The People of the River

  • Book Title: The People of the River
  • Author: W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Published: August 1992
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Recommendation by: Brian Magnuson

I was looking for something different to read. Mysteries, procedurals, Steven King, John Grisham, science fiction: they’ve all been good for me. But, I needed to try to expand my horizons in literature. I don’t pretend to know exactly what literature is, but, I know what I like. A few years back I discovered a novel in my local library that chronicled the story of America from a different perspective. Growing up American in the k-12 public schools you are served a narrow diet of colonialism, patriotism and nationalism. I wanted a different perspective and this book I discovered accidentally gave it to me in spades. I have a short attention span and this book was an undertaking. In fact, it was a three-book series telling the story of a trader in the southeast region of America in conflict with Spanish Conquistadors. It took me about a year and a half to get through the series. But, those three novels whetted my appetite for more. In the library, I found a whole separate series of stories. There others as well, but, that is for later examination.

Before I tell you how much I love these books and why it is important to give a quick background on the authors. W. Michael Gear and his partner and wife Kathleen O’Neal Gear have a pedigree that gives weight to these historical fiction novels.  Both are respected archaeologists. This makes their books thoroughly researched and they use the latest discoveries and theories of Native Americans. In case you want to do a little light toilet reading these novels come with a bibliography for deeper subject matter investigation when you are not chest deep into the novels themselves. Like all prolific authors, W. Michael and Kathleen have a fan base following and a website. From there you can learn more about them than the book jacket explains, their publications, and events that they host.

You can also learn about their books from the website ISFDB; Internet Speculative Fiction Data Base. I just learned about this website. Oh, and of course, Wikipedia.

The People Series begins with a story enveloping the theory of how the first Americans, (in Canada: First Peoples) began to populate North America during the last Ice Age. The stories are so compelling and the characters richly developed that you are immersed in their cultures. You feel a part of what is going on or at the very least, a witness. The authors paint mindful and lucid descriptions of the First People’s everyday lives, circumstances, interactions and surroundings that you incidentally learn about the cultural machinations of these ancient peoples. The dialogue is not stilted or unnatural either. In the forward, the Gears explain how complex these societies were and that there is no reason to think they didn’t have complex system of oral communication as well. The character names are not difficult to pronounce. Black Shell, White Ash and other names taken from natural things around the character’s lives do not slow you down if you read word for word like me. Don’t get me wrong, these books are not simple in any way. They are rich in discussion of the cultural philosophy, religion, violence, pastimes, music, love, and politics just as we do today.

 Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Missouri, the setting for People of the River  Photo credit  Ira Block for National Geographic

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Missouri, the setting for People of the River

Photo credit Ira Block for National Geographic

A great thing about this series is you do not need to read the books in order. I’m choosing to because I have some OCD tendencies. Just saying. Though there are common threads woven throughout the series, they do not detract from the individual books or perplex the casual reader. The threads are like insider knowledge that harken back to previous books. Being a Michigander, I was excited to read People of the Lakes which weaves a story connecting the rivers that flow around this region of the country and the Great Lakes. There were books that came before this one and so I started out with the first one: The People of the Wolf.

Another interesting part of these books is near the front cover the authors put a timeline and maps that help the reader visualize when and where the story takes place. Even though the books jump around the time continuum a little, it is not a distraction to the reader. The authors thoughtfully put a forward in whereby a modern-day character discover some item that connects present time to the Native People’s ancient story. The forward also brings to light that there are no written records left behind. Stories and history are pieced together by found artifacts and the ancient evidence of human-environmental interaction.

I am far from finished reading about the first Americans. There are plenty of The People novels ahead of me and more on the way all the time. When reading them, I often keep my tablet close by to look up words, videos and images of things being described in the book. It all just adds to the fun and incidental learning of reading The People Series by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear. Highly recommended. On my Backyard Global Cultural Immersion scale, I give it a 5 out of 5.