Spring’s (American Education, 2011, etc.) first historical novel presents an alternative, somewhat sarcastic narrative of Native American history.
The tale of half-Choctaw, aging hippie John Brader’s search for his Native American roots opens with a well-crafted, albeit gory and violent, account of a slave killing by Choctaw leaders, including a Brader family ancestor. Spring, an education scholar at Queens College, doesn’t gloss over the unflattering side of Native American history, nor does he romanticize it; yet the book doesn’t quite give an equally balanced account of white Americans, whom the story regularly portrays as crass, uneducated, greedy capitalists. Spring’s characters convey the personal and communal toll of the Trail of Tears, the Choctaws’ decision to join the Confederacy during the Civil War, and how later attempts to turn Native Americans into citizens made them feel that they were “the plaything of the United States.” He capably demonstrates how both sides—Native Americans and whites—manipulated religion and education to achieve their ends. At times, though, the storytelling is uneven. The life-or-death consequences of Brader’s investigation—which adds a sense of mystery to the story—are only mentioned in passing and lack any sense of urgency. Nonetheless, the story lives up to its title, tracing the Brader family’s history from the early 19th century to the present, covering their involvement in slavery, commerce and civic affairs as well as rape, murder, homosexuality and questionable business practices. Spring also weaves in larger issues, such as intratribal racism, workers’ rights, the communist scare, civil rights, and the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll culture. That’s a lot of ground to cover, though it’s handled fairly well until the abrupt final chapter, which devolves into a cynical description of how John Brader ultimately uses his long-lost inheritance to develop a Disney-esque theme park. Given the depth of detail in the rest of the story, this fast-forward ending ties the loose ends together a little too quickly.
An educational, entertaining look at how one family pursued the American dream.