Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review

Panther in the Sky

by James Alexander Thom

 
Weshecat-welok’weshe laweh-pah.  Translation: May we be strong by doing what is right.  This Shawnee maxim is the major theme of James Alexander Thom’s Panther in the Sky, a historical novel I wholeheartedly recommend.
 
One reason is you will learn so much about the Algonquian/Shawnee culture as it existed in the Ohio River Valley during the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Religious beliefs, ceremonies, social morays, games, agricultural practices, tools and weapons, clothing, house construction, the roles of men and women: all of this is included in Thom’s narration of the life of the remarkable Shawnee warrior chief Tecumseh.
 
Here is an interesting example that involves Daniel Boone, who had been taken prisoner by the Shawnee war tribe that the child Tecumseh belonged to.  Adopted by the tribe’s chief, Boone had been accepted as a member of the village.  “Some days Big Turtle [Boone’s Indian name] would sit in the sunshine for hours, wincing while the children took turns at the tedious task of plucking off his whisker stubble, bit by bit getting rid of his facial hair as the Shawnee men did theirs.”
 
If you read this book, you will understand fully why Native American/frontier Caucasian conflict occurred.  Natives believed that their Creator had placed them exclusively on the North American continent where they were expected to live harmoniously with nature.  Tribes did not own specific parcels of land.  They were free to roam.  Any tribe could migrate into any territory not occupied by a different tribe.  American frontiersmen believed that Indian land existed for their taking.  Their attitude about seizing Indian territory is revealed in this passage, written by Tecumseh’s arch-enemy and future U.S. President, William Henry Harrison:
 
“Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined, by the Creator, to give support to a huge population, and to the seat of civilization, of science, and of true religion?”
 
White men deemed themselves the sole owners of the property they occupied.  They possessed deeds of ownership.  No other person could occupy any portion of their land, however extensive and unused it might be.  During and after the American Revolution Blue Coat soldiers and Kentucky militiamen drove Native Americans out of Kentucky and out of the valleys of the Magnificent River (Ohio River) tributaries.  Behind them hurried settlers eager to own property, clear forests, raise families, establish towns, and create states.  Most of the land they would come to own had been obtained by military conquest or by treaty, old tribal chiefs forced to relinquish Indian territory and be placed on small reservations to protect their people from being militarily destroyed.  Once these treaties were signed, no tribe could occupy any of these lands.  Settlers, however, were allowed to venture beyond the boundaries of these lands to settle in what still remained Indian territory.  Thereafter, soldiers would intimidate Indian settlements within the ever-shrinking Indian territory, and chiefs of those settlements would also be forced to decide whether to sign a treaty ceding another portion of desired land or fight.  This systematic stealing of Indian land is what Tecumseh devoted his entire adult life to eliminate.
 
A third reason I would recommend that you read this book is to have you appreciate Tecumseh as a human being.  A fierce warrior in battle, he was indefatigable in his efforts to protect his people.  Yet he was compassionate.  He abhorred senseless killing.  He strived always to prevent the torturing and slaying of the combatants he took prisoner.  He attempted to unite every tribe west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River to halt, if not reverse, the white man’s inexorable encroachment.  You will despise Tecumseh’s enemies -- particularly Harrison -- their racism, their arrogance, their sense of entitlement, their ignorance, and their cruelty.  You will appreciate those few white men who did value Tecumseh’s ideals and friendship.  You will respect Tecumseh’s family members (with one exception) and his loyal subordinates.
 
A fourth reason is Thom’s narration of certain, important historical battles, which are an essential part of our understanding of the Native American displacement.
 
A final reason to read this book is that the author provides you with what all fiction readers desire: depth of character, purposeful dialogue, intense conflict, emotionally evocative personal relationships, and effectively utilized sensory detail.  Panther in the Sky is high on my list of historical novel recommendations.