Reviewed by David Treuer
Washington Post Book World
I've always suspected that cowboys are really Indians in disguise. Joseph Marshall's astonishing new Western is proof. "Hundred in the Hand" is the Lakota name for what historians have referred to as the Fetterman Massacre, a battle that took place on Dec. 21, 1866, and wiped out all 80 of the U.S. soldiers involved. The battle was part of Red Cloud's War, which concluded in victory for the Lakota and their allies at the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
Marshall's novel follows the lives and luck of a handful of Lakota warriors and their families leading up to the battle. Principal among them are Red Cloud and his wife, Sweetwater; his cousin Rabbit, who nurses a hatred for white people as much as he nurses his missing hand, shot off during a conflict with prospectors; and young Crazy Horse, just coming into his powers. We see them in their villages going about their daily lives, on hunting trips, scouting the enemy, making decisions about whether to attack, and, ultimately, planning and carrying out a phenomenal victory over the soldiers garrisoned in Fort Phil Kearny in present-day Wyoming.
Hundred in the Hand is the first in a series of novels published by Fulcrum about the American West written from the Native American perspective. The publisher claims that this book is reminiscent of the oral tradition of Indian storytelling. But for something to jog the memory, we have to know it in the first place, and this novel doesn't evoke Indian storytelling (whatever that is) as much as the tradition of old Westerns. It sounds and reads like a Western, only facing the wrong direction.
Beginning with the Leatherstocking in James Fenimore Cooper's Pioneers, moving through Owen Wister's Virginian and showing no signs of stopping with either Clint Eastwood or Brad Pitt's Jesse James, the cowboy has always been a man living on the margins of society or completely cast out of it, trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world in which his way of life is either threatened or already vanished. The hero-cowboy is ultimately caught up in events that signify both the age that is passing and the one that is to come. In the end he rides off into the sunset -- or dies illuminated by it.
Marshall's Indian heroes are no different. They, too, try to make sense of a world that is being imposed on them. They fight to keep the values they hold dear as alive as the elk that walk down off the mountains only to be brought down with two (zip! zip!) well-placed arrows. This idea of the disappearing Indian is not new, and Marshall wisely borrows the types (stern, stoic, far-seeing, worried) that the genre has to offer in order to tell the story of the West anew. What is interesting is that Cooper, Wister and Zane Grey first created the cowboy persona by imbuing him with the attributes usually ascribed to Indians and Indian cultures, namely, a combination of ability, fearlessness and manliness tinged with a bloom of romantic obsolescence: The days allotted to cowboys and Indians alike are numbered. Cowboys have always been "Indian."
Marshall also gives us a completely realized world. Readers who love to hear a harness creak or the whistle of an arrow or love to see snow snake across a drifted valley floor will revel in Marshall's West. The flora and fauna and the people who use them are magnificently drawn, not overly fancy, nothing that draws too much attention to itself, as in this description of the Big Horn Mountains: "Farther west, beyond the trail, hazy foothills sloped upward until a line of jagged ridges rose like shadowy giants -- the Shining Mountains. Overhead, the glaring orb of the sun was just past the midway point in the cloudless sky, beating down on a hot day in the Moon When Things Ripen. The land was silent....Even the breeze floated cautiously over the sagebrush and sparse grass along the Powder River Road."
Strangely, though, Hundred in the Hand falters in exactly the opposite manner from most Westerns: The Indian characters are fully realized and speak in refreshingly unstilted prose, whereas the white characters sound weird, as though animated by old watch parts and rubber bands. Take this exchange between the white trader Hornsby and the ill-fated Colonel Fetterman:
" 'Captain, as soon as the weather breaks, I am heading south to Fort Laramie to then find the fastest way home. So if you are bound to have this talk, let us make it soon.'
"Fetterman smiled and extended his hand. 'Then let us make it tomorrow evening. We can meet in the officers' quarters. I have a bottle of cherished Irish whisky for the occasion.' "
Anyone who uses the phrase "cherished Irish whisky" deserves what's coming to him. But then again, Westerns have always traded in the ideal, rather than the real. In Marshall's story, the white soldiers are really awful and deserve to die. The brave warriors are very brave and deserve to live. Feelings -- Red Cloud's concern for his wife, Hornsby's jealousy upon seeing a white woman married to an Indian -- are fully realized only to the extent that characters in Westerns can afford them. Marshall has tapped into an old form and infused it with a slightly different brand of knowledge to produce a swift, compelling read. Simply put, if you like Westerns, you'll love this one.
David Treuer's most recent novel, The Translation of Dr Apelles, will be available in paperback in February.
Books mentioned in this post