Thursday, March 13, 2014
NEW STUFF: Original Death - Eliot Pattison
358 pp. $26
Publication date: August 6, 2013
It’s easy to see why Eliot Pattison is drawn to the Iroquois tribes of colonial America. Previously he had done a fine job of exploring the world of Tibet and its native religions and comparing and contrasting the cultural mores of those people with the threatening militaristic Communist Chinese in his series of mystery novels featuring Inspector Shan, an exiled Chinese policeman living in Tibet. The analogies between Tibet and China with Native American peoples and imperialist Britain of the seventeenth century are remarkable. Just as Shan is an outcast of his own people learning to live in a new and near mystical culture so is Duncan McCallum, former member of the Scottish army, now living among and allied with the Nipmuc people of northern New York state.
In fact this book, third in a series featuring McCallum and his Indian comrade Conawago, might be alternately subtitled "The Last of the Nipmucs". It owes so much (consciously or not) to James Fenimore Cooper’s adventures of Natty Bumppo and even a few western movies like The Searchers, with which it also strongly shares a common theme. The Scot and the Nipmuc are in search of Conawago’s missing nephew, one of the sole survivors of a recent massacre at a settlement of newly converted Christian Indians. The savagery so disturbs Conawago he flees into the surrounding woods where he intends to find solace among the spirits of the forest. There he will garner courage and strength from ancient forces with the hope of returning bolder to battle the enemy soldiers who murdered the settlers and Indians. McCallum is left alone for most of the book and joins forces with some rebel Scots and a few Indians while following the trail of the murderous soldiers who have kidnapped a handful of Indian children including Conawago’s missing nephew.
Along the way McCallum picks up several unexpected allies including Hetty, the fascinating "Welsh witch", who seems to have paranormal powers. She manages to frighten their enemies and perform near miraculous cures. Each time the story deals with the spiritual beliefs of the Indians or Hetty the book takes on an other worldly tone and transcends the thriller genre to reach a mystical headiness that is hypnotically fascinating. Also notable are the portraits of the warrior Sagatchie; Kassawaya, a woman Oneida skilled as an archer; and the two women Iroquois elders, Tushcona and Adanahoe, the latter as equally adept at seemingly supernatural talents as Hetty. The book has thrilling action sequences and moments of poignant humanity. Pattison's keen insight into the indifferent treatment towards those seen as outsiders and the effects of that treatment on marginalized communities are handled extremely well. Those scenes have a powerful resonance for our still troubled, supposedly modern age.
This is the kind of historical fiction that makes for breathtaking reading. Pattison has done an admirable job of researching a little known incident in the history of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylania where the Moravians had several missions and transferred that story to upstate New York. In doing so he turned that historical incident into both a thrilling entertainment and a modern day look at the intolerance and brutality of the military. One cannot help but draw parallels to the violence of US military perpetrated against Islamic civilians whether aggressive and intentional or accidental victims of “friendly fire” in Afghanistan and Iraq.