Make Me a City, by Jonathan Carr***

I am always on the lookout for something different, and so I leapt at the chance to read this publication free and early. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in and around Chicago, back when the city was first born. It tells a tale of shifting alliances and double crosses; yet in other ways it is an old story, one in which a Caucasian interloper cannot bear to see a Black man rise to a position of wealth and influence. It’s not an easy read.

Conceptually the story is strong, but the author tries to do too much at once. Shifting points of view; development of disparate characters; and an old time dialect that is challenging all by itself serve to render the story muddy and confusing. Too much is lost, and at the halfway point, I gave it up and commenced skimming.

Despite this, I believe Carr is a talented writer and I like his ideas. I would read his work again.

No Resting Place, by William Humphrey*****

norestingplace I was drawn to this story because I had read William Humphrey’s Home from the Hill, brilliant Southern fiction that was a contender for the National Book Award, and I couldn’t imagine letting anything written by this author pass me by. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book will be re-released digitally February 17, 2017.

Humphrey tells this story like no one else. The Trail of Tears is one of the most heinous crimes any government has wrought upon its aboriginal peoples, a shameless land grab that stole all of the lands belonging to Cherokees and several other tribes of the Southeastern USA. It’s a story that has to be told by someone; those that have American Indian roots may have access to oral history, but for Anglos like me, if it isn’t written down, future generations may not know about it. And by telling it as if it were historical fiction, Humphrey is able to add dialogue and make it more accessible. That said, the reader will need to bring strong literacy skills to this novel. Humphrey’s fiction is always hyper-literate, all the more so in this case because he meticulously researched it. It is the last thing he wrote, a genuine labor of love, and it shows.

That said, nobody can make this real-life event a happy one, and nobody should. It’s brutal. I was about a quarter of the way in, reading in tiny bites in order to make the reading more bearable, when I began to regret having committed to reading and reviewing it. In the end, however, I am glad I did read it, because I learned a lot of new things about the various tribes and although Humphrey’s narrative isn’t enjoyable to read because of the subject matter, he does it more eloquently and in more conscientious detail than anyone else that I’ve read. I say this having taught a unit on the Trail of Tears for a number of years; I am not an expert on this part of American history, but I also didn’t come to it without prior knowledge.

It’s a story that will break your heart—and if you already know the basics, it will do so all over again—but it’s also a story everyone should know. Like the Holocaust, it’s a part of history whose recounting must not be permitted to pass from our knowledge. As for me, I read more than one book at a time, and I found this was less likely to leave me feeling depressed if I alternated it with lighter material. It is likely to be of special interest to those of Cherokee descent and also to Texans, whose forefather Sam Houston is featured here.

The writing style may seem peculiar to younger readers because it is written in a formal style not often used anymore, but there is no denying the word-smithery that makes this cruel event come alive on the page.  Highly recommended to those with the literary skills and stamina required to pursue it.

Killers of the Flower Moon**

killersoftheflowermoon I received this book free from Net Galley, courtesy of Doubleday, in exchange for an honest review. It looked like a fascinating read, but I am disturbed by the sources chosen, which sent up all sorts of red flags right from the get-go and before I had even focused on the references themselves, a due diligence that has to be done before any nonfiction work can be recommended. Once I examined the references, I concluded that so many of them are so questionable that nobody, including the writer, can demonstrate anything beyond the premise of the book itself to be true. The killings happened; that’s about it.

I am perplexed, because this kind of error is the sort I’d expect from a novice, perhaps a zealous but careless graduate student bent on self-publication come hell or high water. Grann, however, is an established journalist who’s written for solid mainstream publications. He’s published successful novels. This is his first nonfiction book, and I am surprised that it went to press without his own eyes or those of his publisher finding the glaring problems here.

Early in the text a fact is documented with a block quote from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, a series of YA novels loosely based on the author’s experiences during the Westward Movement, as Euro-Americans pushed the frontier back and took possession of Native territory. Many years ago, an interviewer challenged Wilder on a scene in one of her books, one in which a man recounts having been surrounded, chased, and threatened by wolves. The interviewer pointed out that wolves don’t do that, and Wilder tartly responded that she wasn’t aware that she had been supposed to be writing history or biology, but rather stories she had made up for little children to read. Her only nonfiction is a memoir she wrote later in life, which was not as widely seen.

This historical fiction, then, is Grann’s source material, and the fact that he chooses to give it a block quote also makes me wonder…if this is his good reference, what do the others look like?

A great many other sources are newspapers from what was then Western territory, newspapers from Oklahoma and elsewhere during the early 1800s. This is suspect material. There were no laws against printing inaccurate material, and journalists from this period often printed lies, sons of lies, and interviews based on lies, because there was absolutely no risk of penalty for doing so. To use sources like these, the very least a writer should do is find legitimate sources that agree with the questionable sources and cite both. This doesn’t happen here.

I have no idea why a good house like Doubleday would release this book, or why the writer didn’t use credible sources. Maybe he couldn’t find anything else, but that’s speculation, and I’ve just explained why nonfiction should not be based on guess work, on fiction based loosely on fact, or on unreliable sources, so I won’t take this line any further lest I be guilty of the same.

I was going to close by recommending that the reader just looking for a good story and not concerned about the research might like the book, but then I am confronted by the other unfortunate aspect of this story: I was pushing myself through it. I wasn’t spellbound, but as long as I believed there might be new information to be learned, I was ready to force myself to read this book, tedious though it is. With a DRC, I generally figure that once I’ve signed on, I have to make good on my promise. I wasn’t reading because I was absorbed; once I got a sense of the narrative I was reading out of duty, and out of the hope that at some point this thing would pick up steam. My hope was derailed by the bad source material.

Not this time.

George Washington’s Secret Spy War: the Making of America’s First Spy Master, by John A. Nagy***-****

georgewashingtonssecretspyNagy does a more than serviceable job in documenting Washington’s intelligence methods. Thank you for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review from Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This title is for sale today.

Washington first learned spy craft when he was fighting for the British Crown during the French and Indian war, a nasty conflict that puts the American Revolution in the shade in terms of lives lost and financial expense.  Later he would take the education he had gained as a member of His Majesty’s forces and use it to lead the American colonists to victory as citizens of an independent nation.

Nagy conscientiously documents his case that it was this knowledge of spy craft that won the Revolution. He cites everything, and he uses primary documents that you and I would never ferret out in order to do so. Students of the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, or the history of American intelligence-gathering should consider this book an indispensible addition to your research material.

In the tradition that continues to this day, Washington found there were only two possible outcomes once a spy was apprehended. The first and most usual thing to do was hang them. Once in awhile one could turn them. And he had absolutely no scruples about torturing them first and hanging them later.

As a popular read, I rate this title three stars, and it’s really not due to any shortcoming of the author’s. He quotes extensively from primary documents such as Washington’s diary, and he didn’t use the same expressions and syntax that are used now, nearly two and a half centuries later. The accepted speech mannerisms for that time are unwieldy to us, and make for some difficult, hyper-literate reading that is not always enjoyable.

But for those that need the information, there are not a lot of places to go, and I think you need this one. As research material this is easily a four star book, and depending upon one’s area of study, it might even be more.

Recommended to researchers and students in this realm.

Tears in the Grass, by Lynda Archer***

tearsinthegrassTears in the Grass marks the debut of novelist Lynda Archer. It tells the story of three generations of Cree women, and in doing so also provides the reader with that tribe’s rich history and culture. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book is available for purchase now.

Elinor is old. She is old enough to have been through the shameful period in North America in which Native children were forcibly wrenched from the arms of their parents and forced to attend boarding schools in order to become assimilated and indoctrinated into the dominant culture. Her traumatic memories are harsh reading, but it’s the only way that story can be shared with any degree of honesty. And there’s something she has held back from her daughter Louise and her granddaughter Alice: she has another daughter out there somewhere. She was raped by a Caucasian man, carried the baby to term, and then it was stolen from her. She knows that baby, now a woman, is out there somewhere, and she wants to meet her before she dies. She turns to Alice to get the job done:

 

“’Are you listening? I want you to find that child.’

‘ I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Your mother’s sister. Your aunt. My daughter. I was raped in that damned school.’”

 

The point of view shifts throughout the narrative, with the dominant one being that of Elinor, but also including those of Louise, Alice, and a bison. It doesn’t always flow in a way that makes sense; sometimes we are rolling right along through one of the women’s narrative and suddenly the thoughts being voiced are clearly those of an animal, with no transition to mark the change. The first time, it is that of a taxidermied bison in a museum, and the effect strikes me as somewhat cartoonish rather than reverent. At other times, there is no possible way that the animal in question could be a bison, unless we allow for some magical realism.  Remember, however, that I read a DRC, and sometimes details that are going to be present in the finished work, such as lines that mark a change of setting or point of view, are missing.  Your copy may make these changes clearer.

A lot of social justice issues are worked into the flow of these three generational narratives. Louise recalls the Vietnam War, which makes her a senior citizen also. She remembers the slaying of Dr. King, and if these details are to be utilized to establish setting and develop the character, they might be more effective if included earlier in Louise’s narrative.

Alice seems the easiest for the reader to relate to, even though my own age is closer to that of Louise. Her contemporary spin and flexible thinking are more in line with what most young people of any age are likely to resemble. Her affection for her grandmother comes through the page, and although all three women are effectively developed, she seems the most tangible. Alice is lesbian, and so there is also this aspect of social justice as a subscript, though it stays primarily in the background.

But let’s go back to the grandmother for a moment. Along with the need to meet her stolen daughter, Elinor has one more key task on her bucket list: she wants to know what the secret is that Louise has been hiding from her all these years. And Louise doesn’t want to tell her or even think about it. It’s an interesting twist, and adds to the characters of both Elinor and Louise.

Though shaky in places, Tears in the Grass is a worthy debut, and the subscript, the history of the Cree people at the hands of European settlers, is a tough read but an essential one, a story often left out of the core curriculums currently taught. Kudos to Archer, who will be a writer to watch in the future.

A People’s History of the Civil War, by David Williams***

With an introduction scribed by the late great Howard Zinn (and the book edited by same), I figured I just had to add this book to my collection. It bills itself as a history of the marginalized groups of this era, those seldom represented in traditional history. I found it at my favorite local used bookstore, Magus Books, which is near University of Washington, and I scooped it immediately.

The tome sat in the upstairs powder room for months, but we didn’t look at it all that often. I had trouble climbing on board. Eventually I realized there were two things bothering me here. One is that it treats both Union and Confederate governments, along with the powerful moneyed interests backing the two sides of the conflict, as equally wrong and equally culpable. With this I sharply disagree. Whereas no doubt plenty of war profiteers made a great deal of money, and no doubt working people on both sides deserved better pay and greater prosperity, this was not an equally-wrong war. In fact, the first Marxist to live in the USA came here from Europe to fight for the Union, because that was the way to move history forward. So in a sense I disagreed with the premise of the whole book.

That much done, I noted that the overall tone was more cynical than I consider warranted. For me, the American Civil War was the last truly heroic conflict in which US forces fought. It also distinguished itself by producing an unusually high number of casualties where high ranking officers were concerned. You didn’t see American generals get dead in these proportions in either of the world wars, nor Korea, Vietnam, or any of the conflicts in the Middle East. So the snarky manner in which Williams refers to the disparity between Union brass and foot soldiers is not well placed. I found it abrasive.

In addition, if we’re talking about marginalized peoples, excuse me Mr. Williams, but where are the Black folk? The author seems to have mislaid some four million former slaves. I kept flipping through this volume trying to find some, but they are underrepresented quite badly; one might even say the author has marginalized them.

The one worthwhile thing here, the thing that kept that third star in its place, is the extensive attention paid to Native peoples during this time. I was aware of the role of the Cherokees and that was the sole extent of my knowledge of which way American Indians chose to side, when they chose a side at all. I got something for my money other than frustration and regret; I really had to look hard to find it, though.

Consequently, those doing specific research having to do with the role of Native Americans during the American Civil War should get this book. I recommend it for that niche audience only.