Monday, April 6, 2009

‘The Color of Lightning’ is a disappointing read

Despite the fact that it was widely known that Native American Indian tribes often wreaked havoc upon early settlers, in mid-1800’s Texas became a refuge for Americans escaping “the war between armies and also the undeclared war between neighbors.”

If Britt Johnson, a freed slave with a wife and children, had known in 1863 that migrating to north Texas would be worse than enduring the dark clutches of slavery he might have chosen the latter. In her ‘Author’s Notes’
Paulette Jiles (“The Color of Lightning”; Harper Collins; March 31, 2009; ISBN 978-0-06-169044-0; $25.99) notes that Johnson was a real person and is mentioned in several historical accounts of the settling of north Texas as well as several oral histories. Jiles’ latest book, “The Color of Lightningchronicles the life of Johnson and his explosive relationship with the American Indian tribes who populated the area.

Writes Jiles, “This book is a novel, but it’s backbone—Britt’s story—is true. Britt’s story returned to me repeatedly as I read through north Texas histories over the years, and I often wondered why no one had taken it up. And so I did.”

Armed with idealistic illusions and a desire to build his own freight business, Britt, his wife Mary and their three children join a wagon train of twenty migrating Americans—fifteen white and five black Americans. They settle in Elm Creek just west of Ft. Worth; a small colony subject to invasion by harsh environmental elements as well as warring Kiowa and Comanche Indians.
While the colony’s men were away purchasing supplies, Indians swooped down upon the settlement and killed women and children alike before capturing Britt’s wife Mary and two of their children. They brutally murdered one of the couple’s sons. The remainder of the saga focuses upon Britt’s solid determination to re-capture the remaining members of his family from the Indians. When Britt successfully gets Mary and his two children back from the Indians, he is faced with rehabilitating their new alien personas.

Other than conflicts with Indians, there is very little action in this book. Jiles has a brilliant opportunity to thoroughly develop her characters to give them a richness that comes from knowledge but she only offers sketchy descriptions at best. Throughout the entire book Jiles disparages and denigrates the American Indian. About the Native American man she writes, “The men in a state of war from the moment they were born as if there were no other proper human occupation.” The U.S. government rounded up our Native Americans and attempted to hold them in small reservations. They were here before us. Who would expect them to be anything other than angry? They were and are not intrinsically evil people.

Jiles use of incomplete sentences is so pervasive as to make the book annoying. The restrained use of such a technique can serve to make a novel more interesting and more readable. Not so in this case.

A successful poet, Jiles has written two other novels, “Stormy Weather” and “Enemy Women.”

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