Fiction and history exist in a strange kinship: imagination married to fact. And in a union like the historical novel there's likely to be trouble as history and story work to their own purposes.
Not that "this is the way it was . . ." is any more credible than "This is the way it might have been. . . ." The trouble comes in the proportion, in the mix.
A biased indictment against the historical novel itself is not the point to make here. But Dee Brown's latest history/story about the native American heritage, "Creek Mary's Blood," is a half-breed kind of book that for many readers could well be either less novel or more, less history or more, one thing or the other. In a word, "Creek Mary's Blood," as novel, as history, and as historical novel shows signs of weakness.
Admirably enough, what author Brown attempts here, in step with his earlier popular history, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," is a rendering of the American experience from an Indian perspective. In this instance, we follow the family history of several generations of the lineage of "Amayi," Creek Mary, a full-blood Muskogee or Creek Indian.
Creek Mary's story runs from the days of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson through those of Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln, up to the pre-presidential times and inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt. The tracing of Creek Mary's family tree is ambitiously -- and awkwardly -- presented through the narration of "Dane," one of Mary's Cherokee grandsons. The more commonly known happenings of the western movement are played down, and stressed instead are the tragic consequences of misinformed white political policies of land usurpation, Indian removal, and, in effect, genocide.
An old warrior retired to the 1905 remoteness of Dundee, Mont. (soon to be found and ravaged by coal-hungry geologists and miners), Dane tells all. But it is the network of events and people, and the numerous pauses and starts in Dane's life story which cause much of the history vs. fiction problems in the book.
In two short days Dane recounts more than is humanly possibly to know about the "Trail of Tears" of the Cherokee -- and all this to a recently cynical but now suddenly believing and almost worshipful journalist who has traveled West to find what is left of Mary's family. Dane tells about the wanderings, the forced and voluntary migrations of the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Kiowa, the Comanches, and the Sioux. Also included are Tecumseh, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and countless other Indian chiefs, plus traders, soldiers, preachers, and presidents -- from South, West, and North.
The intent is epic, larger than life, a national panorama. But it's all too much for the narrative voice of one old Indian storyteller -- even if he is Creek Mary's blood.
What starts out as epic turns ironically into stereotype and cliche, of the real and the imaginary characters, and of the isues. Theodore Roosevelt couldn't have been the clown he's made out to be here; Creek Mary is unbelievably and anachronistically too androgynous, too assertive, too au courant,m too much the total woman/man; the energy wastes of the 1980s seem to heavily imposed on turn-of-the-century Montana -- and so it goes.
Is what we read in "Creek Mary's Blood" the way it was or the way it might have been? A little bit of both perhaps -- and probably a lot of niether.
Readers owe Dee Brown something for attempting to take us back to then, back to there. But he must be faulted for not making it convincingly live.