September 03, 2009

Review of 1824

1824: The Arkansas War (The Trail of Glory) (Mass Market Paperback)From Publishers Weekly

In Flint's skillful, provocative sequel to his alternative history, 1812: The Rivers of War (2005), the "Confederacy of the Arkansas" is thriving on the alliance of its Native American and African-American citizens. The independent nation puzzles Northerners but affronts slavery-bound Southerners, who are determined to put these inferior races in their place. Having finagled his way into the White House, a cynical, self-assured Henry Clay launches an invasion of the upstart country, while brawling frontiersman Andrew Jackson and New England intellectual John Quincy Adams become unlikely allies in a new political party based on individual rights. Flint deftly juggles historical details and asks important questions: if America had confronted its institutionalized racism earlier, could our Civil War have been prevented? And can enlightening firsthand experience overcome prejudice?

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The sequel to 1812: The Rivers of War (2005) is Flint's finest and may become his most controversial book. Ten years after 1812's events, the Cherokees and Patrick Driscol in Arkansas are attracting a steady stream of African Americans, both fugitive slaves and freedmen, fleeing a deteriorating racial climate. When a filibustering expedition runs into the well-drilled Arkansas army and its Indian allies, it gets a bloody nose. To cement the southern bloc that won him the presidency in the House of Representatives, Henry Clay launches a formal invasion of Arkansas. But rivals Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams form a new party to oppose the war and improve the condition of freedmen, while Arkansas, with the aid of superbly drawn historical figures, such as Sam Houston, and equally compelling fictional ones, such as teenaged African American captain Sheffield Parker, holds its own. Add tragedy in the murder of Houston's wife and comedy in Parker's gentlemanly crush on the daughter of a Kentucky senator and his mulatto common-law wife, and it is hard to think of a more powerful alternate-history novel since Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South (1992). If Flint skates along the thin edge of plausibility, he credibly depicts a U.S. in which, given something like the war of 1824, nationalism might indeed have triumphed over sectionalist defense of slavery. A winner from start to finish. Roland Green
Customer Reviews

Rob's review

1824's basic premise is sound. If another country formed on the Unites States' western border--one that provided a safe haven for Indians and runaway slaves--Americans wouldn't tolerate it. They couldn't stand the idea of giving up all that productive farmland and letting blacks prove they could run their own country as free men. America's leaders would find or invent a pretext for invading the new nation.

But from a Native standpoint, 1824 isn't nearly as interesting as 1812. While 1812 was primarily about the Indian question, 1824 is primarily about the Negro question. As one reviewer put it:Although the American Indian issue remains, the question of slavery, which had already become a running wound in the young Republic, was brought to a head by the existence of a militarily strong Black Nation in its midst.In 1812, the Cherokees were full partners in the warfare and subsequent negotiations for a new country. In 1824, they're relegated to being minor characters. They appear in only about a dozen pages, where they mostly stand around and observe the main characters.

Nor is this the only problem. For one thing, the Arkansas Confederacy operates on the Great White Father principle. Patrick Driscol, the Scots-Irish military genius who made the Confederacy possible, is now its "Laird" (principal chief). It seems he's holding the new country together by the force of his will. Without his leadership, the Confederacy might break into quarreling factions. And without his military expertise, the US might overrun the country.

Lots of bad Indians

Moreover, every Indian tribe is described in negative terms:

  • The Cherokees are divided between the full-blooded traditionalists who don't need slavery and the "civilized," half-white plantation owners who do. There's talk of a civil war if Driscol compels the Cherokees to give up their slaves and accept a black-ruled government.

  • White troublemakers from Louisiana and Mississippi have been terrorizing the Choctaws so now the Choctaws are returning the favor. They don't do much but lurk in the woods, ready to pounce. They torture--literally slice and dice--any white man who comes into their grasp.

  • The Chickasaws are described as pugnacious, pigheaded, and dumb. They'd rather fight and die at Arkansas Post than flee, so Driscol uses them as fodder. They're also adamant about owning slaves, so when a few of them escape, Driscol has them shot.

  • The other tribes bordering the new nation--Comanches, Kiowas, Osages--raid the Confederacy's chiefdoms. That's about it for these tribes; they're basically outlaws whom everyone hates.

  • Slave-owners, raiders,'s hard to find an Indian in 1824 who doesn't have some negative trait. Author Flint seems to have reverted to a nakedly Eurocentric view of what Indians are like. While the former slaves are becoming astute businessmen and soldiers, the Indians are standing around sharpening their knives.

    1824 doesn't provide any real insight into Indian issues. Especially the key issue of whether Indians could've avoided defeat by forming a nation such as the Confederacy. Their independence seems to depend on what white men--Driscol, Sam Houston, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams--do.

    Summing it up

    Despite these caveats, I enjoyed 1824. As I've said before, I can separate a writer's view of Indians from his literary skills. Flint isn't quite as good as Harry Turtledove, but he's as good as everyone else who's writing alternative histories about the 19th century.

    Unlike the reviewer above, I wouldn't say 1824 was especially "powerful." The ideas and the characters are a little less fresh and more shallow than they were in 1812. "Entertaining" would be a better word.

    Anyway, I give 1824 an 8.0 compared to 1812's 8.5. It's still a good read if you enjoy this type of science fiction.

    For more on 1812, see:

    Cherokees take charge in 1812
    1812's premise
    Review of 1812

    For more on the subject in general, see "What If" Stories About Indians and The Best Indian Books.


    Anonymous said...

    The mindset of the Euro-inbred's in that era isn't uncommon. Likewise, but there is a flip-side to Driscol's vapid but weak assertions. Thus, the major difference between a Negro and an American Indian:

    "The former slaves have become businessmen and soldiers, while the indian is sharpening his knife."

    The Negro is the White Man's pet peeve. They follow him around, wanting to be like the "Great White Father"--hence equality and their "civil rights". If I can recall the proper Indian moniker given to the Negro which I cannot spell it out here, but it refers to them as "the Black-White man".

    The Indian on the other hand, is his own man. He wants his Independence, the right to self-govern as First Nations, the right to economic prosperity on its own terms. The Indian wants his tribal sovereignty free from govenment interference. They don't want to be like the Negro who follows the White Man around. And because of that, I guess we are hated for it.


    Stephen said...

    "If another country formed on the Unites States' western border--one that provided a safe haven for Indians and runaway slaves--Americans wouldn't tolerate it. They couldn't stand the idea of giving up all that productive farmland and letting blacks prove they could run their own country as free men."

    Very doubtful; if the average American back then was really that bad the abolitionist movement wouldn't have existed.

    dmarks said...

    The view expressed in the middle paragraph of Geno's statement is a rather strong bit of anti-Black racism. I am not sure if it is Geno being the racist, or if he is paraphrasing someone else. I've giving the benefit of the doubt here, considering that the rather toxic racism in that paragraph is rather strong.


    Stephen: What we are talking about is some sort of "Liberia" effort in North America, right? It's one thing if a "Liberia" is created in Africa, but quite another if a "Liberia" is spontaneously created in North America in the westward shadow of the giant blade of the always-moving bulldozer of Manifest Destiny.

    When I look at how the young United States of America handled things as it grew, it appears to me that this "rebel Arkansas" would not have lasted.

    After all, the separate Mormon nation did not last and had to be taken over. And that wasn't even good farmland, and it was run by whites.

    I've not read the book, and am not sure exactly how Rob's "pretext for invading the new nation" happened in the novel, but I could easily imagine "sooner" settlers going into this new nation. And if these settlers are killed, the USA would have a pretext to invade it. Or perhaps it might not even be settlers, but just people trying to pass through the rebel Arkansas to territories beyond.

    Rob said...

    The sentence you quoted was my summary of the book's attitude, Geno. It doesn't have anything to do with what the fictional Patrick Driscol asserted.

    Your overgeneralization about what blacks and Indians want is ridiculously broad. Like any other group, these minorities have a full range of beliefs and values.

    Given that something like two-thirds of all Indians live off the rez in cities, it's hard to say that most of them want "independence." It would be more correct to say they want the best of both worlds: their traditional Indian cultures and the mainstream American culture.

    You made a couple of valid points: 1) that Indians historically have been more separatist than other minorities and 2) that whites perceive blacks as the biggest "pet peeve" or problem. But your assertions about what blacks want sound prejudiced at best.

    For more on the subject, see Separate Nations for Blacks, Indians?

    Rob said...

    I'd say DMarks is right and Stephen is wrong about America's 19th-century attitude toward its un-American neighbors. For more on the subject, see 1824's Premise.