When Margaret Verble’s second novel, Cherokee America, was published, I felt compelled to read it. I’d read her first book, Maud’s Line, for the same reason that called to me here—the pull of the personal, the sense of a shared background. In the case of that earlier book, of course, the name Maud was a particular draw as well, since that was also the name of the town in Oklahoma where I was born.
I’d been delighted by Maud’s Line (see my blog post of July 20, 2017), and I wasn’t alone, since it was a finalist for the Pulitzer. I’m happy to report I’m even more delighted by Cherokee America.
This compelling second novel is quite remarkable. Considering the title, you might expect a history of the Cherokee Nation, but that’s not it. Cherokee America is a woman’s name. Throughout the book, she’s called only Check.
The novel is a sprawling, character-rich depiction of a group of people—Cherokee full-bloods and half-bloods along with some blacks and even a few whites—living in the post-Civil War territory referred to throughout as the Cherokee Nation. It’s the 1870s. The state of Oklahoma does not yet exist, nor will it until 1907. (In my inherited family bible, where births, deaths and marriages are noted, both my father’s father and two of his older brothers are recorded as born in “I.T.,” meaning “Indian Territory.” My father, born in 1908, slipped under the wire.)
In Verble’s wonderfully detailed pages, several different but closely inter-related families—mostly farmers—eke out a living while the specter of a future takeover of their land by the federal government looms in the background. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the contours of the plot. But, in addition to the farms, there’s a bawdyhouse, there are shoot-outs, there are murders, there’s well-witching, a frantic search for a suspected stash of gold, plus one of the more gripping endings you’re likely to come across. All the while, Dennis Bushyhead (don’t ask), Treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, travels repeatedly back and forth to Tallaquah, its capitol.
The last part of the book, as I’ve already alluded to, involves a profound struggle, a kind of metaphorical rope-pulling contest. One or more persons commit a murder and—fearful that the federal government, centered in Arkansas, is only too eager to intrude into the Nation’s territory and prosecute the offender (on the grounds that the perpetrator may not be a Cherokee but a white man ), thereby gaining some leverage for a federal takeover—the families and their friends band together to create a posse, to seek out and deal with the perpetrators themselves, while being forced to lie to the two marshals sent by the judge (the famous “hanging judge,” Judge Isaac Parker), all in a quest to protect the integrity of the Nation. If this sounds abstract, it’s not. These amazing final pages read like a rootin’, tootin’ shoot-em-up Western, with lots of drama and surprises.
So, the major characters are the Singer family: Check, the mother, her husband, Andrew (who is dying), and their kids in order of birth: Connell, Hugh, Clifford, Otter and Paul. Check is the resourceful, resilient leader of a successful farm, with a dying husband to care for and a large family to love, raise, and instruct in both the toughness and resolve required for a difficult environment. Mostly it’s Check and the two oldest boys who are in the mix of the depicted events, but there’s plenty of interaction with neighbors, primarily the Corderys and the Bushyheads, and lots of other characters entering the mix. A hired hand named Puny, who is black, also plays a significant role.
To make things easier for the reader, there’s a Cast of Characters at the beginning. If your memory for names is as slippery as mine, you’ll consult it frequently.(But you did that when you read War and Peace, right?)
Side Note: those of you who read my 2015 novel, Problems of Translation, will remember that I couldn’t resist devoting a chapter to Sequoyah, justifiably lauded for inventing a written language for the Cherokees. Well, guess what? In this book the characters actually sometimes speak Cherokee, written in Sequoya’s syllabary but un-translated. What the characters are saying may puzzle you at first, even annoy you, until the very end. But when you finally realize what’s being said in that final stanza—which you will!—it will bring a smile to your face. Guaranteed.Share this post: