The Historical Tapestry blog has the post up for the January reviews, and since I haven't finished a novel, historical or otherwise, yet this month, I've decided to review the last historical novel on my 2010 Reading List, James Alexander Thom's Panther in the Sky.
Panther in the Sky is based on the life of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who resisted American settlement of the Ohio country during the late 18th century, until his death during the War of 1812. In a smaller measure it's also about his nemesis, William Henry Harrison, though Harrison doesn't make an appearance until late in the book, which begins on the night of Tecumseh's birth, under the auspicious sign of a shooting star, green as a panther's eye; hence the name he is given (Tecumseh translates to panther in the sky), and the expectations placed upon him as one who will do great things for his people.
For many years Tecumseh fulfilled those expectations, sometimes in spite of his own people, who didn't always share his understanding of the bigger picture of the ongoing conflict with the Americans--both settlers and armies--which often had them fleeing their villages at harvest time to face cold winters of deprivation. An aspect of the book I particularly appreciated is the balanced portrayal of all sides in this conflict, native tribes, British/Canadian troops and Americans, civilian and military. There are well-meaning and flawed men on both sides, men (and women) of courage as well as cowardice, the wise and the foolish, those who can see beyond their race and upbringing, and those who tragically cannot, at least not to the measure needed to see victory. The latter includes Tecumseh's strange, disturbing younger brother, Loud Noise, who would grow up to be The Prophet called Open Door, who, for a time, helped Tecumseh unite the tribes of the frontier against the ever encroaching American settlement.
Thom's prose is vibrant, powerful, sometimes lyrical, and he's quickly become one of my favorite historical writers. Most of the story is told either from Tecumseh's point of view, or that of his older sister, Star Watcher, and the authentic feel of those points of view never faltered. It was eye-opening to view this clash of cultures on the American frontier from the Shawnee perspective. Though I knew how the book had to end, being familiar with this portion of history, I couldn't help hoping for Tecumseh's intelligence, determination, and love for his people to win out in the end, even as the Shawnee and their allies were hemmed into ever more restricted lives by broken treaty after broken treaty.
The book is long, over 700 pages, and it wasn't a quick read. Two factors, time, and the need to occasionally put the book aside to let the events of the story (and of history) settle in my heart, contributed to the long read. The sense of the inevitable lies heavy on the pages, and as admiration for Tecumseh grows, so does the regret and even grief for where it all will lead. Yet Thom has created a character and a late 18th century Shawnee world convincing enough to sweep a reader along on the tide of optimism, courage, and conviction that marked the majority of Tecumseh's life.
If you're interested in late 18th century fiction, native culture, or American frontier settlement (and you are unbelievably late in finding Thom's work, as I've been), then Panther in the Sky isn't to be missed.