The Smoke (Tales From a Revolution: New York)
by Lars D. H. Hedbor
One of the things I like best about Lars D.H. Hedbor’s novels is the rotating perspectives they take on: Revolutionary stories, which I have loved hearing since childhood from my father, told from points of view history generally skips over. In The Prize Caleb, a young boy growing up in Vermont, witnesses the birth of a new nation and he plays a significant role in the struggle his region encounters. Farther south in New Jersey, Quaker settlers in The Light have some hard choices to make as their pacifist ways run afoul of the king’s mounting pressure against the colonies. The author brings his tales at various times through victory and defeat, and his characters utilize their unique perspectives, cultural understandings and individual abilities the navigate their particular wartime settings, wherever they may be in the colonies.
In The Smoke Hedbor brings us to New York, where love, loss, struggle and occasional victory also play their roles, introducing readers to the indigenous Tuscarora, members of the larger Iroquois Confederation. Caught between their tribal loyalties and war between the Colonial and British armies, various bands and tribes ally themselves with the Americans. Having been forsaken by their British allies, who made promises in exchange for attacks on colonial homesteads, they split from their confederation as those who stayed loyal to the Redcoats ultimately relocated to Ontario, with the rest remaining in what was to be United States territory.
As the battles rage on, two Tuscarora tribal members observe colonial scouts, whose presence in the forest the Natives can easily detect, while they remain hidden from Washington’s soldiers. Early on Hedbor sets up a thrilling continuity via alternating viewpoints portraying to readers events from each group’s point of view in something akin to real time. Very quickly readers realize that while the Americans discuss their plans and try to conceal signs of their camp, the Tuscarora—one of whom understands English—are listening. An anxious moment comes when discovery is threatened, but the alternating viewpoint keeps the tension hovering while maintaining clarity within point of view.
This alternating viewpoint continues through the novel as we follow the colonials as well as Natives, particularly Joseph and Ginawo, both of whom are counseled by their respective leaders as to the nature of their perceived enemy.
“Are they so difficult to spot in these woods?”
“They are like smoke, Joseph, and they have lived in these woods for many hundreds of years, at the least, so they have learned all the ways of keeping out of sight and covering their tracks. Those who dismiss them as primitive men or mere savages do so at their peril.”
This passages hints at the title’s deeper significance, referencing not only the resulting smoke from villages burned in retaliation for attacks, but also the Natives themselves, so often able to hover within the forest like smoke, though impossible to capture with one’s hands. This, however, does not guarantee victory for the tribes, for the Americans also have their techniques, not entirely understood by their adversaries.
“[The elders] believe that the best way to ensure that our people can find peace is to understand these pale men …in order to learn how we can make peaceful terms with the Colonials.”
Overall the Natives and Americans maintain an uneasy alliance, one group caught up in a war that is not theirs and attempting to figure out which is the better side to support, the other understanding that the land they occupy is too big for the British, whose people back home will ultimately tire of the fighting. The Natives instinctively recognize this, and worry what will become of their own people and settlements. The Algonquin wars with the French, in the elders’ youth, had destroyed a key Native tactical advantage. King Philip’s War, an earlier conflict in the region now known as New England, had also resulted in the unraveling of a larger Native alliance and birth of a distinct American identity separate from subjects of the king. Certainly aware of these and other events, the Tuscarora know the colonials are here to stay.
Hedbor uses his linguistic experience to effect some of this uncertainty, crafting Native dialogue smoothly when they are meant to be speaking in their own language, with rougher edges to indicate English. However, he does more than employ mere grammatical errors, instead stripping away English conventions, such as tense, and reordering it within the structure of the Tuscaroran language. The outcome is a greater sense of tension between colonial and Native when they are exposed to one another, and a more at-ease sensation when Ginawo, Tanarou or others speak amongst themselves. In this manner Hedbor’s transitions into scenes of Native life occur organically and it becomes much easier to grasp similarities and not only differences. There are memories of attraction of male to female, small children laughing at the way Joseph speaks, words of grief, pleas for longer sleep and poking fun at each other with words like “turkey.”
While Hedbor presents his audience with a need to re-examine these Revolutionary events equipped with greater understanding of Native suffering, he wisely refrains from lecturing readers, while still engaging our rapt attention. First, he openly and honestly references retaliation for violence perpetrated against innocent colonials, but also maps out dissenting views within Native politics. The consequences of these, paired with Joseph’s own experience of living his American identity and exposure to indigenous culture causes him to question much that he knows, and Hedbor guides him—and us—through his new experiences within authentic scenes that contribute to his growth—and ours.
One of my favorite elements of these scenes and Hedbor’s attention to detail is that in which medical attendance—“physicking”—is described in rich prose strokes easily creating images that come alive within the narrative. Hedbor also breaks free of the confines wherein the Native perspective is given the historical “Other” treatment, or else they are portrayed as perpetual victims. While this era in history was certainly not good to them and they suffered many wrongs, they make missteps of their own while simultaneously being strong people who gallantly stand to defend what they see as theirs. Hedbor allows his Native characters greater reign to define who they are themselves, and they turn out to be every bit as complicated and complex personalities as anyone else.
As historical fiction, The Smoke is top notch, and naturally overlaps into an attraction for those interested in the Revolution, or Native Americans, even British, French or Canadian history. It is a worthy and outstanding addition to this author’s growing collection of Revolutionary stories told from unique perspectives, and serves as a portend of even better yet to come. This seems to be part of the “verdict” after each Hedbor read, as it becomes more and more difficult to decide which one we like best.
Lars D. H. Hedbor tells a little about himself and how his novels came to be…
What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?
These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.
My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.
I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and will be a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.
I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.
You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Smoke may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBook, Kobo or at Smashwords. (Paperbacks also available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble links.)
Photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor
A copy of The Smoke was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
This post has been updated to correctly include the novel’s complete title in link and blog header.