Kirkus Star


Email this review


Tantalizing: an 1866 journalist tries, from various eyewitness sources, to reconstruct a recent series of events involving US/Indian skirmishes in the Dakota territory--and comes up with a mirrored, Agatha-Christie-like maze of possible versions. Sam Morrison of the St. Louis Herald finds himself on a steamer heading up the Missouri River--towards Ft. Standish, which is about to be renamed ""Ft. Rawley"" in memory of young Major Charles Rawley, a US Senator's son who died in a fort fire while trying to prevent the escape of captured Sioux chief Spotted Horse. That was only the last of Rawley's wildly ambiguous exploits, however. As Morrison pieces it together, talking to those aboard the steamer who knew Rawley, the story began with Rawley-as-despot: while shepherding his troop of ""Galvanized Yankees"" (by boat) to Ft. Standish, he court-martialed and executed an innocent man in order to discourage desertion. Then--Rawley-as-seriously-wounded-victim: he was the only survivor of a massacre when, leading some of his men on a foot-march to the fort, Indians attacked. Next--Rawley as dishonored soldier: at the battle of Killdeer Mountain, oddly unlike his previous self, he disobeyed orders--refusing to fire on women and children, thus causing US casualties. And it was apparently in order to atone for this dishonor that Rawley then led a small band of soldiers north into Canada--to abduct Spotted Horse, bring him back for trial (through a blizzard ordeal), and then die trying to prevent his escape. But: Did it really happen that way? Did Rawley, in fact, actually die in that Indian massacre (shot by his own men, in fact)? Was the sole survivor really a Galvanized Yankee who assumed Rawley's identity? So it seems--when a mysterious stranger à la Melville, who slips on and off the steamer, tells Morrison his firsthand version. But, as the steamer arrives and the ceremonies for the fort re-naming begin, the questions multiply: Did ""Rawley"" capture the wrong Indian during that Canadian abduction? Did he fall in love with the Indian's daughter? Was he trying to help the Indian to escape during the fort fire? And who was the man who died in that fire? Wisely, Brown leaves at least one key puzzle unsolved here. The theme, too, is suitably elusive--touching on matters of honor, persecution, ""two-heartedness,"" and militarism, never settling in too preachily. But this is vigorous, full-blooded fiction for all its slipperiness--vividly peopled (Morrison's sources include a cigar-smoking lady-hotelier), richly backgrounded, and deeply resonant: a wily, welcome departure for the author of such stately epics as Creek Mary's Blood and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Pub Date: March 21st, 1983
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston