A novel delivers stark tales from storytellers who chronicle a vanished Arkansas tribe.
In the year Europeans called 1541, Taninto’s childhood is destroyed when a band of strangers cross the Mizzissibizzibbippi with weapons “that smoked like burning leaves and roared like thunder.” The Spanish conquistadors and their arquebuses cause chaos (this was an enemy who “killed without concern or hesitation, without ritual or purpose”), but the wave of diseases that follows wreaks even greater damage on the nations of the Nine-Rivers Valley. In his debut novel, Smith imagines a series of storytellers who evoke one another in their tales and, in doing so, describe the century that saw the last of 12 interconnected tribes, from the splendor of the temple city of Casqui to the “old and tired” land to which its survivors must retreat. Many years after the calamity, Manaha fights to relate her memories to a village that fears those recollections “will only bring the sickness again.” The stories she tells recount the life of the lost Palisema girl Nanza who—sick with smallpox and left for dead—finds herself rescued by an aged Taninto. In alternating chapters, three narratives unwind: the conquest Taninto witnesses, the flight Nanza endures, and the remembrances Manaha struggles to share. In the process, the history of a nearly forgotten people is imagined, or reimagined. Smith (The Great Turtle and the White Bird, 2013) writes fluidly, and the society he depicts is intriguingly complex. While some readers may wish for more direct evocation of the sensory details of that world (more smells, tastes, and sounds), others will be grateful for the short glimpse they’ve been given into a culture until now kept solely in the prison of the past. “A man without a story is one without a past,” Smith writes, “and a man without a past is one without wisdom.” By the time readers have wandered freely through the strange realm of the Storykeeper, they may well find those words more prophetic, and more powerful.
A vivid, slowly unfolding epic of disaster and survival in 16th-century America.