The current resurgence of American historical fiction (Cold Mountain, Cloudsplitter, The Gates of the Alamo) reaches something very like an apex here, the first fiction in seven years from the critically acclaimed author of the Darby quintet (The Dogs of March, 1980, etc.) set in Hebert’s native New Hampshire.
The narrative’s based on a true story, of the captivity of New England house-builder and farmer Nathan Blake during the French and Indian Wars. The stunning wrinkle Hebert adds is his creation of Algonkian tribal “king” Caucus-Meteor (whose odd name derives from his boyhood in “Old France”): elderly and frail though still a leader, a “Great Stone Face” akin to his namesake mountain formation, and the benign captor who makes Nathan his “slave,” taking him north to eastern Canada and the village of Cassadawaga, where remnants of various tribes have made a makeshift village. The bulk of the tale focuses on the wary, increasingly respectful, eventually loving relationship between these two utterly different (and beautifully realized) characters: the stoical, hardworking “Englishman,” sustained during his ordeal among “savages” by his religious faith and innate courage, and the wily “Old American,” waiting patiently for death to make him free; “a living drum that makes music from the blows of life”; and a fount of saturnine resignation and quicksilver verbal wit (“ . . . the summer drought deepens and wildfires spread like reputations”). The leisurely plot allows room for dozens of lavishly detailed descriptions of woodcraft and work, landscape and folkways, all the while building a devastating picture of conflict and change bringing an ancient way of living to the brink of extinction. And in the moving climax and coda, the latter set a half-century after Nathan Blake’s capture, we see the white and Native American “worlds” poised together in what the Old American had previously called a “reuniting ceremony.”
A brilliant work, destined to be one of the great American historical novels.