What Am I Reading? Witches of Cahokia…
Witches of Cahokia (ISBN 978-0-9794737-2-2, Redoubt Books, 2009) by Raymond Scott Edge is a direct sequel to his Flight of the Piasa, although it can be read without having first read the prior book.
You can read my review of Flight of the Piasa here: https://michaelgcurry.com/2014/07/03/what-am-i-reading-flight-of-the-piasa-by-raymond-edge/
As with Flight … it tells two stories – Snow Pine and her descendants living amongst what will become the Cahokian Mound people of the Mississippi River north of what is now St. Louis; and archaeology professor Daniel French, his (now) wife Lauren and his mentor, Dr Fred Eldridge.
Unlike Flight, the story of the ancient cast is told as a narrative – not as an epistolary last will and testament. In Flight the majority of the book favors the ancient cast’s story. Witches is more balanced between the two stories – leaning more heavily on the ancient cast especially in the first half of the book and then on the modern cast in the last half of the book – particularly as one plot winds down and the other picks up.
The story of Snow Pine and her descendants begin exactly (is it too much of a pun to say “literally”?) where Flight leaves off – with the death of her husband Sun Kai in the cave complex near present-day Alton.
We learn Snow Pine’s side of the story during Sun’s search for her in Flight: how she was taken captive and sold to the Trading People, married Beaver Lodge, befriended his head wife Fawn Heart, and otherwise became part of the village due to her amazing healing techniques. She had a child with Beaver Lodge and called her Ming.
She is eventually ostracized because she helped heal members of the Osage tribes who were at war with the Trading People. She went to live in the valleys and caves near Sun Kai’s grave and the Piasa painting on the cliffs of the Mississippi River. She is considered a witch as her legend grows and is left alone by all sides of the conflict.
She continues to heal anyone who asks – friend or foe. This includes a young Osage warrior, Young Wolf, who falls in love with Ming (this takes place over several years). His mother, Buffalo Woman, joins Snow Pine and they and other Trading People and Osage women form a society called the Daughters of White Buffalo Calf Woman.
They heal; they watch the migration of tribes and buffalo and report it to Snow Pine. She advises them to tell their hunters where the buffalo are migrating. In exchange, the Daughters look for any strangers during their travels that look like her. She is convinced her people will come for her and Sun – just as Sun predicted on his deathbed. Eventually all this information is written on joined pieces of buffalo hide.
The Daughters meet every year at the winter solstice; every year they repaint the Piasa bird.
But time ends all things – Snow Pine passes her leadership of the Daughters to Ming, who passes it to her daughter Cassie (named after Snow Pine’s ancient ancestor Cassandra). Cassie then gives the leadership role to Fawn Heart’s great-granddaughter Raven.
Raven has a vision to go south to gather a crop of golden kernels, later called mahiz, that will sustain her people. She, her brother Wildcat and others head to (I assume) Mexico to gather maize. On the way they meet people both friendly and hostile. They rescue two children, a girl Mala and a boy He Looks Up, who were about to be sacrificed to the southern tribes’ god. Mala and He Looks Up are raised by the Trading People. He Looks Up brings his religion with him and it eventually takes over the Trading People’s lifestyle, changing it forever.
This part of the story is one of the more shocking and unexpected plot twists and I will say no more for fear of spoiling a splendid turn in the tale.
Note all this would still be in the “BCs” – Emperor Chin’in, a contemporary of Snow Pine and the reason she ended up with the Trading People, died in 210 BC; so three or four generations after that would still put us before the birth of Christ.
A few chapters later, after we visit the storyline of the modern cast, we meet Forest Water and her daughter Timid Girl. A strange visitor comes to the town. Could these be the strangers foretold by Snow Pine? Forest Water invites the stranger to her valley home. He rapes her. He is a Viking named Thornfield Skullsplitter. As she gets her revenge Forest Water is grateful that he is not of Snow Pine’s people.
Some chapters later we meet Zhu Wen. He sails the world under the orders of Zheng He, an admiral during the Ming dynasty who sailed to east Africa and, some argue, landed on American shores. In Witches, Zhu Wen sails up the Mississippi River until he gets to the deserted mound city of Cahokia.
Zheng He died in 1433, around the time of the end of the Cahokian Mound culture – the author did an excellent melding these facts together.
He sees the Piasa and is shocked to spot a dragon from his own culture painted on a cliff face on the other side of the world. The White Buffalo Calf Woman named She Who Remembers spots his ship and knows Snow Pine’s people have finally returned as prophesied. She gives Zheng He Sun Kai’s journal and the buffalo hide of her coven, with fourteen hundred years of information. This finally answers a thread left from Flight – what happened to Sun’s journal and how did it get back to China?
“Meanwhile” Daniel French’s story picks up ten years after the end of Flight – Daniel and Lauren are now married and have children. Both Daniel and Lauren are professors of archeology at SIU-Edwardsville, supervised by their former professor Fred Eldridge.
Road construction unveils a pair of female skeletons from ancient times. Construction halts until the skeletons are examined. Eldridge sends Mr. & Mrs. French along with assistants Josh Green & Jenn Rauch. Unfortunately these two lovers have just joined the Creative Artifacts Society – an anarchic group of Luddites who bury false evidence at such construction and archeology sites to halt the destructive advance of society.
The author makes no bones about the CSA’s villainy; their leader is a charmless terrorist who disappears quickly. I wonder if he will appear in the third book. Josh and Jenn plant an anachronistic buffalo hide amongst the finding at the construction site and the Frenchs and their friend, Jared Davidson, investigate. When they get too close, Josh and Jenn frame Jared for an attempted rape as their distraction. Eldridge must deal with the accusation and not only its affect on Davidson but on the department. Josh makes things more difficult by staging protests demanding Davidson’s removal from the university.
More time is spent with Eldridge in this book – we meet his wife and learn a bit of his background – and we see more of him than the cynical curmudgeon from Flight. He still lectures and suffers no fools, but especially at the end, we see his love for his trade. You can hear the giddiness in his voice during his phone call to Daniel at the end of the book. He goes to China at their invitation to examine a strange Buffalo hide the government has been keeping for quite some time…
This presumably sets of the third book, but without doing it as a cliff-hanger. If the story ended here, the reader would be satisfied.
END OF SPOILERS
There is foreshadowing of the next book, but it does not end in a cliffhanger. It ends the way stories end in life – some threads end (the CSA’s framing of Dr. Davidson, but not without consequences to Davidson, Josh or Jenn) and other threads begin (the Illini Confederation’s restraining order to stop any further investigation of the bodies found). I assume all these threads will be picked up and explored in the third book.
Time was handled well – eventually, although as a reader it was frustrating at times. The readers know these women lived before the time of Christ as does their second and third generations, yet it seems as if the archeologists consider them part of the Cahokian Mount culture from a thousand years later. Only late in the book is something said about the time differences between the multiple generations of bodies found. A quick line earlier in the story (“…these could be from a thousand years earlier or more…”) would have helped that nagging criticism.
Daniel and Lauren are just as likable as in Flight. They have aged and grown more confident in themselves and their skills as is expected. The growth in character of Eldridge is the most pleasant of all – we grow to respect his intelligence and authority rather than the somewhat-two-dimensional foil of Flight whose job seemed to be to consistently poo-poo anything Daniel had to say. Note that Eldridge’s “two dimensionality” wasn’t as apparent while reading that first book. The impression the character made in Flight wasn’t necessarily the correct one. Then again, he wasn’t as central to that story as he is to Witches.
New characters: Jared Davidson is a welcome addition and is written as a good and loyal friend. Josh is written as the smart-ass infallible know-it-all most college students are at that time in their lives (Daniel at that time in Flight was filled with doubt and less of a smart-ass, but he’s an exception). Jenn is a tool.
I enjoyed Flight very much. I enjoyed Witches even more. It is a better book. The modern-day characters are given more to do than just be our guide to the story from the ancient past – they are given their own drama to allow their good and bad personalities a chance to be shown and to grow. Plus the epistolary style of the first book lends to a lack of immersion in the story, I think. Reading a “letter” – even an excellent one like Flight, in which the “letter” is a long narrative – is still reading a letter. That willing suspension of disbelief is harder to do than with a story set presently. You know the letter-writer will survive at least long enough to write the letter! In a current narrative, not so much. In fact, some of the deaths – whether naturally or at the hand of man (or woman or child) is sudden and shocking. I know we’re talking about fictional people who lived two thousand years ago, of course they are dead by now (and of course they never existed to die in the first place), but for the reader to be saddened even a little at their deaths – or be shocked when they are killed – shows good writing. We care what happens to them. The fact that the modern cast may have found their remains and their writing gives the reader a sense of closure.
One last book in the trilogy is left. I’ll start it soon and hope to finish it before my Christmas “break” from reading (I always stop and read holiday fare between Thanksgiving and New Years – starting with A Christmas Carol, L Frank Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters and whatever else strikes my fancy.
I’ll definitely blog about the third book when finished.
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