Books by Barbara Riefe

DESPERATE CROSSING by Barbara Riefe
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Dec. 9, 1997

This 1865 tale of a young woman captured by warriors of the Oglala tribe in the Northwest re-creates the hatred seething among Indians, Army troops, and settlers—but with characters who sometimes fail to convince. In previous novels in Riefe's Iroquois series (Mohawk Woman, 1996, etc.), the author persuasively evoked torturous 18th-century tensions between whites and Native Americans. Here, Cincinnatian John Pryor, his young wife Jenny, and their seven-year-old adopted daughter Mary join a wagon train headed for Oregon. Near Fort Laramie, the party is attacked by Oglalas. Many of the settlers are killed, while Jenny, Mary, another woman, and a child are captured. Jenny plans an escape for the other three, who get away, but warriors return with their scalps. Jenny herself becomes one of the wives of the ancient chief, Ottawa. Meanwhile, John begins his frantic, furious search. The Army can't help; there are only 15,000 troops, and 300,000 Indian warriors are spread over a vast territory. John is sent for information to an ill-paid, but honest Indian agent, heavy-drinking Lincoln Hammer, who knows the score: ``The Indians know they're gradually losing everything . . . they know the sun's going down for them . . . every wagon they burn, every scalp they take delays extinction by a few minutes.'' At the same time, Jenny is living through her own ordeal, even keeping her junior high school guidance-teacherlike attitude intact (``Is being nice to him so hard?''). Before a ``happy'' ending built on tragedy, there are some fantastic treks and the slaughter of an entire fort's company. Jenny also deals not only with tomahawks and murder, but with a madman and his wagonload of corpses. Despite the limp characterizations, a rugged tale of survival with some haunting reminders of dark episodes in American history. Read full book review >
MOHAWK WOMAN by Barbara Riefe
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 1, 1996

Another entry in the proliferating Beads and Buckskin historical subgenre, a category in which characters are often as rigidly stylized as the figures painted on the walls of an Egyptian tomb. In this third in Riefe's Iroquois series (The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994, etc.), such distortions of characterization overshadow, rather than illuminate, scenes that might otherwise be painfully—and accurately—evocative of the Mohawk culture during Queen Anne's War. Sky Toucher and Singing Brook want to marry for love, an anomaly in a culture that Riefe says views that emotion as a ``whiteskin'' weakness and even lacks a word for it. But this promising subplot of cultural conflict abruptly ends when the accidental death of Singing Brook's brother, during a fight with Sky Toucher, eliminates both the primary opposition to the marriage and a potentially interesting antagonist. The author introduces another conflict into the couple's relationship when Sky Toucher volunteers to act as a scout for English Colonel Douglas Dorr. Distrusting the English, Singing Brook opposes her now-husband's decision and accuses him of denying her the right to express an opinion. Thus the intertwined themes of white dominance and Mohawk sovereignty are reduced to the level of a domestic quarrel over equality whose arguments evoke images of failed 20th-century marital-encounter groups. This grafting of modern values onto early 18th-century Mohawk culture weakens the novel's sense of time and place despite some fine scenes describing games, weapon-making, and medical practices. Even Singing Brook's rescue of Sky Toucher after his capture by the French seems motivated as much by her need to validate her side in the quarrel as by her love. Two-dimensional characters, along with platitudes expressed in stilted dialogue: subject matter that could have sung, but that stumbles in a talking monotone instead. Read full book review >
Released: July 1, 1994

Ultimately unsatisfying historical fiction with some interesting moments. In her hardcover debut, Riefe, who claims to be of Mohican ancestry, plumbs the history of the five Indian nations that composed the Iroquois Confederacy. The grouping became a central player and pawn in the protracted struggle between the French and English for control of North America. Their alliance with the latter may have been decisive in the outcome of the so-called French and Indian Wars, which sealed the fate of New France. Into this situation of warfare and intrigue sails (literally) Margaret Addison Lacroix, an English aristocrat who has been married by proxy to a French officer serving in Quebec. She is journeying up the Hudson when her ship becomes grounded on a sandbar. A sitting duck, the vessel is attacked by Mohawks. All are killed and the ship is set ablaze. Only Margaret narrowly manages to escape. She is found and rescued by Two Eagles, war chief of the Oneidas, who thinks she is Ataentsic, the woman who, according to legend, fell from the sky and is credited with creating the earth. As the two (along with other members of Two Eagles's party) journey deeper into Indian country, the Native's civilized and human demeanor is contrasted sharply with that of Margaret's husband, a debauching, cheating, murdering drunkard. Eventually delivered to Quebec and to Governor-General Frontenac (a real-life personage whose Treaty of Ryswik put a temporary stop to the wars during the period in which this novel is set), Margaret finds out, to her ultimate relief, that Lacroix has not married her by proxy and, lacking mutuality, the union is void. Lacroix is imprisoned and Margaret is left with no doubt that it is not the Indians who are savages here in the Americas. Well-researched and generally a brisk read, the novel still comes up short, curiously lacking resonance to compel the reader. Read full book review >