Margaret Verble’s sprawling family saga, Cherokee America, explores the lives of the Singer and Cordery families who live, thrive, suffer and love in the post-Trail of Tears, Post Civil War landscape of mid 1870s Cherokee Nation West.
Cherokee America Singer, known as Check, is the mother of five sons, a successful rancher, and colloquially called Aunt by many in the community (though she hates the appellation, as it makes her feel old). When her hired man Puny informs her that he has a sickly illegitimate child on a shanty claim, Check takes the child in even though her husband is dying, and Puny’s wife, the fiery Ezell, will be furious upon learning of the child’s existence and her husband’s betrayal. Check strikes a bargain with her neighbor Sanders to take care of the baby, and he and his two wives (Both nicknamed Nanny and called Nancy) take the little girl into their family, but she dies within hours. When word reaches the Singer claim of the baby’s loss, Puny takes off to find where Check stashed the baby and to avoid his wife’s wrath, taking with him Check’s best gun and bay horse. Ultimately, Ezell is forced to watch over Lizzie, the girl Puny impregnated – which forces an uneasy relationship between the two women. Soon Sanders and Nanny disappear as well, and while Check tries to hold the farm together, the question of Puny’s whereabouts, and whether he will ever come back hovers over the family – as does the presence of a cache of silver that’s been buried out on the plains. Check and her two eldest sons embark on a quest to protect Puny and find Sanders – a mission that has untimely consequences for everyone.
Cherokee America reminded me of several different uncompromising, hardscrabble late-period cinematic westerns as I read it. Aside from the way it portrays some of its black characters, the novel does a decent job capturing the time period and the harsh, unforgiving cost of farming for its indigenous, black and even white characters. It’s the kind of place where puppies are drowned because their owners can’t afford to feed them and women nearly bleed to death on their feet from childbirth – not easy and not fun – but Verble makes the reading of her characters’ life stories extremely compelling.
Check and Ezell and Lizzie are all good characters; smart women (in Lizzie’s case, smart but hiding her drive and determination to survive) fighting against impossible odds who must and will do anything to make it through another day. They’re different types of women, but each of them is merciless in her own way. The novel is about motherhood to a degree, and each woman’s experience – or lack thereof – with child rearing and bearing.
The story is generally split between five narrators, which is very ambitious and sometimes hard going for the reader. If you have a hard time telling your narrators apart then this isn’t the novel for you; and even if you don’t, you will refer and keep referring to the character listing in the front of the novel for at least the first half of it as more and more characters are thrown into play.
The portrayal of the intersection of Cherokee culture and white culture in the Cherokee Nation West – and how its mostly half-Cherokee characters observe what they term ‘full bloods’ and the black and white people who surround them – is truly fascinating. Culture, customs, and how they mutate and shape-shift due to social or cultural changes, provide an interesting backbone for the novel.
But that sprawling universe provides a sizeable drawback. One of Cherokee America’s problems is that it has so many characters; dozens are introduced within the first hundred pages and it’s impossible to ascertain who’s the most important to the plot until the rhythm of the story sets in, so it’s a lot of information for the reader to carry around and retain until that happens. Also, the book absolutely suffers from taking a while to give Puny and Lizzie voices that are non-stereotypical during the first quarter of the story. Thankfully, the chapters we do get of the two of them round out some pretty stereotypical early moments for both that they barely recover from. There are some racial slurs used to describe both black and indigenous people, and the narrative is firm on the point of this being wrong and evil.
Cherokee America is a powerful, sometimes heartbreaking journey through the American West. Sometimes it suffers from the scope of its ambition, but in the end it’s a beautiful and worthwhile story to dig into.
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