The lives of two strangers converge in a 19th-century Native American encampment in this historical novel from Williams (Walls for the Wind, 2015, etc.).
This story is based in part on the experiences of David Thompson, a real-life 19th-century Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader who left behind an account of his adventures. Williams has absorbed that story, mixed it with several other histories of Hudson’s Bay Company’s interactions with Native American peoples in the Rocky Mountains, and produced a richly detailed novel that displays a consistent but low-key authority. The stand-in for Thompson here is 17-year-old Donal Thomas, an indentured servant of the company who’s sent to live with the Pikani (also known as the Naapiikoan) for the course of a brutal winter in order to learn their ways and lay the groundwork for trading relations. He’s surprised to find in their encampment a young woman who’s not Pikani—a healer who’s been living among the tribe for years. She’s Isobel Ochoa y Ramirez, the daughter of Mexican hacienda-owner Don Armando Ochoa, and when she was a small child, Apache warriors captured her and her father; they killed him, enslaved her, and taught her the rudiments of medicine. These were brutal, lonely years in which “she believed in nothing, and loved no one,” and they ended only when Utes tribesmen kidnapped her and eventually traded her to the Pikani. Williams tastefully mines the dramatic potential of his characters’ outsider statuses, and his portrayals of Donal’s and Isobel’s perspectives are pointedly well-done. However, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its evocation of the cultures and political tensions among the Native American peoples it chronicles, from the Apache to the Ute to the Pikani to the Peeagan to the Blackfoot. The personalities and dialogue in these sections bring the old cultures to life—a literary territory that’s been well-marked-out in books by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear. The book fritters away its building tension in the closing act, but in general, Williams has crafted an absorbing reading experience.
An involving, richly atmospheric historical novel about the clash of cultures in frontier America.