A freed slave fights to get her family admitted into the Cherokee Nation in Walker’s debut historical novel.
In 1886 in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Sput Louie McClendon and her husband, Benjamin, are former slaves attempting to scratch out a living on the unforgiving prairie of Feather Falls Township. Benjamin is part Cherokee, and Sput hopes that this will lead to them receiving Cherokee membership and a land allotment. That dream is shattered when they instead receive an unexpected visit from Goliah T. Lynch, also known as “Old Crow,” the half-white, half-Cherokee local landowner whose possessions, prior to Emancipation, included Sput and her husband. Goliah aims to evict the McClendons from the land, a task in which he takes personal pleasure, despite the fact that Benjamin is his biological son. That evening, Benjamin goes out to confront Goliah and doesn’t return. Fearing that Goliah has killed him, Sput seeks help from her enemy’s rival, the Cherokee clan elder Two Bird. Now the head of the household, Sput must find a way to get herself enrolled as a Cherokee or condemn her family to poverty—and perhaps death. Walker’s grit-inflected prose perfectly captures the hardscrabble environment of Sput and her neighbors: “Goliah chuffed, as his eyes swept across not only their slapdash shack of a home that leaned to one side but all of their various sheds and shanties surrounding it that had been built with every throwaway piece of mismatched, misshapen lumber and boards they could gather.” The characters, all of whom have complex relationships to Cherokee identity, are well drawn and uniformly engaging; the concept of belonging is also a recurring theme. The pacing drags, at times, but the author still manages to turn Sput’s story into a stirring saga with a genuinely affecting conclusion. Readers with a keen interest in American history will particularly enjoy this tale set in an relatively obscure corner of the country’s past—one that complicates American perceptions of race while exploring universal notions of family and hardship.
An immersive dive into an underrepresented moment in American history.