Duncan McCallum, one of two major characters in Eliot Pattison’s pre-American Revolutionary War novel, Eye of the Raven, is a Scotsman whose Highland clan was decimated by English troops. His companion, a Nipmuc Native American Shaman named Conawago, is facing a similar fate. Like Duncan’s clan, Conawago’s tribal cohorts are losing their people before an onslaught of soldiers and settlers. Until I read this book, I hadn’t considered this eighteenth-century comparison, the obvious similarities between how the Highland Scots were treated by the British and the ways the American tribes were being displaced. Pattison writes more about the analogy in an Author’s Note at the end of his novel. There, I learned even more about the ways Scotsmen supported the American Indians. Although Duncan and Conawago are imagined characters, their roles apparently echo the deeds of real-life Scottish and Native heroes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America.
Eye of the Raven takes place west of Penn’s Pennsylvania, where the land is being contested by a variety of men who want control of the resources. Multiple tribes are being pushed aside, while Virginians and Pennsylvanians seek pretend treaties and vie with each other in dishonest ways. Duncan and Conawago are caught up in the skirmishes, in the legalities, in the inevitable and ongoing pressures. In some ways the two men act as go-betweens, moving from tribal conversations around council campfires to military garrisons to inhumane prisons to Philadelphia drawing rooms to courts of law. Because Conawago was educated by the Jesuits and has read and travelled widely, he, like Duncan, is equally at home in every setting. Occasional setbacks occur, but essentially both men are effective negotiators.
The novel is subtitled “A Mystery of Colonial America,” so there is mysterious as well as political intrigue. A series of killings is taking place along Forbes Road, a.k.a. the Warriors Path, the most direct route to and from the Pennsylvania wilderness. Whether the murderer(s) are Iroquois, Hurons, Delaware, Virginians, the French, the British, or simply avaricious businessmen is the key question of the book. Accompanying the action is another puzzle, too. Strange runes are carved on one tree near each corpse. Decoding the hieroglyphs should reveal the killer(s), or so the reader supposes. Trickery overlays intrigue, as Duncan and Conawago work together not only to solve both mysteries but to save others wrongly accused.
Any reader who enjoys the novels of James Fenimore Cooper will like the stories of Eliot Pattison. There’s a strong similarity in both plotting and tone—think Natty Bumppo and The Last of the Mohicans. Eye of the Raven reads more like a modern tale, however, in that the Native characters are more believable and their plights are drawn with more understanding. And unlike Cooper’s novels, this book is not a romance. Rather, Pattison’s Eye of the Raven is a thorough and thoughtful examination of what was happening when American settlers began to explore to the west and when French and British troops were wrestling for further control. It also sympathetically assesses the plights of the Natives caught in between so many relentless forces. -A.R.
Eye of the Raven and Bone Rattler (A Mystery of Colonial America series) are available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle. Other Pattison titles (the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series): Bone Mountain, Prayer of the Dragon, The Skull Mantra, Water Touching Stone, The Lord of Death are available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle. Also in the same series: Ashes of the Earth and Mandarin Gate (Nov.27th 2012) are available in hardcover and Kindle.