Cherokee America by Margaret Verble (Historical Novel, 2019).
Maud’s Line, Margaret Verble’s debut novel, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I haven’t read that one, but I gather it was, like Cherokee America, a historical novel inspired in part by the novelist’s family history. As Verble explains in a 3-page Author’s Note after the book, Cherokee America‘s plot is entirely fictional, but many characters here are loosely based on real people from her background.
Cherokee America takes place about in a corner of the Cherokee Nation in what today is part of Oklahoma about a decade after the US Civil War. That larger conflict also split the Native peoples of ‘Indian Territory’ and in particular the Cherokee people were divided, with fighters on both sides and much suffering by all concerned.
Now, in the mid-1870s, the Cherokee Nation clings to an uncertain semi-independent subject to white incursions. Simmering race and culture clashes are just beneath the surface with as a confusing mix of ‘full blooded’ Natives, those of mixed white-Indian heritage, black former slaves, blacks who never were slaves and whites struggle to make their livings.
The title character, nicknamed Check, is a strong Cherokee woman of mixed ancestry. She’s happily married to a white man, Andrew Singer. But Andrew is suffering a soon-to-be fatal illness. They have several children, ranging from young adults down to a babe in arms. Together they run a large, successful farm (raising mostly potatoes) and a ferry boat that crosses one of the nearby rivers. Due to their economic success and important family ties, they are among the most prominent citizens of the Nation.
While coping with the grief from Andrew’s decline and eventual death, check and the others must deal with a series of troubling, often tragic and sometimes mysterious events. Their most trusted hired hand is a free black man married to the family’s equally beloved cook, until a younger girl comes on scene with the sickly infant he’s fathered. The Singer’s oldest son is struggling to negotiate a frustrating courtship. The second oldest gets himself shot and wounded in sexually humiliating fashion at the local whorehouse. A couple of wandering orphaned teens arrive in search of relatives they’ve never met. An Indian girl disappears and is rescued by a man who is in turn mysteriously murdered the next day. Numerous people compete with incraesing desperation to find a fabled cache of gold supposedly hidden somewhere in the area during the war.
And all the while, across the border in western Arkansas, the newly appointed Judge Parker (soon to make himself famous as “The Hanging Judge”) watches for any excuse to involve the US government and end the legal Cherokee government’s tenuous sovereignty.
There’s a lot of dry wit, family lore, authentic history, vibrant emotion and even some tasteful eroticism here as well. A good and worthy book, indeed.