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.

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.