Holtman’s debut novel tells the story of a Cherokee teenager who must rise above family heartbreak.
The story opens with the in-field experiences of 1st Lt. Joseph Walking Horse Manawa, nicknamed “Horse,” and Sgt. George Wheeler, both members of a U.S. Army Ranger unit during the Vietnam War. George saves Horse after enemy fire cuts the lieutenant down in an ambush. The disabled Horse is sent back home to the Cherokee community in Broken River, Oklahoma, where he adapts to using a wheelchair and needs help with nearly everything. He turns to his younger brother, Charles Soaring Hawk, a teenager who’s willing to help in the spirit of gadugi, or “one Cherokee helping another.” But Horse’s depression and postwar trauma prove too much for the ex-soldier to deal with, and he kills himself just before George arrives in Broken River to check on him. As Holtman’s narrative steadily unfolds, George involves himself in Hawk’s life on the reservation, his complicated relationship with his alcoholic father, his bitterness over Horse’s suicide, and his yearning for a better, different life. The last is at first barely articulated, but it grows stronger as the story progresses. The author’s secondary characters tend to be one-dimensional, but this matters very little, as the novel entirely belongs to George and Hawk and the prickly, multilayered relationship they develop as they ride out various crises. They include Hawk being bullied at school, and his search for work that he enjoys; there’s also a dramatic plot development involving his deadbeat mother that’s well-handled, despite feeling a bit tacked-on. The author tells the story in flat, unadorned prose that places the emphasis squarely on the plot, but he does a fairly skillful job of evoking Hawk’s world—a nearly hopeless place of alcoholism and disenfranchisement that sometimes feels impossible to escape. Likewise, George is a well-drawn, caring, emotional figure whose sense of obligation often makes him act the part of the hero. The novel’s themes of postwar trauma are enhanced by the simplicity of the story, making it a very effective read.
An absorbing, affecting coming-of-age tale.