Náápiikoan Winter by Alethea Williams
When one nation strives to dominate another for economic gain, more than money is at stake. Cultures, lives, passions, traditions and human needs also fall in sacrifice. This realization resonates through the deeply-woven story line and intriguing characters of Alethea Williams’s novel, Náápiikoan Winter.
As we writers do when we deliver a new novel, Alethea Williams provided a review copy of this book for my consideration. Although I don’t know Ms. Williams personally, I offered to review her book because I read primarily historical fiction about the Great Plains and American West. When I do, I look for that magical blend of re-examined history and story, careful truth and colorful imagination. In short, a believable story well told.
Náápiikoan Winter is an ambitious novel; it sets out to portray an epic view in very personal detail. It captures a turning point in the American West when Native tribes face the crisis of aggressive English and French trading and exploration. This novel succeeds, through well-integrated research, in making this intense, global crisis feel immediate and personal. Several characters bond and clash to demonstrate the spiritual and material treasures at stake for Native and European interests at the turn of the 19th Century, on the as-yet uncharted North American continent.
Strong Characters Collide
The first key character in the book is a young Mexican girl who grows into one of the significant women in this story, Buffalo Stone Woman. I won’t spoil the plot, but young Isobel undergoes personal and cultural trauma and transformations. After a strong introduction to Isobel, the author only hints at most of her adolescent changes, but they ultimately situate Isobel to sense oncoming disaster and try to save her adopted Pììkáni tribe.
The second key character is Donal Thomas, a Náápiikoan (meaning Old Man Person, a term given by the Siksikà to White traders, out of respect for their many wonders). The seventeen-year-old boy, indentured to the Hudson Bay Company for seven years, is sent against his will to the Rocky Mountains to learn and to trade. He is a fascinating character, depicted well from within (ambitious, yet traumatized by his childhood), and through the eyes of Native characters. I found Donal believable as he naively and unwittingly precipitates several levels of social, spiritual and domestic disaster for the Pììkáni, who welcome and host him for the winter.
Ms. Williams develops many other Native characters into clear and interesting individuals who struggle for tribal status, safety or love. One of particular interest and beauty is Sweetgrass Woman, a credible teenage girl who longs for respectability and self-determination in a tribal culture that has already decided her domestic role. Her confused attempt for spiritual autonomy through association with Buffalo Stone Woman is particularly touching. I also appreciate the depth and complexity of Bear Dog, who could have easily remained a one-dimensional “bad guy,” yet he, with his devious longing for acceptance, feels complex and human. Also deeply satisfying is the character of Saahkómaapi, the elderly dreamer who squabbles with his wife, hungers for more women, and risks everything to protect his people’s medicine from Náápiikoan.
A Wild, Believable West
Náápiikoan Winter doesn’t romanticize tribal or individual behavior or suffering. Complex tribal and inter-tribal politics, family rivalries, and White disruption of these dynamics—all are well-depicted, often through tense, yet subtle confrontations. Several well-drawn secondary characters sense, but don’t know how to resist, the looming “white wings” of the traders and the civilization they signify. The goods and relationships the traders bring to the tribe are attractive, yet unrelentingly erode Pììkáni religion, leadership, decision-making and survival through this one Náápiikoan winter, and through those to come.
The Writer’s Strength
In addition to her intuitively-integrated research, one aspect of storytelling Ms. Williams manages well is what I’ve learned to call “knowledge gaps.” She skillfully withholds and manages key information, giving the characters and reader just enough knowledge, but keeping all in the dark for just long enough, to keep the pages turning.
When I closed the covers of Náápiikoan Winter, I felt a sense of loss for a time in history. I felt a connection to place, and regret for characters and cultures who would have no happy-ever-after, romantic ending. I respected the author for not glossing over a hard telling of a story that seemed true, both in facts and in details. I felt the dust of the past clinging to me. I had that echo—of living character voices and cultures intimately experienced—that I get from fine historical fiction.
I highly recommend Náápiikoan Winter to readers who like strongly-researched fiction about the clash of cultures and diverse individuals, in North American history.
Náápiikoan Winter may be purchased at:
Barnes and Noble online: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/naapiikoan-winter-alethea-williams/1123779705?ean=9781532710568
Read more about Alethea’s work at: http://actuallyalethea.blogspot.com