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Friday, September 3, 2010

Tears of the Mountain & One Thousand White Women double review

Tears of the Mountain chronicles a single day in one man's life - July 4, 1876 - along with a series of alternating flashbacks beginning in 1831 that all lead up to an eventful Centennial Independence Day celebration in Sonoma, California.

Jeremiah McKinley prepares for the celebration and for a reunion with old friends and family, however, as he reflects on past love, the pioneer journey of his youth, and the many violent conflicts of the West, voices of the long dead come to him, and old wounds resurface, threatening everything he holds dear.

Jeremiah McKinley wakes up on the fourth of July looking forward to a hard-earned day of leisurely celebration and reflection with his family. But Jeremiah has lived an adventurous life, sometimes intentional and often times not, so it stands to reason that the most anticipated day of celebration in the young country's history shouldn't be any different.

The day begins with the arrival of a little boy with his family from San Francisco, a little boy who claims he is Jeremiah's deceased father, Daniel. Shortly thereafter Jeremiah receives a message containing a cryptic warning. As much as Jeremiah would like to write off both incidents as practical jokes, increasingly alarming events continue to unfold throughout the day as both friends and enemies from his past gather to celebrate the Centennial.

As Jeremiah tries to figure out who is behind the ominous warnings and how the child knows so much about his father, he reflects on his youth and the backstory of how these people now gathered in Sonoma came to know each other emerges, seamlessly woven through the timeline of early California history: from the first white settlers to the Bear Revolution, to the Gold Rush, and the displacement and subjugation of the native population. Echoes of these past events manifest in the strange events of the Fourth of July and an increasing sense of urgency and suspense builds as Jeremiah realizes the family he's always wanted and finally has could be in real danger.

Overall this book is a great read. Jeremiah is an infinitely likeable character, a mild-mannered schoolteacher and family man, honorable and courageous, shaped by a series of events and life lessons depicted in vivid detail. I love reading about pioneer life and the descriptions of the young Jeremiah's journey overland from Missouri to California, and the encounters with wildlife, Indians, and mother nature do not disappoint.

If I have any complaints at all it would be with the pacing of the story. The book spends a lot of time on Jeremiah's young adulthood and then seems to run out of room and has to squeeze the preceding twenty years of his life into a few pages, along with the culmination of the present-day plotline. I also found the ending to come a little rushed and a bit out of nowhere, but it was not a disappointing ending and the build-up to that point was very enjoyable. Recommended for fans of exciting and descriptive historical fiction, particularly anyone who'd like to learn more about early California history.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

*Please note: This review references an advance copy received from the publisher, and therefore the final published copy may differ. Though I received this book from the publisher, these are my honest and unbiased thoughts, and I was not compensated in any other way for reviewing this book.

From the Author's Note:

In 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother's tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man's world - a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needless to say, the Cheyennes' request was not well received by the white authorities - the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and, of course, the white women did not come.

In this novel they do.

May Dodd is one of these women. Recruited by the government from an insane asylum in which she's been wrongly imprisoned, May seizes her only opportunity for freedom and embarks upon a terrifying and exciting journey. Traveling from Chicago to the Nebraska Territories with a group of forty other women, the first brides to be delivered to the Cheyenne, May dutifully records their experiences in her beloved journals and letters.

It's a diverse group of women, bound together by need and fear of the unknown, who slowly come to rely on and draw strength from each other. I did find a couple of the characters, particularly the Swiss immigrant and the southern belle, to be sterotypical, caricature-like even, and the inclusion of their accents to be overdone and annoying. But the other supporting characters were well-drawn and really added depth to the canvas. My favorites probably being Helen Flight, a naturalist and artist, and Gertie, who helps May maintain communications with the "civilized" world.

But the spirit of all of these women is channeled through May, whose journals describe their new life together - their journey by train and wagon through the plains, their transfer into the Cheyenne camp, and the difficulties and small victories of assimilating into a new way of life while struggling to maintain their own identities. May's strength, practicality, and humor in the face of adversity reassures and inspires the other women. She is the heart of their unusual family and the heart of this book. After turning the last page, I felt like I'd lost a friend, and I flipped back to the Shakespeare quote that opened the story, which had taken on a whole new meaning:

"Women will love her, that she is a woman
More worth than any man; men that she is
The rarest of all women."

Nothing is easy for May and her sisters. The Cheyenne lead a hard life, and constant battle against the elements, other Indians, and the white man's whiskey take their toll. And when gold is found in the Black Hills and white settlers begin to pour onto the Cheyenne land, tensions rise and the women find themselves in a dangerous position.

May's journals tell a story that is gripping, startling, and harrowing; at time joyous and happy and at other times unbelievably sad. It's the kind of story that resonates and stays with you long after you've finished. A very good read all around.

Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5

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Dwayne said...

Very thorough review!

Anonymous said...

Two interesting books.
I will be looking for ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN. It sounds like a book I would enjoy reading. Interesting story line. Alternate histories always give interesting twists to events,.

Thanks for the reviews.

Jenny Girl said...

I will also look for 100 White Women because it is a side of history that is not written about very often. A great idea for a book indeed. Excellent reviews.