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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Scars of Independence: No Revolution Is Ideal

My undergraduate major was history specializing in the 18th century.  I got through that program still believing that the American Revolution should be considered a shining example of a revolution that was true to its ideals.  Oddly enough, it was fiction that put me on the road to discovering that the implementation of the American Revolution's principles was flawed.  I'm not talking about current day America.  I mean that there were signs that the revolution was not proceeding completely as intended during the struggle, and that there were abrogations of liberty and justice during the initial founding years of the republic.

The novels that I would particularly like to mention in this context are the Hannah Trevor historical mysteries by Margaret Lawrence which begins with Hearts and Bones.  They showed me that ordinary people didn't necessarily reap the benefits of independence and that the violence of the period was really quite horrifying.   I would also like to bring up the duology with the overarching title The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson which forcefully brought home to me that African Americans had no reason to celebrate American independence.  This was an obvious conclusion that was obscured for me by white privilege.

So the historical study Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock was not as earth shattering for me as it would have been if I had never encountered books that challenged the idealized perspective on the American Revolution that I imbibed during my years of schooling.   Yet I still consider it illuminating.  I received a digital ARC for free from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.


It occurs to me that the excesses of the American Revolution represent the self-perpetuating cycle of abuse writ large.  The revolutionaries were either persecuted in England, or were descendants of people who fled England due to persecution.  From these experiences, they learned to persecute others such as the Loyalists who were a larger proportion of the American population than I had imagined.

On the other hand, James Rivington, who is mentioned  by Hoock only as a victim of violence against his Loyalist newspaper, played a more complex role in the American Revolution.   Since I am interested in the history of journalism, I did some research on Rivington.  I discovered an article in The Journal of the American Revolution here by Todd Andrlik which discusses some good contemporary evidence that Rivington passed crucial intelligence to Washington that was highly instrumental in achieving the American victory at Yorktown.  So apparently Rivington did change his loyalties.  I recognize that Rivington's espionage is outside the scope of Scars of Independence which deals with violence during the American Revolution.   So I didn't expect Hoock to deal more fully with Rivington.

 Yet Hoock did present me with a more complete portrait of George Washington in this book. I was glad to learn that Washington was very scrupulous about the treatment of POWs in the American Revolution, but Hoock reveals that he wanted to redeem himself. His reputation had been tarnished during the French and Indian War when his Native allies tortured and killed French prisoners including a French diplomat.  Washington was later faced with signing an agreement with the French without knowing any French.  He discovered afterward that he'd signed a confession of guilt for the death of the French diplomat.  This incident shows Washington as a fallible human being who made mistakes and had limitations.

 I was aware of escaped slaves who were freed as a result of fighting for the British, but I found out from this book that about half of them were re-enslaved by bounty hunters after the revolution. Yet 9,000 African American former slaves left America as free Loyalists.
 I also discovered African American slave James Armistead who spied for the Continental Army working under the Marquis de Lafayette. His Wikipedia article says that he delivered information about Benedict Arnold and the plans of Cornwallis, the British General who commanded at Yorktown.  Despite this significant assistance to the cause of the American Revolution, he was returned to his master, and was only freed at the request of Lafayette.  James Armistead added Lafayette to his name in gratitude.

Below is a public domain image of James Armistead Lafayette based on a painting by John B. Martin that is located at the Virginia Historical Society.


Hoock also deals with the portrayal of the American Revolution in later periods.  What stood out for me most was the fate of The Spirit of 76, a film that was released during WWI.  It was seized and the filmmaker was arrested for including British atrocities during the American Revolution.  Apparently,  U.S. censors were very conscious of any criticism of an ally during WWI.  I know very little about the U.S. during this period, so I found this harsh reaction to a historical movie eye opening.

My conclusion about this book is that violent means to achieve a worthwhile end will always detour the struggle so that it may not achieve the intended goals.  I think that this has been the trouble with revolutions throughout history.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Spirit Tree--Can Cherokees Be Portrayed Authentically in a Paranormal Romance?

I've said in previous reviews of Kindle Press books that they've had a great track record so far.  All of the prior books that I've nominated through Kindle Scout which have been selected for publication have been excellent. I've reviewed The Lost Tribe, Melophobia and The Eagle Tree on this blog.  The reviews can be found at the locations that I've hyperlinked.  All three of these books were original, provocative and well-written.

The Spirit Tree by Kathryn M. Hearst was a Kindle Scout nominee of mine that was published last year.  I received a free copy in return for my nomination.  I didn't find the time to review it in 2016.  I had the same problem with my Goodreads giveaway wins in 2016.  I've decided to establish a permanent slot in my reads rotation for my published Kindle Scout nominees and GR giveaway wins which will be reviewed in the order that I receive them.  I am reviewing The Spirit Tree first because I received it before The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin, my first GR giveaway win of 2016.  I hope to get to it soon.

I nominated The Spirit Tree because the central character turns out to be a figure out of Cherokee legend.  This is not a spoiler.  The revelation that protagonist Tessa Lamar is a Nunnehi is included in the description.   I need to point out that I knew nothing about the Nunnehi before reading this book.  I knew something about the Cherokee from my reading, but less than I know about some other Native American nations--most notably the Dine peoples (the Navajo and Apache).  So I had to do some research in preparation for this review.


I have to say that this book breaks with my history of amazing Kindle Scout nominees.  It's the first of those nominees that I've read which I now regret nominating.  That's a pretty strong statement, but it's an honest reflection of my opinion and I stand by it.

Let me say that this isn't about the quality of the writing.   Judged as a piece of fiction, The Spirit Tree is competently written.  I would probably have given it three stars on Goodreads if  I hadn't started to feel very uncomfortable with Hearst's portrayal of the Cherokee.

OK, this is a paranormal romance.  Some readers will be saying to themselves that a high degree of scholarly veracity isn't really necessary in a romance.  It's entertainment, not a textbook.  Yet there are attitudes reflected in fiction that impact the way Native Americans are viewed.

 This isn't about minor inaccuracies.  My most important objection is that the author seems to imply that there are very few Cherokees left in existence. One example is a meeting in which a small group of Cherokee elders gather around a single campfire to select the shaman for the entire Cherokee community.   It doesn't take much research to discover that there are hundreds of thousands of Cherokees.   Just go to  The Official Cherokee Nation Website where I learned on the About The Nation page that there are 317,000 Cherokees who definitely would have a great many elders who wouldn't all know each other.  This page also states that "We are the largest tribal nation in the United States."  I typed that in bold for emphasis, so that readers will understand that this is a significant population with a government and territorial rights.   The worst misconception that is perpetrated in popular films and literature dealing with Native Americans is that there are very few of them left.   Some even imply that they all died out in the 19th century.  This means that European Americans don't need to be concerned about the needs of contemporary Native communities or violations of their rights.  I hope that my readers can see why I consider the minimalization of the Cherokee in The Spirit Tree  troubling. 

The above paragraph may make my criticism of the way the Nunnehi are portrayed seem like academic nitpicking.  I admit that I have a master's degree in Library Information Science, and that I enjoy doing research for this blog.  

Although the Nunnehi are characterized as the Cherokee equivalent of  the Fae among the Celts, the stories that are associated with them never involve changelings, or Nunnehi who become part of human families.  For examples of Nunnehi stories see The Nunnehi.  They are shown in the legends as living separately from humans with their own villages or enclaves.    The only content that I found which does portray Nunnehi in the similarly unapologetically Celtic manner that I saw in this novel is related to a role playing game called White Wolf .  There are striking differences between the concept of Nunnehi in White Wolf and Hearst's concept in The Spirit Tree, but what they have in common is the idea of Nunnehi living among humans which I didn't encounter elsewhere.  So my problem is that a Native American legend is being conflated with a European legend when they aren't the same.  This reduces cultural diversity which impoverishes our common human heritage.

I had another issue which didn't arise in this book, but on some online websites dealing with the Cherokee and bottle trees.  The title The Spirit Tree refers to the bottle tree that Tessa creates in this novel.  The bottles are supposed to contain spirits.  The most reliable sources state that this practice comes from the Congo where it relates to some very ancient traditional beliefs that have spread wherever descendants of slaves from the Congo are found in far flung communities throughout the African diaspora.   Cherokees originate in the American Southeastern region.   African Americans and Cherokees were neighbors.  So there was cultural exchange between the two groups.  Some Cherokees adopted bottle trees.  There are websites which state that bottle trees originated with the Cherokees, and that African slaves copied the custom from them.   The reason why I didn't find this view persuasive is that glass arrived in North America with the European colonists.   Ancient Cherokees had no glass bottles to hang in trees.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I really wish that Hearst hadn't decided to write about mythical beings that are regarded as sacred by the Cherokee. Most paranormal entities in the romance and fantasy genres are monsters that aren't regarded as sacred such as vampires and werewolves.  Hearst probably didn't intend to offend. She just wanted to have a different kind of paranormal creature that would stand out.  She probably latched on to a Cherokee myth because, like Hearst, Cherokees were Southerners.   Yet from a Cherokee standpoint, European Americans took their land in the South and forced them on a genocidal march called the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.  The Cherokees who remain in the South believe that the Nunnehi concealed them in a secret refuge.  The Nunnehi are sacred to them because they are the saviors of the Cherokee bands in the Southern states.  They probably wouldn't look kindly on a contemporary European American writer taking their myth and using it for her own purposes.




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Gravediggers of Champagne County

The midnight blue in the background of the cover implies darkness, but there is also a mysterious brightness in the foreground which intrigued me.   The Gravediggers of Champagne County by Elizabeth Evans Kirk sounded like an unusual novel.    This is why I requested a free copy for review from Bookplex.


At the outset I was charmed by Violet, the young protagonist, who spends her time at a cemetery.  She seemed entertaining and quirky.  Yet as the novel progressed, it became clear that she was shadowed by dark past experiences.  The cemetery was her refuge.   When she began to see and hear ghosts, I wondered whether it was possible that she was hallucinating.   I expect that readers will decide for themselves on this issue.

 I lean toward Violet having an active imagination rather than actually seeing ghosts.  One of the ghosts she thought she saw was supposed to be a trapeze artist, but later in her account she was a tightrope walker.  They are both aerialists, but they are separate specialties.   As a circus performer, that ghost would have known the differences between a trapeze artist and a tightrope walker, yet Violet wouldn't have known.  So it's very likely that the ghost was a fictional character that Violet created.

I really liked Violet’s friendship with the supportive gravedigger known to her as Albert.  Revelations about this character over the course of the narrative gave him increasing stature.   I was very impressed with him by the time I finished the book.

It bothered me that Albert’s dialogue was inconsistent.  When he’s speaking to Violet he’s sometimes more colloquial than he is at other times.   For example, why should he say “ya” instead of you in one sentence, and be back to saying you again in the very next sentence?

 There were other editing problems.  I found a dozen instances of the usual copy editing mistakes which included missing words, spelling errors and incorrect grammar.  I’m hoping that future novels in this series are better edited.

Since I found Violet so engaging, I wanted to know about her life after the story line of this novel was resolved.   So despite the flaws noted above, I would chalk up Elizabeth Evans Kirk’s first novel as a qualified success.   


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Into That Forest: The Methods of Extinction

I read Into That Forest by Louis Nowra at the end of April because I wanted a short book that I could read in one day.  I never imagined what a powerhouse it would be when I picked it up.  I also didn't know anything about Tasmania, the setting of this novel.  I learned for the first time that it's an island off the coast of Australia.    I hadn't heard of the award winning Australian author Louis Nowra either. This shows that I'm woefully ignorant about  Australia and Australian writers.  I hope to remedy this ignorance.


Into That Forest deals with the adoption of two girls aged six and seven by Tasmanian tigers in the aftermath of a terrible storm.   They lived with the tigers for four years.  The cover above is beautifully symbolic representing a girl who has become part tiger.

This is not a sweet story.  It's a rather grim tale dealing with violence and savagery.  It raises the issue of whether tigers or humans are more savage.  It shows the process of extinction.  Tasmanian tigers are now extinct.  Because their heads are wolf-like, they were also known as Tasmanian wolves.  I found a public domain photo showing two of the last survivors of this species in a zoo.
          By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hannah, the viewpoint character, is the daughter of a man who was part of a whaling crew.   So human predation of whales is also an element of this novel.  Hannah is portrayed as changing her identification from human to animal then back to human again.   She was always a hunter by temperament which is how she fit in so well in a tiger family.   I identified with the tigers myself.  They were such good parents to those girls.  I feel that I am in mourning for their species.

My experience of reading this book was emotionally intense, and I feel that the themes involved in this novel are mature ones.  The publisher markets it for children above twelve, but children mature at different rates.  I would advise parents to read this book with their children and discuss it with them.



Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sister Jaguar's Journey--The Extraordinary Life of a Dominican Sister

It’s the title and the remarkable cover that first drew me to Sister Jaguar’s Journey. The image of the cross suspended over the black jaguar is very striking.  Then I was hooked by the description.  I have heard of activist nuns, but this is the first time I have read a memoir written by one.  Sister Judy Bisignano has been an activist for immigrants, alternative education and the environment.  This is why I was eager to purchase it on Amazon and review it for Bookplex.


As an education reformer Sister Judy reminded me of Jhumki Basu.  I reviewed her biography, A Mission To Teach  for Bookplex in 2013 here . Both Sister Judy and Jhumki wanted students to have more say in their education.  They both also proved through their teaching practices that students really do learn better when they believe that the curriculum is relevant to their lives.

The order of Dominican sisters to which Sister Judy belongs may seem quite astonishing.  Many readers might think that they had wandered quite far from their roots.    This is because it is generally believed that St. Dominic de Guzman, who founded the order in 1206, established the Inquisition.  I also thought this fabrication was credible until I researched St. Dominic in preparation for writing this review. The truth is that St. Dominic was no longer alive when the Inquisition began.  I consider Sister Judy and her order to be in continuity with St. Dominic’s priority of caring for the poor.  She is also in accord with the current Pope’s concern about climate change.

Sister Judy’s path led her to Ecuador where she encountered the Achuar people who are fighting environmental degradation and water pollution due to oil pipelines that run through territory that they consider theirs even though they no longer have access to it.  Sister Judy’s emphasis is on their spiritual beliefs and practices.  She doesn’t really deal with the impact of oil spills on the Achuar.

In addition to the memoir, there is a photo section and a prayer section.  While reading the prayer section, I was impressed by Sister Judy’s idea that we should think of ourselves as “embedded” in nature rather than apart from it.   Yet I disagree with Sister Judy’s belief that the Latin American concept of susto is solely about loss of contact with nature.   My knowledge of susto comes from study of curanderismo which is a Latino spiritual approach to healing.  My impression is that susto is a feeling of malaise that is due to a general absence of connection.   It can be a sense of isolation from family, ancestors, friends or community which may make people perceive themselves as rootless.  Disconnection from nature can be part of someone’s experience of susto, but it seems to me that it’s a broader phenomenon.   There are many connections that people need to maintain in order to feel whole.

I only found one typographical error in the entire book which didn’t really interfere with readability.  I don’t expect perfection from editors.  This memoir is editorially and stylistically superior to the vast majority of what is being published today.

I considered Sister Judy’s life and achievements fascinating, and I took away a few insights from this book.  I definitely think that Sister Jaguar’s Journey is a very worthwhile read.