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.