Dan's Reviews > Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation

Trail of Tears by John Ehle
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Apr 07, 09

bookshelves: 2009

ok, i won't lie - this took a long time to get through. it's often incredibly dense, and the amount of research that went into it must have been astounding. and truth be told, i eventually found myself struggling to read each-and-every historical detail... but that's a shortcoming of my own attention span, not of the book.

as an inquiry into race and assimilation, this is about as good as it gets. it's not really the story of white settlers and native americans. it's the story of cherokees, creeks, moravians, methodists, baptists, slaves, slave-owners, "half-breeds," choctaws and seminoles. ehle goes to great lengths to render the transformations the cherokees undertook in their encounters with white civilization. yes - as most reviews of this book note - they "took on white customs," but the ambiguity involved in doing so is given fantastic expression.

the book contains lots of strange little portraits. consider general john wool, who arrives to police the cherokee with a strong arm... and instead finds himself disgusted with his own people in the face of their treatment. ehle gives us a glimpse at some of his letters, which seem sincere, patronizing and paternalistic simultaneously. wool's scrappy, military persona is ill-suited to his new-found empathy. so he argues ineffectively on behalf of the cherokee and is eventually removed from his post. wool's story is emblematic of the book's remarkable ambiguity. ehle considers his subjects in three dimensions. the stories are complicated and unsentimental, but also intimate and moving.

as a 21st century reader, it's interesting to note the incredible bureaucratic posturing that went into the cherokee's catastrophic removal from georgia. when confronted with the native american genocide, it's easy to imagine white settlers as barbaric sadists. i'm sure many of them were, but trail of tears rarely focuses on scandals and visceral brutality. instead, the atrocities arrive slowly - through unfair court hearings, shady legislation, broken promises and changing political allegiances. its horror is systematic. at times it's even somewhat familiar.

finally, this book is beautifully written. ehle occasionally adopts a literary style that runs the risk of embellishment. he gets inside the heads of his subjects to a degree that some historians might be uncomfortable with, but i found it tasteful and engrossing. i also enjoyed the diversity of his stylistic approaches. the text moves sharply from cold facts to literary poetics, with a healthy dose of original source material thrown in (sometimes stretching several pages at a time).

if you're interested in native american history (and willing to commit to something dense and challenging), this book is essential reading.
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