2012; 339 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Historical Fiction; Native American Literature. Laurels: Winner of a 2013 “Best Indie Book” Award (whatever that is). Overall Rating : 5*/10.
It is 1541, and gods have come to visit the tribes of Native Americans living in the area of what is now eastern Arkansas. They have wondrous weapons – beasts that can be ridden into battle, coatings of metal that render any arrows shot at them harmless, and strange tubes from which thunder erupts as pieces of death shoot out over incredible distances.
The leader of these gods calls himself “the Son of the Sun”. He claims to serve an even greater god, and one of the gifts he brings to the tribes he encounters is a giant wooden cross, through which the local people can tap into the power of this omnipotent deity. He also grants them a second, less visible gift – the smallpox virus.
The reaction to these visitors is mixed. Some tribes resist, and they taste the destructive power of the weapons used by these gods. Other tribes simply flee, especially as word gets around that these gods also come to conquer. A few tribes greet them as visiting friends, giving them food, water, and shelter. Unfortunately, what the Son of the Sun wants most, they can’t give him.
Gold and silver.
What’s To Like...
Storykeeper is a clever blend of three tales of storytellers, each set about a generation apart. The “present day” one features the aged Manaha as her dwindling tribe copes with how to survive. The next one centers on the young girl Manaha as she journeys with her aged step-grandfather Taninto, also a storyteller, to rejoin her original tribe. The earliest storyline deals with a young Taninto as he witnesses the coming on Hernando de Soto, the “Son of the Sun”, and his army of conquistadors in 1541. The book repeatedly cycles through these three storylines, which may sound confusing, but Daniel A. Smith's writing skills are sufficient to keep things flowing smoothly.
The setting is eastern Arkansas, which I gather is the author’s stomping grounds. There’s a lot of traveling, particularly in the earlier two plotlines, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the various ridges, valleys, and rivers are all geographically accurate, albeit with appropriately-historical names. The “Mizzissibizzibbippi River” (yeah, trying saying that three times real fast) is obviously the present-day Mississippi River, and I’m pretty sure the “Akamsa River” is now called the Arkansas River. The other geographical names didn’t ring any bells with me.
I found Daniel A. Smith’s examining of this “first contact” situation through the eyes of the local tribespeople to be very intriguing. I especially liked that the two sides weren’t depicted in “black/white” shades. The Spaniards may be looking for gold and new subjects for their King back in Spain, but they’d prefer to persuade people rather than resorting to warfare. The locals are not noble savages, just tribes of hunter-gatherers and farmers who are doomed due to their lack of immunity to smallpox. Neither group is perfect, nor is either the epitome of evil.
There are a bunch of tribes mentioned, but you don’t really have to keep track of who is who. I liked the mysterious “orb stones”, which figure prominently in Daniel A. Smith’s non-fiction book. I was aware of such things, but only in Central American locations. There are 41 chapters, plus a prologue, to cover 338 pages, which averages out to about 8 pages per chapter. I don’t recall any cussing or sex, but there is small amount of violence.
All three storylines are brought to satisfactory conclusions at the end of the book. I didn’t find any of these to be “twisty”, but they were powerful nevertheless. ANAICT, this is Daniel A. Smith’s only full-length novel. Storykeeper is a standalone novel, although I personally can see room for a sequel.
“We are all that remain. Our ancestors were from different nations, but together we are the last people of Nine-Rivers Valley.”
“We cannot hold the gifts of ancestors. We have lost them. We cannot visit their graves, there were none. We cannot speak their names, because we have forgotten them. Stories are all we have.” (loc. 314)
“I have seen you with their horses,” she said. “You have walked among the gods.”
“No,” I said. The Spanish are not gods.”
Saswanna dropped her head, then glared back with her jaw set. “But look what they have done. Look at what they have given us.”
“They are men of great accomplishments,” I said, “and greater ambitions. But would gods need to wear armour?” I asked. (loc. 3033)
Storykeeper is selling for $3.99 at Amazon right now. Daniel A. Smith also offers a novella for $0.99, and a non-fiction book (about the real-life orb stones mentioned in this book) for $2.99.
“Do not lose your life to the fury of war, nor your soul to its glory. (loc. 3420)
There are some quibbles. A map of the areas traversed in our three storylines, with the Native American names for all the geographic locations, would have been very useful. Also, the text is in bad need of an editor. I normally don’t mention this for efforts by indie authors since professional editors are expensive, but here the grammar errors were frequent enough to be distracting.
A more serious issue with Storykeeper, as several reviewers at Amazon also point out, is the slow pacing. The young Manaha and old Taninto traipse up and down mountains until both she and I were bored stiff. The old Manaha lives apart from her village, but the most exciting thing in her life is the nightly storytelling sessions. The young Taninto is wonderstruck by the Spaniards, but his personal high point is when he gets to groom one of the horses.
That all changes at about 75% Kindle, when things pick up nicely in two of the plotlines. Blood is shed in one, and the threat of annihilation looms in another. The pace runs nicely from there through the end, but how many readers will have given up before then?
The author is of course constrained by the historical circumstances in which his book is set, but there are ample opportunities to infuse more action into this tale. Historically, de Soto’s expedition was an abject failure. He will be dead within a year, dying of a fever, and his body hidden to prevent its desecration by the natives who by then were fed up with him. His starving and bedraggled followers, their numbers shrunk by attrition from constant fighting with the indigenous populations, will be forced to make a desperate retreat back to Mexico. The Native Americans will be decimated by smallpox, but it might be more interesting to read about living (and dying) through the onslaught of this disease, rather than just see the “before” and “after” contrast, which is what occurs here.
5 Stars. For all I know, Daniel A. Smith intends to develop this into a series with the opportunities for action cited above fully utilized. After all, the three plotlines used here are presumably but a fraction of the tales the titular storykeepers have to tell. I can’t think of a more qualified author to relate them to us than him.