government exchange of white women as wives for the Cheyenne for horses. In the 1990’s, the son of the journal’s publisher receives a visitor in his office, Molly Standing Bear, who gives him another set of journals, the basis for The Vengeance of Mothers.

These journals are those of three women—Meggie and Susie Kelly, the wild Irish twins who appeared in the previous novel, and Molly McGill, a young woman participating in the second program of brides for horses. Meggie and Susie are determined to wreak vengeance for the events at the closing of the last novel, which resulted in the deaths of their children. Molly’s group is captured by the Lakota when their train is massacred, but the Lakota give the survivors to the Cheyenne.

link to NetgalleyThe women’s adventures include the return of the dastardly Jules Seminole, who led the army to attack the Cheyenne instead of the group of Native Americans they were supposed to attack; the reappearance of a few of the women from the first book; and a romance between Molly and Hawk, a young warrior.

I found the same things interesting in this novel that I liked in the other, particularly the details of life among the Cheyenne, but Fergus doesn’t give us much of anything new here, except a strange turn to the spiritual. In particular, I found the ending unsatisfying. Still, I enjoyed most of the journey to a limited extent.

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Day 1020: One Thousand White Women

Cover for One Thousand White WomenWhen I first began reading One Thousand White Women, I didn’t think I was going to like it. I was unconvinced, under the circumstances, by its narrator’s facetious tone, and I felt that the way some characters told her their deepest secrets on first meeting was unrealistic. I was also afraid that most of the characters would turn out to be caricatures of real women. However, I eventually changed my mind from my first impressions.

This novel is a completely fictional imagining of what would have happened if an actual event had taken place. During an 1854 peace conference, a Cheyenne chief suggested that the United States trade 1000 white women for horses, reasoning that this assimilation of cultures would ultimately result in understanding between the two. This suggestion was indignantly received, but Fergus’s novel imagines what would have happened if the experiment were tried.

In 1874, May Dodd is one of those women. She has decided to participate to escape from a mental institution to which her family committed her after she had children outside of marriage with a man they found socially inferior. With her on the train west is a colorful group of women, some of them fleeing ruined lives and others hoping for a family.

On the way out, May falls in love with Captain John Bourke, in charge of their escort from Fort Laramie. Unfortunately, Captain Bourke is engaged to be married, and May feels herself pledged to the mission, which has been presented to the women as a patriotic one.

May is chosen as the bride for Little Wolf, a respected chief of the Northern Cheyenne. He is an older man with two current wives, but he is a man May can respect.

Fergus is strongest in his descriptions of the western landscape and life among the Cheyenne. As I mentioned, at first all the women seem like types, but eventually I came to care for most of the major characters, from the timid Martha to the African-American Amazon, Phemie. And the major Cheyenne characters are sympathetically depicted.

Of course, we know what kinds of things were going on in the West at this time (and if you don’t, I recommend Dee Brown’s excellent and affecting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). This novel is a sensitive and powerful depiction of the native American life and struggles of the time.

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Day 965: Strange Company

Cover for Strange CompanyI read about half of Strange Company but decided not to finish it. It just wasn’t the book for me. I thought it might be interesting because it is about Native Americans during the Civil War.

Roderick “Dhu” Walker is a member of a group of the Cherokee Nation called the Pins, for pins they wear under their lapels. They are traditional Cherokees on the side of the Union who begged the government to protect them from the Confederates under the terms of their treaty. The government did nothing, though, and the Confederacy has forced the Pins to fight on its side.

Before a battle in Missouri, some of the Pins decide not to fight but instead to kill Confederate soldiers during the battle. Dhu kills a couple men but mostly because they get in his way while he’s trying to escape. Later, though, he is captured by the Confederates as a deserter.

As a prisoner, Dhu is teamed up with a Union soldier and forced to fight him at the instigation of Captain Gordon Early. This amusement is only stopped by the intervention of the Colonel. When the Union soldier, Ben Lacey, tells Dhu that Early is off to escort a load of gold from Mexico, Dhu talks Ben into escaping with the idea that, along with some other Cherokees, they’ll intercept the shipment.

The novel moves along fast enough but does little else. There seems to be no idea of characterization. Sentences are short and choppy. Although the writing is grammatical, it is not polished by any means. Any metaphors are clichés. In short, the novel is not very good. If you are interested in reading a Western, you’ll be much better off with one of the “Related Posts” at the bottom of this post.

Disclosure: This eBook was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 910: The Sisters Brothers

Cover for The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers is a book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project, but it also turns out to qualify for my Man Booker Prize project. It is a peculiar novel indeed. It is blurbed as hilarious. I did not find it so. Satirical, maybe; dark, yes; picaresque, definitely.

It  is 1851, and the Sisters brothers are on their way from Oregon City to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. They are hired killers who work for a man known as the Commodore. Charlie is the Commodore’s man, but Eli is tired of the life and wants to own a store.

This is definitely a road trip novel, and on the road, Eli and Charlie encounter many odd people. Most of them they deal with brutally. Eli and Charlie are themselves almost self-parodies, as is their mode of speech.

Although there is an underlying plot, the novel is a series of episodes, where the brothers encounter one situation after another and get out of them more or less fantastically. There is a bit of dark humor in the dialogue, but unlike some other reviewers, I did not find the novel funny. I was interested in Eli’s mental journey, but after he and Charlie blew away a bunch of people, not so much.

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Day 823: Black River

Cover for Black RiverWes and Claire Carver have been living in Spokane since they left Black River, Montana, 30 years before. But when Claire realizes she is dying from cancer, she asks Wes to take her home to Black River. She also asks him to play to her, which he cannot do, because his fingers were broken years before.

Although Wes plans to take her the day after Claire’s request, she dies during the night. So, Wes prepares to return her ashes to Black River.

Wes has not been there nor seen his stepson Dennis since he and Claire left, although Claire has been back to see her son. Their leaving was after a horrendous series of events. First, there was a riot in the prison where Wes worked. He was held prisoner by a convict, Bobby Williams, for more than a day, and tortured, his fingers ruined. Later, in an argument with teenage Dennis, Dennis pulled a gun on him. That was when he demanded that Claire choose between him and Dennis.

Added to his grief and the difficulties of seeing Dennis again, Wes has heard that Bobby Williams is up for parole. Williams claims to have found God and to be a different person than he was when he held Wes captive. Wes doesn’t believe that people can change. In fact, his beliefs go farther than that, the source of the problems between him and his stepson. Dennis’ father was a criminal, and Wes has always watched for criminal tendencies in Dennis. Finally, Williams robbed Wes of one thing, his gift as a talented fiddler, that made him believe true faith was possible.

Like the modern Western novels of Kent Haruf, which inspired this one, Black River is a quiet story about ordinary people. Although Hulse is not Haruf’s equal as a stylist, she shows herself as an accomplished storyteller.

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Day 813: Dry Bones

Cover for Dry BonesCraig Johnson explains that his latest Walt Longmire mystery is inspired by the Dinosaur Wars, which took place in the 80’s between a rancher, his tribe, and the FBI over dinosaur bones discovered on the rancher’s land. The dinosaur in this story is named Jen, and she is a T. rex found on Danny Lone Elk’s ranch.

But first, Walt is called by Omar Rhoades, who has found a body in a fishing hole on Lone Elk’s ranch. It is Danny Lone Elk’s body, and it appears the old man has drowned. Still, Walt isn’t prepared to rule the death an accident, because Danny Lone Elk was a good swimmer.

With Danny Lone Elk’s body in his truck, Walt is driving back to town when he hears shooting. The Lone Elks, it turns out, are trying to drive out Dave Bauman of the High Plains Dinosaur Museum, who has been excavating the T. rex. Dave insists that he has permission from Danny and says he will verify it. Jennifer Watt, the discoverer and namesake of Jen, says she has proof of the agreement, which she videotaped. Randy Lone Elk has been actually trying to dig up the valuable skeleton with a back hoe.

Walt is not happy to return to town to find Skip Trost, an ambitious acting deputy U.S. attorney, who is determined to assert a federal claim to the dinosaur bones. In the meantime, Walt is supposed to be preparing for his daughter Cady’s arrival from Philadelphia with her five-month-old daughter Lola.

Cady has no sooner arrived than she receives a call from the Philadelphia Police Department. Her husband, Michael Moretti, was killed on active duty. Cady and her baby are soon rushing back with Vic, Walt’s undersheriff and Michael’s sister. Walt and his friend Henry Standing Bear are worried that Michael’s death is related to a previous case involving a Mexican hired killer.

As usual, this novel includes a lot of action and is peopled by the recurring characters we grow to like more and more. And there is another pinch of the supernatural. The spirit of Danny Lone Elk has appeared to Walt in dreams and is trying to tell him something.

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Day 706: The Devil’s Backbone

Cover for The Devil's BackboneThe Devil’s Backbone is a western adventure tale related in an unsophisticated vernacular style in both first person and third person. It is an unusual novel but reminds me most of, perhaps, True Grit or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The third person narrator is barely there but relates the first person story his father told him. The book is illustrated by Jack Unruh.

Papa, as the third-person narrator calls him, is a young boy growing up in the Texas Hill Country when his father Karl kills a horse after a dispute about it with his wife Amanda. Amanda saddles up her horse Precious with the concho-decorated saddle her father gave her and leaves. After Karl has gone off for a few days and returned, a neighbor, Miz Choat, arrives to tell Karl that she has promised Amanda to send the boys to school, so she takes Papa and his older brother Herman back with her. But after Herman has attended school awhile, he takes off.

Papa enjoys his time with the Choats, but after a few months his father arrives to take him back. At home he has installed another woman, Miss Gusa, who is pregnant.

Papa has clearly been brought home as a cheap source of labor. Eventually, Karl’s brutality makes Papa decide to leave and look for his Mama. On his journey he encounters outlaws, a dying Indian, a prematurely born baby, a family of Mexican migrant workers, and several loyal friends, including the cowboy Calley Pearsall.

I enjoyed this tale. At first, I thought it might become a series of tall tales, but nothing happens in it that seems wildly exaggerated. However, it does have the flavor of a folk tale. The only thing I found a little irritating was the double narration. We learn nothing at all about the narrator, so I don’t really see the purpose of that approach, which leads occasionally to such confusing constructions as “I said, Papa said.”

Although this novel may sound like children’s fiction, I don’t think I would recommend it for younger children because of some of the events. Older children would probably like it, as it has lots of adventure. Some of the subject matter may be inappropriate, however, as there are events such as murders and death in childbirth, so use your discretion. This book was a choice of my book club, all adults, and we all enjoyed it.

I have been on the Devil’s Backbone (pictured on the cover). These days it is a narrow two-lane highway across a ridge with spectacular views on each side. I heard it had been widened, but to think it was once so narrow is amazing.

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Day 536: Any Other Name

Cover for Any Other NameSheriff Walt Longmire is supposed to be on his way to Philadelphia for the birth of his first grandchild, but he’s been sidetracked. Old Lucian, the former sheriff, has asked his help for a friend. The two travel to a neighboring county to call on Phyllis Holman, whose husband Gerald has been deemed a suicide. Phyllis does not believe he committed suicide and thinks the local police are covering something up. Connie Holman, the couple’s daughter, wants Walt to drop the investigation.

It seems from the investigation photos that Holman must have shot himself. But Walt would like to find out why, and why he shot himself twice. Holman was on the Cold Case squad investigating the disappearance of an exotic dancer named Jone Urrecha. But Walt learns there have been three disappearances of local women within the last three months.

Despite his daughter Cady’s repeated summonses, Walt finds himself caught up in the case. Soon he’s involved in several shoot-outs, a close encounter with a herd of buffalo in a snowstorm, a chase through an abandoned lodge, a short visit with his dead friend Virgil White Buffalo, a bar fight, and the pursuit of a coal train. He also finds out someone has hired a hit man to kill him.

http://www.netgalley.comAssisted by his best friend Henry Standing Bear and his deputy and lover Vic Moretti, Walt tries to wrap up the complicated case and make his plane flight. As usual with Johnson’s mysteries, the characters are interesting, the writing is excellent and the dialogue witty, and there is plenty of action.

Day 446: Holiday Story! Spirit of Steamboat

Cover for Spirit of SteamboatWhen Craig Johnson was asked to write a Walt Longmire story for Christmas, he got a little carried away and wrote a novella, Spirit of Steamboat.

A strange oriental woman shows up at the Sheriff’s Office in Durant on Christmas Eve and asks to speak to the sheriff. When Walt comes out to see her, she asks if he recognizes her and also wants to meet the previous sheriff. A mystified Walt takes her to see old Lucian Connelly at the rest home, to whom she says one word, “Steamboat.”

The story returns 25 years to another Christmas Eve. Walt has just become sheriff, and he receives a call that a helicopter is bringing in a child who has been injured and burned in a car accident. If she can’t be flown to Denver immediately for burn treatment, she will die. Unfortunately, Wyoming is in the midst of a violent blizzard, and the airport doesn’t have a plane big enough to fly in the storm.

Well, it has one, but no one to fly the old B-25 bomber named Steamboat, which is in questionable condition. Walt rousts out Lucius, a former World War II pilot who took part in the Doolittle Raid. Because Lucius only has one leg, he needs a copilot, so Julie Leurman comes along, a pilot certainly, but not one certified to fly that class of planes. When the helicopter arrives with the girl and her grandmother, the EMT refuses to come, so Walt enlists the terrified Dr. Isaac Bloomfield to care for the girl during the flight. Although everyone at the airport thinks they are insane, soon the six of them are aloft.

This novella is not a mystery but a straight adventure story. Although the outcome is never in question given the beginning of the book, it is still quite exciting, with medical emergencies, equipment problems, and horrible weather conditions. The novella also contains nuggets of information about WW II era planes and about Steamboat, the emblem of Wyoming, a famous rodeo bronc for which the plane is named. This is a quick, enjoyable read containing a bit of sentiment for the holidays.

Day 436: The Son

Cover for The SonThe Son is the saga of a powerful Texas clan, the McCulloughs, from the points of view of three different generations of the family.

The action begins in 1849. Eli McCullough’s father has moved his family to a more remote area of Texas on the Pedernales River after the land grants of the original settlers in Matagorda were overturned by corruption and the connections of new arrivals. The Pedernales is a dangerous area, rife with Comanches.

Thirteen-year-old Eli has spent part of the day tracking and hunting game, but he is worried about the safety of his family with his father away. His older brother seems unconcerned, and his older sister and mother have spent the day drinking.

Late that night, the dogs awake the family as the cabin comes under attack by Comanches. Eli is ready to fight to the death, but his mother lets them in. Soon his mother and sister have been raped and murdered and he and his brother taken captive.

Eli’s story is exciting and will be revealed, but he obviously survives, because interleaved with his story we read the diaries of Eli’s son Peter over the course of several years. Eli’s experiences first with the Comanches and then with his efforts to protect his land southwest of San Antonio make him a ruthless man.

Peter is haunted by an incident that took place years ago, when a livestock theft resulted in the massacre of the McCullough’s neighbors, the Garcias, and the subsequent slaughter of almost every Mexican or Mexican-American in the area. Peter cannot get over the guilt and depression and sees it as a dark shadow in the corner of the room.

Closer to the present time, Jeanne McCullough, Peter’s 86-year-old granddaughter, has had some kind of accident. She is lying on the floor and thinks someone is in the room with her. As she lies there, she revisits scenes from her life. She knew her great-grandfather, Colonel Eli McCullough, but never her grandfather Peter, whom the family refers to as “The Great Disgrace.” As a young girl she agreed with the Colonel that her father Charles was a fool who mismanaged the ranch. After her father’s untimely death, she took over the ranch, eventually focusing on the oil business. Although the family has been made fabulously wealthy by her efforts, she has fought blatant sexism from her peers and sacrificed her family relationships to business.

The novel explores the tumultuous history of a hard family, moving back and forth in time and eventually revealing the secrets of this powerful dynasty. In doing so, it tells the history of Texas during the difficult times of the Republic of Texas, the vicissitudes of the Civil War, the viciousness of the range wars, and the fluctuations of the oil booms and busts. It is bold, sometimes violent, sprawling, and compelling reading.