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ORIGINAL DEATH
by Eliot Pattison
Counterpoint, August 2013
358 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 1582437319


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Scottish shades of Natty Bumpo! That's what Pattison's new novel feels like. Once more we move on moccasined feet between English and French, civilization and wilderness, Catholicism and Protestantism, First Nations and Anglo and French colonists in the years following 1754, the beginning of the French and Indian War. As the rival characters in the novel point out to us, the events following 1754 in the Americas were extensions into the New World of Old-World European-Anglo rivalries: the 95 theses of Martin Luther, the Popes of Avignon, Bonny Prince Charlie, the British Commonwealth and Glorious Revolution.

Readers of this novel spend a lot of time in the Northern woods or in a canoe between New York and Canada chasing and being chased. Among a cast of thousands, Highlander (kilt, pipes, sporran) Duncan McCallum and Catholic Nipmuc Indian (spirit-protectors, woods-wisdom) Conewago seek answers for the torture and murder of a settlement of Christianized Indians. Our heroes are frequently set upon and thrown into dungeons or tied to posts and threatened with astonishing sorts of torment in the pursuit of their quest. Readers visit an abandoned monastery where First Nations monks were massacred, a field of posts where slaves were tied for days, waiting for market, a formal Iroquois council, predecessor, as some histories tell, of our modern style of democracy.

Odd moments almost of poetry punctuate a plot whose intricacies are too many to enumerate here: an eagle's feather falls on the water whose ripples clear to reveal a dead Highlander, tortured and sunk in a lake. Two First Nations lovers frolic in the spray of a waterfall. Prisoners are immured in an old iron mine in whose darkest recesses smallpox exists, almost as if it were made of flesh and walked on two legs. Duncan and Connewago and presented with a wampum belt into which their figures, shown passing through a circle, have been represented—in essence, the belt predicts and commands that they seek answers to the questions that bedevil them, even undo the circle of doom. In the darkness of the forest, and in moral darknesses as well, Anglo people, kidnapped by Indians and then returned, no longer fit their birth civilizations and live on the edges of towns, speaking no understandable language; half-Indian sons follow ambitions that lead on paths guided by no one's rules or moralities, enact cruelties learned on both sides of battle.

Those who like to be steeped in history, hear tales of bravery in battle and of old wounds nursed until they flame into brightness should enjoy this work, the third in which Duncan makes an appearance.

§ Cathy Downs, Ph.D. professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, September 2013

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