In the wake of the Civil War, blacks and whites struggle to make sense of their changed lives; out West, Indians struggle against the Washitu (whites).
McCaig’s latest, covering the years 1865 to 1876, is a partial continuation of Jacob’s Ladder (1998). Here again are the Gatewoods of Virginia on their Stratford plantation, their patriarch Samuel much chastened. His heir Duncan, a Confederate major and one-armed victim, goes to work for his old boss General Mahone, now building railroads, for which he needs crossties from Samuel’s sawmill. Mahone’s money man Eben Barnwell, a go-getting upstart Yankee, has his sights fixed on Samuel’s granddaughter Pauline. Former slave Jesse, abandoning hope of finding his wife Maggie (sold off by Samuel), is elected Assemblyman in the Virginia legislature, whose re-configuration is an important storyline. There’s a lot going on here, and that’s just in the East. With a frequency that induces whiplash, McCaig switches to the fortunes of the Lakota, particularly a young woman called She Goes Before, who reports unemotionally her father’s hanging in Minnesota and her subsequent rape as she treks to Montana, where she will marry Ratcliff, another ex-slave and army buddy of Jesse; he is in Montana after a cattle drive from Texas. Back East Barnwell, now a millionaire, marries Pauline and saves Stratford, only to lose everything in ’74, when he absconds. Westward expansion brings Custer to Montana, where Ratliff, returning to his one true home, the army, becomes his interpreter. The climax is Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, mined in much more depth in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (not reviewed). McCaig spreads himself way too thin in his historical coverage; his superficially drawn characters suffer as a result. The exception is the complex Ratcliff, who would have made a splendid lead. A brave but self-hating loner, he goes to his death chanting “Hincty Nigger,” the insult he wears as a badge of honor.
A husk of a novel; busy, but without cumulative power.