What Am I Reading? The Last Witch of Cahokia
The Last Witch of Cahokia (ISBN 9780979473746 Redoubt Books/Bluebird Publishing 2013) by Raymond Scott Edge concludes the trilogy of books beginning with Flight of the Piasa (“Flight”) and continuing with Witches of Cahokia (“Witches”).
Here are the blogs for the previous two novels:
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/
And my review of Witches of Cahokia here:
It is possible to read all three books alone, but this last book is really based on the events of the second. The first book is complete. The second is also complete, although the story of Snow Pine may confuse you if you do not read the first. But Last Witch (as I will refer to the third book in this little review) is based on the events of the second book: it will be difficult to read alone – although it also tells a complete tale.
Four tales, in fact. It picks up in the days and weeks of Cahokia in all of its threads.
1) Daniel French and his conflict with the Illini Confederation of the twenty seven female pre-Columbian skeletons.
2) Josh Green’s “revenge” against the professors and university that wronged him,
3) Fred Eldridge’s trip to China to examine an ancient Native American buffalo hide, and
4) Shen Fu’s journal of meeting Wind Sage and their return to China in the early to mid-fifteenth century.
We meet for the third time the family and friends of Daniel French. He has two problems – the first problem was introduced in Witches – the Illini Confederation demands the immediate reburial of the twenty-seven female bodies found near Cahokia Mounds.
Daniel has meetings and discussions with the Illini Confederation and his Provost. This is a good and canny way of bringing in an Info Dump. “As you know, Bob, NAGPRA was passed in 1990 and it provides …” Subjects ranging from digs at Native American burial sites to the Mormon religion is discussed this way. The previous books had their info dumps as well, some awkward – discussing archaeological terms with fellow archaeologists – but the author whimsically gets around the awkwardness with an aside such as, “…ask a professor a simple question and you get a lecture.” A good way to get around a writer’s unavoidable conundrum.
Daniels’ other problems deals with a mysterious character knows only as Ghost Dancer. Well, the readers know he is Josh Green, but the characters do not. Josh dug up the remains of Elijah Parish Lovejoy.
As you know, Bob, Elijah Lovejoy was an abolitionist journalist who was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837, making him a martyr to the cause. See what I mean by unavoidable? His gravemarker is a nice historical site in Alton and many a speech and many a political announcements have been made there in the past nearly-two centuries. Josh sets up photo ops of the remains at various Native American massacre sites in the west and mid-west – as if he had stolen a garden gnome. He photographs the bones and mails the postcards to Daniel and the press.
This is the “revenge” of which I speak. We follow Josh across the country in his ghoulish protest. Eventually he meets and befriends a Lakota family – Margaret, her brothers Peter, James and John and their father Poker Joe. Margaret helps Josh dry out and help redeem him. He goes through the ceremony to marry Margaret (who is excellently written as a strong and independent woman), become a member of the Lakota people, returns the Lovejoy remains, and takes up the argument against archaeological study of Native American remains.
Throughout the book (and even on the back cover) was the mantra: “If I dug up your great-great-grandfather that would be sacrifice. If you dug up mine, that would be science, How can that be right?” the issue is discussed thoroughly through the book – particular at its end.
The premise of course, couldn’t be further from wrong. Our European ancestors are frequently dug up and examined:
Earlier this year ten skeletons from the Viking era were excavated in Flakstad, an island in the Norwegian Sea – some intact, some without heads – thought to be owners buried with slaves based on their diets revealed through isotope analysis.
Also, eight graves were excavated dating from the early twelfth century in Brandenburg, Germany after being initially dug up by badgers.
In 2008 a Templar Knight was found buried in an underground tomb near Rennes-le-Chateau in France. Did the Masons demand immediate reburial?
The body of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger was excavated at Hulton Abbey in Staffs, England – he is believed to be the lover of King Edward the First – hence his mutilated state.
Then there was the news of finding King Richard III’s body under a car parking lot in early 2013. Did the royal family demand his immediate reburial?
The point of Native Americans is that the European excavations are not put on display in museums and gift shops or held by private collectors. True – they bodies are or will be reinterred and given the respect due. Therein lay the difference, I think.
But it brings up a point that was nagging me while reading the debate: Josh/Joseph’s stand is no different than his anarchic beliefs with the CRA – now he has an adopted family of Native Americans and the public opinion of guilty white folks to back him up. He is trying to accomplish the goals of the CRA but now through the sheen of respectability and precedent. I didn’t buy it.
But the author is to be commended for causing that reaction out of this reader – not condemned. This isn’t a mistake or an error on his part. To make me react this way to a fictitious character in a fictitious setting is the goal of every good writer.
So what is the solution? The book provides one and, wisely, the solution is presented by Josh-Joseph. Thus expunging his earlier villainy in the eyes of the reader. Well, I’m with Daniel on this one; I still don’t trust him…
In China, Fred and Marge Eldridge befriend Ben Wang, his wife Ah Cy and their daughter. Fred (and we) learns of Chinese culture as he examines the buffalo hide telling the tale of the White Buffalo Calf Women from Witches. The Cult of Ku, the bringing and cultivating of corn and the Viking rape – all events we the readers are aware from the prior book – are reviewed and examined with skepticism by Eldridge. Again Eldridge is brought to life and is a three-dimensional character as opposed to the nay-saying curmudgeon of Flight. Fred helps Ben and Ah when Ah becomes pregnant with their second child – verbotten in China – and his solution is written well. “Human rights” is the topic of discussion in these parts of the novel. What happens when my “pursuit of happiness” conflicts with others? What if there is no creator? Or there is a conflict as to who the creator is? How can these truths be self-evident if they have NOT been endowed?
In a coincidence that only happens in novels, Fred is contacted by the same man who gave Daniel the transcript that made up the bulk of Flight – that told the tale of Sun and Snow Pine and their voyage to America and, eventually, to the cliffs of the Mississippi where the Piasa is painted. This time he has a manuscript telling the tale of the Last Witch of Cahokia as told by a scholar names Shen Fu who travels with Admiral Zhu Wen, whom we met near the end of Witches. The last witch, who was unnamed save she was called She-Who-Waits, is given the name Wind Sage and travels with them back to China with the buffalo hide and Sun Kai’s manuscript in tow.
It is tempting to parallel this part of the novel with Flight, but Shen Fu’s manuscript takes up only about 30+ pages of the book’s 244. It brings a nice conclusion to the witch’s line and it is fun reading Eldridge’s reaction to the manuscript. Comparing his skepticism with Daniel’s acceptance of Sun Kai’s manuscript in Flight is fun. Many times in Flight, Eldridge said to throw it out, it was fake, no one at the time wrote like that, etc. But here he was just as enthralled as Daniel with his manuscript – he asked about the historical events of the manuscript – even visited the village/city Shen Fu and Wind Sage lived. Stood on the Great Wall as they did and where they did. The writer did a good job showing the shoe on this particular foot.
END OF SPOILERS
Last Witch pours a lot of information and brings up moral questions absent from the first two books. Between the info dumps and the morality discussions and, literally, lectures we are provided with enough information to take sides on the issues and be firm in our convictions. But we also find ourselves cheering on the peacemakers and hope they can find enough common ground to provide a reasonable solution – and hope we can do so in real life too.
It is a novel of redemption and forgiveness and puts us in the middle of the debate between the search for knowledge versus respect for a culture’s beliefs.
The author avoids the usual traps in books such as these – bad allegories, awkward info dumps, etc. Such things make a book preachy rather than entertaining. Witch is not preachy and VERY entertaining. I cared what happened to the characters – I hated to put it down at the end of a chapter during bedtime!
The info dumps here are well done, although at times repetitive – the fact that the Cahokia Mound people have no known direct descendents and the Illini moved into the area centuries later is now etched in my brain.
But that is a minor complaint – I loved all three books and will return to them in years to come. All three are quick and enjoyable reads.
I hate to be petty, but there is one typo repeated from Flight in Witch … it’s “Shaggy” from “Scooby Doo” not “Scruffy” from “Scooby Do”. Although it‘s nit-picking, to a couch-potato boomer like me it might as well be in red type!
Please don’t let things like that stop your enjoyment of these books. It didn’t stop me.
Last Witch is still a Redoubt Book but published through Bluebird Publishing. My copies of the first two books were not so published. Thus the typeset and interiors of Last Witch is different from the first two. It certainly does not affect the readability of the story, but the difference is notable.
Check the author’s website for his blog entries regarding his trip to China here: http://www.redoubtbooks.com/Author_s_Notebook.html
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