Category historical fiction

THE COLOR OF LIGHTING by Paulette Jiles 0


The Color of Lighting

In The Color of Lightning, her powerful and moving third novel, Paulette Jiles begins with a real person and, taking the little that is known from the historical record, creates a life for him that illuminates a morally complex time and place in American history – from the last years of the Civil War to the early 1870s. These were the years when Texas was opening up its land for settlement, and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, losing their traditional hunting grounds, were kidnapping and/or murdering the new settlers. During the same period, the U.S. government was trying to corral (almost literally) all the Indians on reservations. The book’s hero, Britt Johnson, is a black man, a freed slave, who, along with his wife and three children, accompanies his former owner and several other white families to homestead on the north Texas plains. One day, while Johnson and most of the other men are away, their settlement is raided, many are killed (including Johnson’s oldest son), and the others, mainly women and children, are taken north with the Indians. (These are dreadfully vivid scenes of carnage, torture, and pain, not for the queasy of stomach.) Heartbroken, and in an angry despair, Johnson rides to the Indian camps to rescue his family. Another major character (one wholly invented by Jiles) is idealistic Samuel Hammond, a member of the Society of Friends who is appointed as an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to use peaceful means to disarm the Indians and get them to agree to become farmers. Other characters for whom we grow to care deeply are Tissoyo, who was banished by his tribal leaders; Mary, Britt’s wife, almost fatally damaged both physically and psychologically by her treatment in captivity; and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a terrifically stubborn white woman taken in the same raid as Mary was. Along with her fully developed characters and vivid, brilliantly crafted writing, Jiles explores the conundrum at the heart of the America following the Civil War, as can be seen in this discussion between Hammond and another white man, Deaver, an itinerant painter. Deaver says:

“They (the Indians) are our great mystery. They are America’s great otherwise. People fall back in the face of an impenetrable mystery and refuse it. Yes, they take captives. Sometimes they kill women and old people. But the settlers are people who shouldn’t be where they are in the first place and they know it and take their chances.”

“You are very cavalier about this.”

“So are they, my friend. The Texans are cavalier as well. Perhaps we can regard this as a tragedy. Americans are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility. Tragedy is not amenable to reason and we are fixers, aren’t we? We can fix everything.”

I was especially moved by the dilemma of the white children who were kidnapped at a young age and had little memory of their early years, as they grew up knowing nothing except their life on the plains. Here’s how Jiles describes one little girl’s feelings about being brought back to the white family she scarcely remembered:

“…she was not afraid of going hungry, or starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing. Of the sky shuttered away from her sight, herself hidden from the operatic excitement of the constant wind and the high spirits that came when they struck out like cheerful vagabonds across the wide earth with all of life in front of them and unfolding and perpetually new. And now herself shut in a wooden cave. She could not go out at dawn alone and sing, she would not be seen and known by the rising sun.”

Incidentally, Britt Johnson’s adventures as an Indian hostage hunter became the inspiration for Alan Le May’s 1954 novel, The Searchers, which was itself turned into the 1956 John Ford film of the same name. In the movie, the character based (very loosely) on Johnson is, through the vagaries of the creative process and Hollywood casting, played by John Wayne.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 0


I frequently hear from readers, and O. Ray Pardo is someone who more or less regularly emails me about the books he’s enjoyed. He’s  an avid reader and friend of the library who lives in Manchester, WA.

Here’s what he has to say about David Mitchell’s newest novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Guest Blog by O. Ray Pardo

Come back to the Japan at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the author introduces us to a naive young Dutchman, Jacob de Zoet, and then peels back the onion of his storyline.  As the story winds and then rushes to conclusion we meet many different characters, with their individual points of view set in the polyhedron of prejudice, misunderstanding, and geography.  This is a story of honor, obligation, isolation, trust, treachery and love.   As Jacob discovers the complexity of Japanese culture, and the richness (and darkness) in the lives of those around him, he finds strength and confidence in his upbringing and in his ability to play the game of life. (I especially applaud the bravery of including engravings—so easy in our digital age, but so little used.)

The book is breath-taking in the beauty of its language and printing (do not wait for the paperback). 

* * *

Now (this is Nancy again) I began this book with great hopes. I loved Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but have had great difficulty in getting into the thick of  Jacob de Zoet. Reading Ray’s comments makes me eager to get back to it and try again.  It’s so clear to me that so much of what we like or don’t enjoy at any particular time is dependent on our moods.  It could have been—it probably was— that I was looking for something that was a bit faster moving.  Or at least something different than what Mitchell was giving me.

 Ray also asked me for suggestions of what to read next, and—naturally—I changed continents and centuries by suggesting the two historical series by Dorothy Dunnett.  Anyone have any other suggestions?

Sienkiewicz Trilogy 2


Sometimes people email to tell me about the books they’ve been reading recently.  It’s always great fun for me to get one of these emails, both because it’s intrinsically interesting to hear about what others are reading but also because I somehow inevitably add the books to my ever-growing “to be read” list. 

Here’s a recent email from Kay Robart, who describes herself as “a technical writer who reads constantly and hosts two book clubs. I especially love good historical novels and mysteries.”

Guest Post by Kay Robart

My latest discovery is not a new book, but a trio of old ones, the trilogy written by Henryk Sienkiewicz about the history of Poland, which won him the Nobel Prize. The books are purely adventure/romance stories of the late 1800s, but historically accurate and extremely well written. Even though they are mostly about war (and I was the girl who skipped all the war in War and Peace), they are really exciting and about a period and place that most of us Americans don’t know much about.

The first book, With Fire and Sword, is about the Cossack rebellion of 1648, which ultimately resulted in the Ukraine splitting off from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Yan Skshetuski is a young Polish officer in the hussars of the Ukrainian Prince Yeremi Vishnovyetski. Just after Yan becomes engaged to the lovely Helen, Prince Yeremi sends him off as an emissary to Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. But Yan is sent too late. When he arrives at this destination, the rebellion has already started.

Yan escapes with difficulty from the Cossacks and makes his way through the war-torn landscape, all the time worrying about Helen. But his duty is to his Prince, who because of the political landscape ends up fighting the Cossack invasion with very little help from the other Polish or Lithuanian nobles. Helen has been kidnapped by the wild Cossack Bohun, who also wants her for his wife, but Yan cannot take time to look for her. He must leave on another mission for Prince Yeremi. In the meantime, his friends, Pan Zagloba, the fat buffoon; Michal Volodyovski, the small, continually lovelorn knight and master swordsman; and Longinus Podbipyenta, the gentle Lithuanian giant, try to help Yan by rescuing Helen.

The second book, The Deluge, is about the 1655 Swedish invasion of the Commonwealth. The Cossack rebellion is still going strong and the Russians are invading from the East, so many of the Polish nobles simply hand the government over to the Swedish King, and the Polish king must flee the country. Andrei Kmita is a Lithuanian knight who has been living a wild life, rioting around the country and fighting off the Russians with a band of hooligans who do not treat their own countrymen any better than the Russians. But then he meets his fiancée, Olenka, an upright girl who lets him know he needs to mend his ways. Prince Radzivill offers him the opportunity to redeem himself, he thinks, and help save the country. But the Radzivills are misleading him. They have other things in mind than their country’s welfare, and it is awhile before Kmita figures this out. In the meantime, the Radzivills have taken Olenka hostage. How can Kmita redeem his name, try to mend his errors, fight for his country, and win back Olenka? His redemption starts with the defense of a famous monastery from the Swedish army. In the meantime, he keeps running into Yan Skshetuski, Pan Zagloba, and Michal Volodyovski, who are fighting the Swedes under a Lithuanian general. They don’t know whether he is a hero or a scoundrel, but they end up fighting beside him.

I haven’t started the third book yet, Fire in the Steppe, about another invasion by the Ottoman Empire, featuring the small knight Michal Volodyovski, but I can hardly wait to begin. The books are hefty reads (book 1—1035 pages; book 2—two volumes of about 1700 pages; book 3—500 or 600 pages), but they are worth every minute of your time. There are two major translations and some controversy about which is best. I read the one from 1991 by Kuniczak, which is very well written but much longer than the original translation by Curtin.

Under Heaven 0


by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc, 2010) is, in a word, superb.  Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It’s gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China’s history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai).  Shen Tai, the son of a general who’d led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father’s recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied.  As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a non-traditional way, Shen Tai’s life is forever altered in ways that couldn’t be foreseen.  Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described.  For me, though, the best aspects of Kay’s novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic, and amazingly real.  They don’t always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for. Kay’s endings are really never completely happy—his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they’ve undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make.  It’s a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own.  (That’s a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction).  Kay is a best seller in his native Canada, and one of my life’s missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too.  You can watch an interview I did with him in 2007 at: