A satisfying, ethnographically detailed coming-of-age novel, set in the tumult of a war that threatens to become genocide.
Students who have learned anything about American Indian history are likely to have heard the name of Chief Joseph; some may even have encountered his acclaimed words “I will fight no more forever.” Anthropologist/novelist Schlesier (Trail of the Red Butterfly, 2007, etc.) observes that Joseph’s surrender speech “must be considered a literary forgery,” inasmuch as no white on hand for the event spoke Nez Perce; Joseph’s putative words did nothing but serve the white conquerors of Idaho and environs well, advancing military careers and warming the hearts of the mining and logging barons. Schlesier puts a figure who does know both English and Nez Perce on the scene, a young mixed-blood man known as Seton, “eighteen years old when the great trouble came.” Like other literary figures of his kind—Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Larry McMurtry’s Blue Duck—Seton has to negotiate his way delicately between two worlds in collision; he has many paths available, each fraught with a particular kind of peril. One, readily available, is to act as a guide to the white invader, a career path with obvious attractions and detriments. Another is to fight for Joseph and the Nez Perce, though it is difficult to distinguish among “treaty” and “nontreaty” Indians. Another is to hide away while generals and chiefs battle over who is to be in charge (“Who can tell me what I must do in my own country?” says one of the latter, to which one of the former says, “I am that man”). Without falling into traps of didacticism, Schlesier guides Seton toward a decision that turns on visions, signs and portents—and that figures in the tangled, very real history of Indians and whites on the northern frontier.
Worthy of a place alongside the work of Vardis Fisher, James Welch, Michael Blake and other novelistic interpreters of northwestern Indian history.