Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Confederate War Bonnet

I wrote this for the Midwest Book Review. Since MBR permits re-use, I am posting it here as well.

The Confederate War Bonnet:
A Novel of the Civil War in Indian Territory

By Jack Shakely
264 pp. iUniverse $17.95

Civil War buffs and historical fiction fans will enjoy this novel with its authentic and unusual take on the conflict. Based on historical incidents and real people, first-time author Jack Shakely brings us a view of the war from the point of view of Jack Gaston, a member of the Creek Nation who serves the Confederate cause. Gaston, one of two college-educated Creeks, leaves his studies at Harvard University in 1863 to serve his people, who have allied themselves with the South. For the many tribes that appear in this story—including Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek—the main issue is not slavery or keeping the Union together—it’s survival. They must do what they can to preserve their own interests in the face of ever-increasing white encroachment.

Gaston’s odyssey takes him through many of the Civil War’s major conflicts. In one of his imaginative contributions, he writes a news column providing breathless accounts of one “Captain War Bonnet,” who strikes terror into Yankee forces. As intended, Yankee forces read the detailed accounts that included his whereabouts, which proves to be a great waste of their time and resources.

Himself of Creek ancestry, Shakely presents a good story with a decent plot and sympathetic characters. His research helps readers understand some of the differences and conflicts among the various Indian cultures, and certainly between Indians and whites. The Confederate War Bonnet seems at times like a mix between a novel and a non-fiction history, because of Shakely’s shifting point of view and the often reportorial style. It’s obviously Jack Gaston’s story, yet we occasionally hear from another narrator (the author) about what happens many decades later, for example:

...Maxey wrote to all the soldiers, “Your action has been glorious. You have made yourself a name in history.”

This of course was true. To borrow a phrase from Franklin Roosevelt it was a name made in the history of infamy.

And on rare occasions, the author editorializes:

Nothing in American musical history is quite so cringingly, wincingly embarrassing as the mistrel show. But this phenomenon of white men in blackface was a theater tradition for more than a hundred years in this country, lasting well into the twentieth century. The vicious racist stereotyping...

Yes indeed, but passages like this can make the reader wonder whose story this is. Shakely also refers to “this Chautauqua,” in the sense of the adult education movement, although the first such event didn’t occur until almost a decade after the Civil War.

These are not major flaws; I take them as minor liberties that don’t hurt the underlying story. Shakely states that most of the characters were real people, and the events historically accurate. The Confederate War Bonnet is a readable and well-told tale that Shakely fills with color, sensitivity, humor, and plenty of research..

Apparently, the war bonnet really existed, with its Confederate stars and bars woven in. Too bad the author didn’t have a photo of the headdress—it would have made a fine cover for a thoughtful book.

Note: Here is the Amazon link.

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