Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Restless Spirits, a book review

 Stephen Poleskie

Book Cover

Between Two Fires
By Nicholas Nicastro
McBooks Press
384 pages, $16.05, paperback

During the second week of September, 2002, three items offering a glimmer of hope to a chaotic world received scant notice in the nation’s newspapers: the Sri Lankan government lifted a ban on the Tamil Tigers, pledging to begin peace talks with the rebels within the month; GlaxoSmithKline, a British pharmaceutical company, offered to cut the price of Aids and malaria drugs in poor countries by up to a third; and Switzerland, after decades of conceited isolation, finally joined the United Nations.

During those same two weeks I read Nicholas Nicastro’s second volume of his John Paul Jones trilogy, Between Two Fires. I mention the above disparate events, as while they were of considerable importance to those closely involved, to the rest of the world, especially in USA, Inc. where we are mostly concerned with a falling stock market, these news items, if they did appear, were generally ignored. I wondered if perhaps 200 years from now a future author, assuming there still are humans and books, would find in these incongruous events the inspiration for an historical novel set in the period called “The Age of Globalization.”

Nicholas Nicastro has chosen similarly divergent events, set during the time of the American Revolution, for his new new novel. Between Two Fires weaves together episodes in the lives of “war hero” Jones, John Severence, a soldier of fortune with the Sullivan Expedition, and Joseph Two Fires, a Cayuga warrior still sorting out his relationship to the white men that have invaded his lands. Joseph Two Fires is one of the “two fires” in the title of this rather schizo novel. The other, I’m assuming, is the war raging, on two continents, during the American struggle for independence.
If your are expecting to discover the revolutionary origins of the “moral high road” our government is currently leading us down you will not find it here. There are no “good guys” in this book, at least not in the sense that we learned in high-school history class. And while this is a work of fiction, that has been in the author’s own words “highly embroidered,” the descriptions of the war, and the social conditions of the time, have been carefully researched. A few of the more gruesome battle scenes might offend some readers.

In Between Two Fires, author Nicastro reveals himself to be an effective storyteller, clever at developing the plot, while exhibiting a deft command of the language. He displays a love for the landscape with some vivid descriptions of what upstate New York and Pennsylvania must have looked like during the Revolution. Nicastro hints at his own sense of humor, and irony, in John Severence’s description of the area that is now modern day Ithaca:

Our march down the eastern shores of Cayugah Lake proceeded without further incident....
The southern end of the lake is blighted by a swamp. With so little solid shore to build upon, the place will surely never fall under the improving hand of civilization. The eastern edge of the bog is marked by a chasm of gray stone ending in a wide and pleasing waterfall, beside which our party was delighted to camp for an evening. Fully seventy yards wide from top to bottom, the torrent exceeds anything I have seen in England or France. Even in late summer, a great volume of water flows over this precipice. It is curious to think, in fact, that its remoteness is the whole cause of its anonymity. If it were in a hundred miles of Londonor Paris, poets would have sung its praise for centuries. Here, not even our native scouts have a name for it.

The book begins in a charming and unexpected manner with John Paul Jones engaged in a water battle. Just as we dig in awaiting the wide-screen action we realize it is only Jones, already the hero of the engagement against HMS Drake at Belfast, playing at combat on a pond with the boy Comte de la Rochjaquelein. Before the fray is ended, Jones is called away to his new ship the Bon Homme Richard, which has been named after Benjamin Franklin. As Jones strides off, the disappointed young count shouts after him: “But I have not yet begun to fight!”

The second chapter shifts to the present. “I am talking to you because I am dead,” Joseph Two Fires tells us by way of introduction. Readers who prefer their stories to proceed in a chronological order should buckle in for a rough ride through Nicastro’s time warps. As the author disclaims in his Afterword, “I have taken some liberties with the timing of . . . events in the book.”

Two Fires goes on to detail the good life he lived, “at the center of the world” in Chonodote, or “Peach Town,” before it was stolen by the State of New York. I guessed this place to be somewhere north of Aurora, NY, as this is where the “No Sovereign Nation” signs begin to appear when you drive up the east side of Cayuga Lake.

“I won’t say our lives were perfect,” Two Fires says, feigning modesty. “All I can say is that if you’re a white man, living in your dreary, suffocating white town with your tight white hard clothes and your bland white mush food, then, well, we lived better than you do.” Remember this screed. It appears again in the Epilogue, which would have been better left out of the book.

In this final, three-page, section, Two Fires, having been murdered by a white man—I will not say who as it would give away too much of the plot—was not buried properly, and therefore not eligible for Indian heaven. The warrior’s spirit goes in search of it anyway, only to wind up in Cleveland. There he rants about the tall buildings, and pollution from airliners, and white man sitting in a “suffocating town with your little hard white clothes and your bland white mush food.” He makes no mention of casino gambling. The dead Two Fires warns that, “Someone else from across the ocean is coming (al-Qaida? Saddam?)to take what’s left of Turtle Island from you. . .  And you know what? I can’t wait.” Two Fires would be wise not to repeat this revile in front of his mailman or meter reader; he could end up a referral to President Bush’s inform-on-your- neighbors program.

We are told Two Fires learned English from his white mother. While Two Fires’s use of the words “cock,” “prick,” and “balls” at times causes his dialogue to seem a bit too contemporary, a check of my slang dictionary reveals that these words have been employed to refer to male organs since the 16th century. Nicastro goes through pains in the Afterword to explain why he has Indians saying “okay.”

Two Fires’s mother also tried to teach him Christianity, as did Father Du Lac, the missionary at Chonodote. All the characters in the book, even such vile ones as General Sullivan, who had Indian skins made into boots, are shown to have a good side, if only for the odd moment. The single person depicted as truly evil—he was stripped naked and cast into the wilderness by Severence—is Father Du Lac.
When Two Fires’s father falls into a deer trap and dies from the wounds he sustains, the son has to go and kill someone from the neighboring Shawnee, since it was men from that tribe who dug the trap. He kills a boy but brings the father back for his sister, Fallen Leaf, who will appear in a major role under a different name later on in the book. When Fallen Leaf rejects the Shawnee, Two Fires tortures him to death by roasting him while cutting off various parts of his anatomy. To please his sister, Two Fires goes farther afield and comes back with a white man, a survivor of a naval battle on Lake Champlain, which the warrior gets to narrate. The white man is too cowardly, and begins to whimper at the suggestion of torture, so is let go.

Two Fires meets his downfall, at least for the second chapter, on a walkabout to the Saint Lawrence River. He will have many more, and a few triumphs before he gets to fly over Cleveland. It is the warrior’s hubris that brings him down. While standing on shore admiring a large sailing vessel in the river, he is approached by a white man who says, “You speekee?”

One thing that drives Two Fires into a rage is to be addressed by a white man who doesn’t use proper English. In a huff he replies, “Joseph Two Fires, sir. And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” In an aside the dead Two Fires informs the reader that he “liked to talk this way when I met assholes who ask if I ‘speekee.”’ While Two Fires is standing there with his feathers ruffled, a rowboat puts out from the other side of the ship and six men sneak up behind him. “Disarm nigger,” a voice says.

Yes, he does use the “n” word, which I suppose was used at the time to refer to Indians, although I have not been able verify this. Nicastro makes no reference to the “n” word in his Afterword, and the term will appear on several more occasions. More correctly, other titles offensive to the indigenous people, such as the name of the Washington D. C. football team, are not used in this book.

In the midst of the action, Two Fires tells us, “I noticed that one of the guys kicking me was barefoot, and that he had very ugly feet. They were knobby, they stank....” One wonders how someone so pawky he can detect stinky feet while being kicked in the “stomach, kidneys, balls,” could have missed those same feet, along with five other pairs, when they were padding up behind him.

Shanghaied aboard a Dutch vessel, Two Fires becomes bored by the of lack of action and swims over to Captain Jones on the Bon Homme Richard. During the battle against HMS Serapis, Two Fires is credited with dropping a grenade down the hatch of the British vessel, an action which dramatically influences the outcome of the battle. Nicastro tells us in his Afterword that this brave feat was actually accomplished by a Scotsman, William Hamilton, who “deserves to be remembered.” I don’t imagine we will hear any howls from the Scots. However, I could imagine the war parties that would be forming up in the Turning Stone Nation if the positions had been reversed, with Two Fires getting the pat on the head.

The most finely-wrought character in this book is John Severence—spelled with an “e.” Here is a man the reader can identify with and get behind, which is what is supposed to happen. Skillfully depicted and believable, Severence clings to what he considers to be his moral high road, while still hoping to make a profit trading with the Indians.

Severence’s tale is told through a series of letters to his sweetheart, Rebecca Shays, who is waiting for him back in Portsmouth, NH, with her father, Elijah, a war profiteer who uses his ships for blockade running. Elijah, himself, devotes his time to studying his bowel movements. To this end he has purchased a porcelain chamber pot with the visage of the British monarch, George III on the bottom, and the words below it, Pro lustitia Sedeo—I sit for justice. Shays laments that in his youth he could have covered the king's face easily with turds "of the finest quality and quantity." Now, alas, the king is rarely more than slightly soiled. Shays’s other divertissement, is snooping through his daughter’s letters from her lover.

While Severence’s chapters begin as letters, they soon segu√© into full-blown action scenes, with dialogue, and the sounds of musket shots, barking dogs, and dying Indians. This filmmaker’s technique might be a bit disconcerting to a reader more accustomed to books such as George Cooper’s Lost Love, where the story is told in letters that remain letters. Nevertheless, Severence’s lengthy “letters”—some 15 pages or more in the text, that would probably have been 50 pages at least in their handwritten form—have the ring of truth about them, and the narrative drive of a well-plotted novel. Severence is a good writer.

The ever-waiting Rebecca is depicted with the fortitude of a marshmallow. She does manage to shine in her two big scenes, and plays a large part at the end—which I shall not reveal. Finding herself out of laudanum, and the drugstore’s stocks depleted by the British shipping blockade, she ferrets out the local drug dealer. In her other bit, Rebecca, believing she is pregnant by some form of immaculate conception, visits the local midwife. The woman convinces her that despite the pains in her stomach Rebecca is not with child. Toward the end of the book, Rebecca, with the same suspicion, goes to the home of the same midwife, but does not receive the same answer. Likewise, I will not divulge who the father is.

Which brings us to our main hero, John Paul Jones. Having taken command of the Bon Homme Richard, Jones is on the high seas, accompanied by a small squadron of foreign vessels sailed by moody and recalcitrant foreign captains.

Also along is Henriette d’Barejou, a French artist, entirely the fabrication of author Nicastro. Having spent the better part of my previous life around art and artists, I can say he has done an agreeable job with Henriette, giving her a believable wit and substance that never falls into caricature. Her mission in life is to reconstruct the face of Christ. To this end she has sketched hundreds of faces looking for the ideal components from which to assemble her composite picture. She finds the perfect nose, detached from its face, floating across the deck during the battle with HMS Serapis. What becomes of the nose? For this too you will have to read the book.

There you have the heroes, with their feminine interests. So who are the bad guys? Of these there are a number in Between Two Fires. Even the sacrosanct “Father of our Country” does not come off well in his cameo appearance, being described in rather Reaganesque terms:

Washington ascended the mounting block and swept that great white pillar of a leg over his horse’s back. ... the general’s movements seemed calculated for effect, as if he expected the cant of his head or the way his wide rump filled his saddle to alter the course of empires. This made him seem more like an actor hired to play the part of a commander than a real soldier.

But the foremost “heavy” has got to be General Sullivan, leading his expedition north from Easton, Pennsylvania, to “pacify” the Indians—the word I recall from the many road signs that lined Route 309, The Sullivan Trail, as it wound its way through my youth. Back when there wasno Route 81, I often took The Sullivan Trail on the trip from my home in Wyoming Valley to New York City. As I rushed my way to the Big Apple, looking for art and culture, but secretly hoping it would find me, I did not pause to think about the road I was on and how it had been made. “To pacify” was enough. Weren’t the Indians mere savages, who when they weren’t attacking “us” were ceaselessly fighting with each other? All we had done was establish a few “settlements” basically to trade with them, and bring Christianity to the heathens.

In those days, no one ever referred to General Sullivan’s campaign as genocide. Sure a few Indian villages were burned. And a few Indians, as always mostly women and children, were “processed,” the word used euphemistically, as in “meat processing plant.” They had burned our settlements so we had to retaliate. They were “terrorists” who came without warning, retaliating for what we had done to them. They were on the side of the British, to whom we colonists were “terrorists” having done more than just dump a few sacks of tea into Boston Harbor.

Nothing has changed. We saw parallel situations in the Warsaw Ghetto, and in too-soon forgotten Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and Rwanda, and presently still in Israel and Sudan, and a list of other places much too long. Nicastro’s novel, as all good history texts should, whether fiction or non-fiction, causes us to reassess where we stand as human beings; to ask ourselves why is it always “them” or “us.” Why can’t we live in harmony with one another and with nature? John Severence asks himself this question as he moves with his troops to destroy yet another peaceful Indian village: “We march, it seems, in the center of some great hush. It is as if the land itself were waiting to see the end of the present struggle and hence perhaps its own fate.”

Between Two Fires will have readers who have not read the first volume rushing back to get it. The first book, The Eighteenth Captain, should not be hard to find, as Ithaca publisher Alex Skutt of McBooks Press keeps his previous titles in stock, unlike the money-mad major houses which are all too eager to turn unsold books into pulp. A third, and final, volume of the John Paul Jones series is in the works.



This is a revised version a a review that originally appeared in the BookPress, an Ithaca literary journal that is no longer in existence.

Stephen Poleskie has had stories published in numerous literary journals. His biographical novel, The Balloonist: The Story of Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, is forthcoming from Frederic C. Beil, Publisher, in the fall of  2006.


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