There are some periods of American history that are steeped in controversy and Julia Sullivan has chosen one of these as the framework of her really very good historical novel: the Idaho wars between the government’s army and the Nez Perce Tribe in the late 19th century.
Sullivan does much to ground it in the facts and reportage of the day with the extensive inclusion of pictures and contemporary accounts to be found at the rear of the book.
But what she effectively does within these pages is bring the events alive in a way that no reading of an historical text can do – through her description and her characterisation, focusing on her created key characters to show the impact of these events on the individuals who make up the tribes and the “white” men who are desperate to control them. It is a tale full of misery and loss in so many ways; however, there is the goodness of humanity here too and it makes for a balanced read.
We follow the lives of Running Bird, a young warrior of the Nez Perce, who has all of the impetuosity of youth and feels keenly the unfairness of the way his people have been treated: this is exacerbated by him having experienced a severe personal loss, which has affected him deeply; and Jack Peniel, drunken son of the local sheriff who has lost his way and is trying to find it again but with no beacon of light to follow, he is struggling. Becoming a soldier out of guilt and with the chance of redemption, he may just find this in the most unlikely of places.
What Sullivan is successful at presenting in her book is a human struggle in the face of prejudice and government expectation. Both sides are represented here but the focus is on the fight of the Nez Perce in the face of enduring prejudice, ignorance and the bad mishandling of events which lead to unnecessary escalation.
One particularly memorable part of the book that I liked was the inclusion of the tourists at Yellowstone, caught up in a conflict far from their world but destined to change it and them forever. This perspective provided an outside window into the conflict that really made me think: how would I have reacted if faced with people who I have been told are savages?
Great historical fiction.
This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery where I was privileged to read it as an ARC.