Monday, October 17, 2011

Mike Blakely's "Come Sundown" is a symphony of words

This review was originally published March 29, 2007 in the Boerne Star

Mike Blakely’s latest historical novel, Come Sundown (Forge, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-86705-0, November 27, 2007), a literary saga chronicling the clash of cultures between native Americans and the white man and the conflict of values between the American north and south is as relevant in today’s world as it was during the Civil War. Blakely’s lead character, French fugitive, whiskey trader and adopted Comanche, HonorĂ© Greenwood, relates the story of the American settlers’ confiscation of Indian land in the midst of fighting over slavery.

Says Greenwood, “I felt as if the fate of the entire world rested on my shoulders. In reality, looking back, I was nothing more than a pawn in a trifling struggle that would scarcely warrant a paragraph in the book of world history. But it was my paragraph to write, and I was prepared to fill my ink well with blood.”

Hence, with ensanguined pen, Greenwood, called Plenty Man by the Indians, recounts the tale of his involvement with the Indians during the American Civil War.

Long time friend and confidante of Kit Carson, Greenwood finds himself embroiled in a complicated test of loyalties between his compadre and his adopted band of Comanches. Summoned by Carson to join the New Mexico Volunteers of the Union Army as a scout, Greenwood leaves behind his beloved Cheyenne bride, Westerly, and joins Kit in Albuquerque. There, in New Mexico, he enlists in the Union army only to find that his old nemesis, Luther Sheffield, is also a member of his unit. Violent clashes and heavy combat at Valverde Ford and Glorieta Pass with the Texas Confederates, renegade Indian attacks, and the constant necessity of having to watch out for Sheffield’s attempts on his life all take a toll on Greenwood. Fearing that he will soon be pitted in battle against his adopted Comanches, Greenwood resigns his post as Kit Carson’s scout and returns to his tribe.

“Trouble raged in the West, where Colonel Kit Carson’s forces had invaded the very heart of Navaho country, striking where no soldiers had ever ridden before. I knew the hoops of time would roll and whir and come crashing to earth again, and I feared they would in time come violently trundling down the Canadian River Valley to my very home,” recounts a worried Greenwood. And in time, that was exactly what occurred.

“I was in the big, bloody middle of it. It happened sixty-three years ago. . . They called it the Battle of Adobe Walls. It happened on November 25, 1864,” recalls Greenwood. “Telling this grieves me to this day. . . But you should know what I have suffered, so that you may appreciate the strength of the human spirit, and the will of man to rise above the heaviest of sorrows.”

Come Sundown is one of those rare books that you can’t put down, one that stays with you long after you’ve placed it back on the shelf. Blakely, also a singer-songwriter, skillfully crafts an unforgettable story of a war within a war—the Civil War and the Indian Wars spawned from enmities between the north and south—and does so with an approach skillfully orchestrated to have the reader feel that he/she is a character in the novel.

Blakely’s use of language is fluid, a poetic prose, and his dialogue is immaculate. His characters are endearing, believable, and enduring: Chief Shaved Head; Kills Something; seer and medicine man, Burnt Belly; Blue; Plenty Man’s wife, soul mate and companion, Westerly; Kit Carson, and, yes, even Greenwood’s nemesis Luther Sheffield.

Come Sundown is symphony for all the senses; a painting whose brush strokes have been laid on the canvas of a tale as strong and sure as those rendered by Charles M. Russell and with the bravado of a violin and bow in a baroque concerto delivered by Vivaldi himself.

Blakely is a Spur Award winner for his novel The Summer of Pearls.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Brad Meltzer probes George Washington's "Culper Ring" in "The Inner Circle"

Beecher White loves his job as a researcher at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. “As they told me when I first started as an archivist three years ago,” says Beecher, “the Archives is our nation’s attic. A ten-billion-document scrapbook with nearly every vital file, record, and report that the government produces. No question, that means this is a building full of secrets. Some big, some small. But every day, I get to unearth another one.”

In Brad Meltzer’s new political thriller, The Inner Circle, a 26 year-old secret threatens to derail a presidency wrought with lies and deceptions and pits the survival of the president against the preservation of his office.

When Beecher’s old flame, Clementine Kaye, asks him to help her search for the identity of her deceased father, Beecher tries to impress her by sneaking into a SCIF—Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility—used by the President of the United States, Orson Wallace, for viewing top secret documents. Clementine inadvertently knocks over the President’s chair and discovers a tattered and mostly gutted old “Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary” hidden in its bottom. On close inspection Beecher finds an inscription on the book’s inside front cover: Existus Acta Probat. The outcome justifies the deed. Beecher instantly recognizes the motto as an aphorism used by George Washington on his bookplates and concludes that the original owner of the book was, in all probability, our first president. Because the book was concealed, Beecher also presumes that it is serving a clandestine purpose. Beecher’s security guard friend, Orlando, instantly grasps the implication of the discovery and yanks the security system’s videotape so that no one will discover that they were there. Beecher stashes the dictionary under his blue lab coat and pulls Clementine from the room. Soon after, Orlando is found dead under suspicious circumstances.

Beecher shares the old dictionary with his mentor and fellow archivist Aristotle “Tot” Westman and they discover that the relic was used by Washington in 1775 to communicate with his Culper Ring, a small band of loyalists who spied on the British during the Revolutionary War.

“The Culper Ring weren’t soldiers. They were normal people—a group no one could possibly know—even Washington didn’t know their names. That way they could never be infiltrated—no one, not even the commander-in-chief, knew who was in it.”

When Tot checks the archive’s records he finds that that the old dictionary has been checked out by someone named Dustin Gyrich 14 times in 14 weeks, each time coinciding with a Presidential visit to the SCIF. Further research shows that Gyrich has been checking out books in the National Archives for over a hundred and fifty years.

In The Inner Circle the Culper Ring didn’t disband after the Colonies beat the British. This secret organization is still going strong and Beecher’s discovery of the 200 year-old dictionary triggers a chain of events that brings to light the permanency of the spy ring and tests the very cannons upon which our country was founded. Beecher could not foresee that he and Clementine had stumbled upon a presidential secret so important it could place their lives in jeopardy.

From the first page The Inner Circle is a high energy adventure that draws upon interesting and little-known historical facts, taking the possibilities of the future and the certainties of the present and intertwining them with the secrets of the past. As with all of this author’s thrillers, the plot and sub-plots twist and turn as the story unfolds, making it impossible for the reader to guess the outcome. Meltzer resurrects his evil character Nico from The Book of Fate as Clementine’s father and cleverly uses him as an omniscient narrator to decipher and reveal the old dictionary’s hidden missives.

As a thriller, The Inner Circle is an absorbing read. The author’s view of history adds a fascinating dimension to the story. One of Beecher’s co-workers illustrates Meltzer’s take on the history-making process. “. . . history isn’t just something that’s written. It’s a selection process. It chooses moments, and events, and yes, people—and it hands them a situation they should never be able to overcome. It happens to millions of us every single day. But the only ones we read about are the ones who face that situation, and fight that situation, and find out who they really are.”

The Inner Circle is a very well crafted story with authentic characters and a clever plot. This is a thriller that probes the dark side of political omnipotence and leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling that perhaps it is all too real.