14 December, 2016
Some of you may recall my love of Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan mysteries beginning with The Skull Mantra featuring Inspector Shan, a disgraced Chinese policeman exiled to Tibet. Pattison’s use of the mystery genre to convey the beauty and tragic history of Tibet is one of the few series that manages to portray the fierce resilience and compassion of the Tibetan people in the face of annexation and oppression. Pattison is also the author of a series set in colonial America before independence and I was keen to try it.
Blood of the Oak is the fourth volume of Pattison’s Bone Rattler series and features Duncan McCallum, an indentured Scot in colonial America. It is 1765 and Duncan, now living in Edentown with his partner Sarah Ramsey and his friend Conawago, a Nipmuc, is summoned by Adanahoe, an Iroquois elder, to investigate the theft of a sacred mask. Having earned their trust and because of his medical training, Duncan is known by the Iroquois as the Death Speaker, a rarity amongst the Europeans.
America is in the throes of conflict, a burdgeoning sense of independent identity is forming amongst a small group of influential men and women and resistance is growing against the English and the French who are keen to lay claim to the rich lands held sacred by the Native American tribes. They find themselves caught in the middle, used and discarded by both sides, wary of the Europeans, desperate to protect themselves. When Duncan’s search for the mask leads him to an injured ranger, his friend Patrick Woolford, he realises he has stumbled upon another mystery. When Woolford tells him 19 men have gone missing from Benjamin Franklin’s fledgling communications network including some of his own rangers, Duncan knows they are facing an incredibly clever and terrible foe. For Woolford, like Duncan and the Iroquois, is an expert in navigating the forests.
As the powerful elite in England try to cement their control over their wayward colony through the Stamp Tax, Duncan is drawn into the power play that threatens everything he holds dear. As he begins his journey with his friend Tanaqua, a Mohawk, and Analie, a French orphan, to try and prevent the brewing catastrophe, he will come face to face with evil from his past. What is at stake here is not just the lives of those dear to him but the state of the nation itself. But where there is evil, there will be resistance and Duncan finds himself in the midst of those who are willing to put aside differences to fight together for their rights.
As well as tackling the complex nature of the different resistance groups supporting the revolutionary cause, the sheer number of people who risked their lives from the Scottish, the English, all the Native American tribes and the African American community, from the freedmen to those struggling under the chains of slavery, Pattison draws an intricate portrait of colonial America and the high stakes involved. The fragility of freedom, the long yoke of servitude and indenture, the indignities, torture and injustice suffered by so many because of the misplaced belief that one race, one people, one class can be better than another is a polemic that is familiar and should still be feared today. And that the only way to overcome the odds is to work together towards a common goal which Pattison shows beautifully.
Like his Tibetan novels, Pattison pulls off an intricate mystery while building a world in which historical figures come alive. The complexity of his characters, each with a difficult past, each making their own hard choices, show how tough it was to survive in the new land. And yet within such chaos also lie scenes of stillness and beauty, of the power and sanctity of nature, the importance of belief and worship, and ultimately what ties you to your identity. Pattison excels in creating a story that combines mystery with politics, history and adventure, but what I like best about his novels are his compelling characters. Although some of the characters may be a little too cut and dry, especially the antagonists, Pattison avoids too much stereotyping by including a whole spectrum of characters and he doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly side of society in each community. And like his Tibetan novels, making an outsider, in this case Duncan, the central character makes it work. It certainly sets one thinking about how history and cultures are recorded and by whom.
Although this novel could be read as a standalone, I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I finished it, I ordered the rest, Bone Rattler, Eye of the Raven and Original Death. As much as it is a mystery, it is also a love letter to the Native American tribes as well as the exiled Scots who only wanted a place in which to live free.
My knowledge of Native American history is pretty much limited to James Fenimore Cooper’s oft-criticised The Last of the Mohicans set in the same period, and reading this has re-awakened my interest. As well as the bibliography in Blood of the Oak, I have Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and any further recommendations would be greatly welcome.
I would like to thank Eliot Pattison for kindly offering me this book for review. He was right in saying this was a topical and timely read, especially in the wake of recent world events. It would do America and the rest of the world good to go back and re-assess the reasons why people fought so hard for independence in so many countries around the world and that we mustn’t forget that liberty, equality and justice are rights we cannot afford to discard.