I have long been a fan of Douglas Jones, not least because I have been impressed by his capture of the Indian experience, beginning with his tales of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull. Those two novels worked because he imaginatively recreated the Indian world in tension with the white man’s world. Here, however, as the title suggests, he tells a different story, that of the proud Indians’ painful adjustment, after their defeat, to the white man’s culture.
This 1984 novel is beautifully written, as are all his works, and is a major reason I have long chosen to read Jones. But this novel is less successful in novelistic terms. Not, however, because it is told from the viewpoint of a white man, Liverpool (Liver) Morgan, a Welshman. He is a fine man, as well as an understanding spokesman for the author; and we understand why others trust him and his fairness, especially from his memories of the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, as well as his memories of his Welsh parents. These are often poetic interludes that do interrupt his current narrative with the Indians, but also demonstrate Jones’ imaginative probing into the depths of his character.
Liver first encounters the Indian leader, Kwahadi, as the chief leads his Comanche tribe peacefully onto the land the white man has reserved for them. The novel then takes us through a series of events that both bring Liver closer to Kwahadi and demonstrate the slow absorption of these Comanches into the white man’s ways. But as the Kirkus review sums up, it is a rich “if relatively undramatic, Jones historical novel.”
Kwahadi, the Indian chief, becomes Jones’ pathway into illustrating how the Indians have had to abandon two mainstays of their culture when they pledged themselves to a peaceful life. For that decision has denied its young men important elements of their warrior culture. That is, they no longer go into battle against other tribes; and, second, the buffalo, whom they eagerly pursued as a source of food and clothing, have vanished. And so, to enable these Indians to hold onto one key symbol of their way of life, Liver helps the Comanche leader retrieve a sacred lance that is symbolic of their warrior culture. Then, more practically, he helps the tribe obtain both the horses they need to explore the world beyond their reservation and the cattle they need to feed themselves.
Each of these steps illustrates a need these Indians have as they adjust to their new world. But there is no dramatic unity to these events. There are simply a series of problems Liver helps to solve, and by doing so helps slowly to develop his relationship with Kwahadi and his people. Moreover, that relationship grows quite personal, as Liver soon acts as a successful go-between for a young white army contractor who wishes to marry one of Kwahadi’s daughters.
And this relationship becomes even more personal, when Kwahadi, the son of a white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians and then recaptured a generation later, yearns for the mother he has lost. And because he trusts Liver, who knows the white man’s world, he asks Liver to find what happened to his white mother, and whether or not she is still alive. And this mission carries Liver through much of the remaining novel. Indeed, to re-enforce his trust, Kwahadi directs another Indian to protect Liver from a white man’s ambush. And, finally, the chief offers Liver, a widower, an Indian woman as a wife—to cure a loneliness he sees in the white man—and Liver agrees.
The final integration of the Indians comes with a trip to Ft. Worth, where Kwahadi and his Indian friends are to be honored. But it also ends with a tragedy, as well as with Liver fulfilling the mission that Kwahadi gave him, to discover the fate of the Indian’s wife. And so the conclusion of these two events helps to bring this work itself to an emotional close.
Except, there is an Epilogue, which suggests that Liver and Kwahadi were real people. It is not clear if this is true or an attempt to create verisimilitude. But I do note that Jones’ most successful early novels were built around historical events that really happened, and onto which he grafted his marvelous imaginative powers, powers that brought him inside the head of both Indians and white men. Did he need that verisimilitude again to give more substance to this work of fiction?
This novel did not receive the attention that reviewers gave his earlier work. Perhaps because it was not inspired by a specific moment in history. Instead, it presents the gradual assimilation of Indians into the white man’s culture. It may thus be appropriate to quote from my 2005 review of Jones’ novel Roman, that Jones “fails to offer a single, unified story that stretches itself into a greater complexity. Instead, he offers a picaresque series of adventures that offer no challenge to his hero, even as they immerse us into the daily activities of life on the range and in the towns, cities, and forts.”
Finding the fate of Kwahadi’s mother was not an easy task for Liver, but it was also not enough to tie this work together with any continuity. In part because it was achieved so easily. Liver knew the right person, who in turn knew the governor. One concludes that Jones is really committed here to the larger story, the assimilation of the Indians. He is less committed to the fate of his individual characters. Because this is the story about cultures rather than about individual people. The people merely illustrate the cultures.
This book has sat on my shelf for many years. I felt no urgency to read it, perhaps reflecting the reviewers’ lack of interest when this novel was published. But I am happy I finally picked it up. And it deserved to be published. For it covers an important element of America’s Western history. And we should be grateful that Jones decided to write this story of these two cultures that were so important to our country’s past. (November, 2017)