27 September 2009

Bone Rattler, by Eliot Pattison

A Mystery of Colonial America. Counterpoint. 2008. 460 pages. ISBN-10: 1593761856 ISBN-13: 978-1593761851

When we heard that the author of the many Inspector Shan mysteries had written a new novel set in the American Colonies in 1758, we were eager to find out what that would be like, and were not disappointed.

Duncan McCallum is a prisoner aboard a convict ship bound for the New World. He is a Scot, unfriendly to the British king, whose life and family have been destroyed for his treason to the Empire. During the voyage, there are some strange and actually surreal events that set the stage for what transpires when he lands in New York, indentured to Lord Ramsey as a teacher for his children.

Ramsey's children include an elder daughter named Sarah, who seems afflicted with some great sadness from a past about which no one will speak. As events unfold in the New York wilderness, her story and character are revealed to be quite fascinating.

Native American lore and culture play an important role in the plot of this complex mystery. As we move deeper into the fabric of the story, the Iroquois characters increase in number, depth, and function. It is hard to read this without thinking of Pattison's obvious love and respect for the ancient culture of Tibet reflected in the Inspector Shan series. The parallels between China's invasion and destruction of Tibet and that of the British and French invasion of America and destruction of its native culture and people are unavoidable.

Pattison explores the spirituality of the natives of America in the face of the European invasion, and lays upon that the tapestry of England's exploitation and domination of Scotland and its culture and people. Scots allied with Indians against the English oppressors in this story make the point clear if not obvious. The history of our world is one of domination, disrespect for indigenous culture, and the trampling of religion and tradition in the name of whatever power has the upper hand.

With all this history and moralization included in the text, one might think this would be a dull read, but Pattison's masterful writing and plot delivery keeps us involved in this excellent mystery and more or less painlessly feeds us a great deal of factual information about the Colonial period and the deeds of those who founded what became the United States of America.

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