Wow. I could probably stop there, honestly, because that’s about all you need to know. But… I can’t do that because I loved this book too much not to talk about it.
THE REMOVES by Tatjana Soli is an intense portrayal of yet another of America’s darkest periods of history. And it is told through the perspectives of three fascinating characters: two women whose lives were connected in various ways to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Custer himself.
I will reiterate one of my frequent sentiments about historical fiction: books like this need to be required reading in our high schools. This book, in particular, includes actual historical photographs, drawings, maps, snippets from newspapers, and congressional mandates – all of which served to illustrate the stark reality of the government’s continued betrayal of the native people (One statement by President Andrew Jackson on “The Case for the Indian Removal Act” still has my head SPINNING. The rationalization he used leaves me speechless).
But don’t fear this book being too history laden. As the author admits, it is fiction, chock full of actual historic accounts, but filled with real and imagined characters about whom you will come to care. You may not always agree with their actions, but you may understand them, if only to a degree. To be sure, this is a heartbreaking novel.
But Soli does such an excellent job of portraying the thoughts of both sides in this horrible conflict. You will love and hate Gen. Custer (and change your mind many times in between), a man haunted by and equally drawn to battle. He often comes across as a complete contradiction – in the way he loves, in his feelings toward the Indians, in his actions – which he recognizes in himself.
Soli’s ability to transport us into his mind to understand his conflicted motivations is nothing short of incredible. The same can be said of the characters of Anne and Libbie; the third-person omniscient narration often winnows down into close introspection, which provides an emotionally immersive experience. And, of course, your heart will break for the native Indians; you will gasp at some of their retaliations, but you may just come to understand them. The same can be said of the Army’s behaviors as well.
THE REMOVES moved me to many emotions (anger, sadness, sometimes laughter), not only for the disrespect of human rights, the government’s duplicity, and the subsequent savagery of battle on both sides, but for its glimpse at a once-whole, untarnished, respected earth embraced by the native tribes. I shed tears, and likely at a part of the book that most others won’t: a scene involving a solitary buffalo. The actions of the men in that scene made my heart ache, as it was such an accurate portrayal and foreshadowing of human disconnect with the earth, which continues in even greater magnitude today.
So, THE REMOVES – obviously, due to its tie with American Indians – has a great deal of nature and earth-connection to it, which spoke to my own passions and sensibilities. Two passages, in particular, struck a chord with me. The first, when Anne is talking about her white ancestors:
Before her captivity she had always lived protected in houses, inside walls, under roofs. Caged. Even when traveling, she had been hidden away under the canvas canopy of wagons. She had not experienced the immensity of the land around her but rather had lived in fear of it. Did her people hate nature that they were so determined to tame it?
The second, when Custer is speaking to White Buffalo:
“What else can one do with such wilderness but conquer it?” (Custer)
“Revere it, pray to it.” (White Buffalo)
If you prefer your fiction to be filled with happy moments and to end wrapped up nicely with pretty bows, this may not be the book for you. As the author, herself, said in the Author’s Note, “We honor the past when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores. By doing this, we allow ourselves to better understand our present.” This, she did in spades. Discerning readers who really want to contemplate history will appreciate this book, which is, at its heart, a story about war. Custer’s ruminations in the book may sum it up best:
“Studying the histories of the world, not even brotherhood was enough to safeguard people who had what others coveted.”
It’s a story about man’s historic inability to see through others’ eyes and respect their differences. It’s about man’s ability to rationalize his abhorrent behavior. And it’s about love, and devotion, and growing into one’s true self.
Those who enjoyed Philipp Meyer’s THE SON, Jonis Agee’s THE BONES OF PARADISE or Paulette Giles’s NEWS OF THE WORLD, would likely enjoy this literary novel that will leave you thinking about more than the characters, alone. This is not a book to be rushed. Take your time with it. It will leave you thinking about human nature, man’s actions, and our own definitions of happiness and love.
Special thanks to my book buddy, who provided THE REMOVES by Tatjana Soli as an ARC in advance of publication, even though I didn’t quite finish it before official release. So grateful!
Of note: Some may feel the scenes toward the latter part of the book begin to feel bogged down in “yet another war scene” – or even rushed through – but I think, in the end, these narrative choices served the tempo of the story well, as they illustrate the monotony of soldiering, but also the ‘hurry up and move out’ feel of military campaigns.
(A version of this review of THE REMOVES by Tatjana Soli was published by Melissa Crytzer Fry at GoodReads on Jun 19, 2018. It is reposted here with the permission of the reviewer.)