Commendable Discretion: A Detective Novel of the Old West
By J. Hoolihan Clayton
Dog Soldier Press (2020, 250 pp.)
The best kind of historical fiction teases out an intriguing hint from the actual record and cleverly makes it plausible.
This first novel in a series by First Nations Nehiyawak author Hoolihan Clayton, who is originally from Wyoming, manages to do just that. What if, she posits from some curious clues in the historical record, White men fought alongside the Native Americans at the Battle of Little Big Horn -- the massacre of General Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment by the combined Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors at Greasy Grass, Montana, on June 25, 1876?
C.W. Collins, a loyal secret agent for General Ulysses S. Grant, is sent on a mission to ascertain whether there is truth to some rumors that White men speaking Native tongues were fighting alongside Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at that decisive reckoning by Native Americans enraged at the U.S. Army's betrayal of treaties over the region.
Who could these White men be, and how did they come to join chief Tatanka Iyotaka and his Hunkpapa warriors?
The Battle of Greasy Grass has demoralized both sides in the wars heating up between the U.S. Army, eager for land, gold and buffalo, and the Hunkpapa Lakota, resisting the decimation of their people and way of life. Unlike most of the U.S. commanders Collins has to confront over his many months slogging by rail and horseback west from Washington, D.C., to Montana -- he encounters real characters such as Mayor Reno, General Terry, Colonel Miles -- Collins is not hostile to the Indian cause. As Collins quietly explains to President Grant: "I do not think that all Americans buy the myth that the U.S. is ever on the side of might and right."
The reason for his sympathy becomes gradually apparent: his Irish brogue he can turn on and off, his quoting of Shakespeare and his ability to read the Gaelic on artifacts retrieved from the Little Big Horn battlefield. Indeed, Collins was born in Ireland to an Irish mother; he is an immigrant in America -- the "W" in his initials stands for the great Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone. Collins shares the fighting Irish spirit, which, he learns, has been bruised by American generals since the Civil War.
With the aid of a sure-shot female Sioux scout and interpreter named Wakalyapi ("Broken Woman"), Collins peacefully infiltrates the Native American camps to seek the truth -- not vengeance. The two battle-hardened sojourners bond because they don't belong to their respective places. But they are honor-bound, each to their own culture, and the scars from these epic wars run deep, the memory long.
We eagerly await the next installment of Hoolihan Clayton's detective series.
Trapped in Tanzania
By Anne Silver
(2020, 291 pp.)
"They kidnapped my baby."
In this frustrating, unsettling narrative of a bitterly contested child custody case in Tanzania between an American mother and a Tanzanian father, the grandmother is the one "trapped" emotionally in the middle.
Anne is a Peace Corps employee in the capital, Dar Es Salaam, who makes her home with husband Jim between the East African country and Taos. (The novel is based on the real life of author Silver.) She and Jim are increasingly alienated by her free-spirited adult daughter, Emma, who has fallen for a rich internet executive from an affluent Tanzanian family and allowed herself to become willfully blindsided by Ezra Mkoma's controlling, philandering behavior -- and pregnant by him.
The alarm bells are ringing off the hook throughout this tense fictionalized work, not just between Emma and Ezra, but because of the entire Tanzanian class structure. The disparity between the haves and have-nots, between the wealthy Whites and rich families like the Mkomas and the rest of Tanzanian society, gapes enormously-- resulting in rampant theft, gated, guarded homes, servants and nannies who are ill-paid and dispensable, and official corruption.
Like her mother and stepfather, the reader quickly loses sympathy for the intelligent, capable, yet prodigiously entitled young woman. Although clearly Ezra is cheating on Emma and even gaslighting her, the whole drama leaves their child, Ava, tossed like a football between the families.
"You're blind to what [Em] does," Jim says to Anne. "She's not telling us everything."
What is the truth? A basic cultural disconnect rankles this work, sadly spoiling any emotional engagement it attempts to impart.