Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Anyone driving east on Interstate 40 and crossing from Tennessee into western North Carolina will cross over U.S. Route 19 running roughly northeast-by-southwest. Near the intersection of Route 19 and U. S. Route 441 is the Oconaluftee River Valley and the Qualla Boundary land trust.
The area has an interesting historical story dating to 1830 when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This law authorized Andrew Jackson to remove southern Indian tribes to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their ancestral homelands. The story is that a small group of Cherokee remained in those homelands with the provision that they renounce Cherokee citizenship and “assimilate.”
Today the Eastern Band of Cherokee is a federally recognized tribe numbering around 8000, according to the most recent census. And with casinos.
It’s a bit of background information to Sullivan’s novel, which takes place within the geographical Qualla Boundary. She mentions on the “Acknowledgements” page that she owns a “little mixed blood,” and listening to the “elders speak the language” gave her a “taste of how it used to be.” Sullivan is thus a story-teller with a purpose in mind: cultural preservation.
The situation has become precarious as those elders are dying; there’s thus a preservation effort at work. The language and the stories have been spoken but there’s little in written form. The initiative is cultural and an attempt to preserve Eastern Cherokee tribal identity and history.
Sullivan’s novel finds not only its subject matter within the above framework but very often also its phonological dialect, its syllabary.
I mention this because for an uninitiated reader, the consequence is to stumble over Cherokee words which are not only difficult to voice or pronounce, but also to formulate into meaning. The Cherokee word “Suye’ta,” for example, is used as follows: “Buck asked, ‘Why didn’t the Suye’ta come during the removal? Our people could have used some help on the Trail of Tears.'”
The historical reference is, of course, to the 1830 Indian Removal known as the Trail of Tears. The reference to the Suye’ta is less obvious.
It’s a masculine name from the Cherokee language which means, if I have it right, “a chosen one,” a name that would have been borne by a prominent chief. Buck wonders why the chosen one, that prominent chief, didn’t appear to help the people. Other words appear with frequency and all are referential to Cherokee myths.
Having mentioned that, I’d say a reader of Sullivan’s novel would be wise to have at hand a copy of James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. The book has about 270 pages on myths and a fine glossary. The word “kanegwa’ti,” it reveals, means “water-moccasin snake” but, mythically, is also a medicine man who controls the power of an evil spirit.
So, there’s the transmission of culture in this novel, myths and sacred formulas, and language, awkward, however, without exposition. The time is present day, a Sunday evening; chapters that follow are designated Saturday Night, Monday Morning and so on, each in vignette-like form. The whole of the novel takes place over four days with alternating story lines. There are four Cherokee boys, their grandfathers, and one “white” outsider.
The plot, or story-line, concerns the continuation of various Cherokee legends and beliefs to be transmitted from the grandfathers to the Cherokee boys. The Cherokee community has been kept marginally intact for roughly 300 years back to the time of “Kanegwa’ti,” a great conjuror who established the Snake Dancers.
“Kanegwa’ti,” however, is also called “Suye’ta”; according to the myth he managed four artifacts that could be used to control the “Uktena,” a snake-like creature who could enter into and control human beings. “Uketena” feeds on the blood of warriors and is represented by a crystal orb the size of a basketball. The orb is called “Ulunsu’ti”; the power is destructive enough to begin the apocalypse.
At issue, then, in the larger context of the Cherokee legend, are the contemporary characters who are “potentials” for the new “Suye’ta.” The characters are mirror-like foils who differ in their desires to become the next conjuror.
The book is richly imagined but with a complexity of more than twenty named characters. Combining that complexity with the language, myths, and attempt on the part of the Cherokee characters to maintain the traditions of their past against contemporary tourism and marketing more often than not gives the novel a juggernaut of parts, themes, and opinions that are difficult to follow.
The reader struggles, therefore, not only with the “plot” but the narrative style. The omniscience is more often than not metronomically mundane, characterized by a subject-verb-predicate sentence structure:
“Buck’s back seemed to have loosened up….”
“John hustled to keep up.”
“Eli tagged behind.”
“Amy came running….”
“John took the opportunity….”
Such a sampling reveals a sodden sort of heartbeat that suggests the narrator lacks a much more genuine connection to the story, preventing the legends from coming much more truly to life. There’s the promise of a vivid tale of mystery and peril, even the death of the soul, but the “congestion” prevents the reader from being drawn deeper into what could have been a much more compelling, if not bone-chilling, story.