Secret History of the Cherokees (Indian Territory Press, 2011) by Deborah Duvall, Murv Jacob and James Murray is a highly entertaining nonfiction novel, the first in a planned series that is as ambitious as it is concise. Within a mere 288 pages, more than half a century of Cherokee history is covered—from Thomas Jefferson’s 1808 meeting with a delegation of Cherokee representatives to the Cherokee Confederate Brigadier General, Stand Watie, battling in the middle of the Civil War in 1863. Along the way, dozens of characters appear and retreat.
As a historical novel, Secret History evokes E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Many of the characters are real, but every now and then you wonder if a minor point is fact or fiction—and that is what gives the narrative its power. For the curious, a bibliography is included.
The spiritual heart of the novel is Sequoyah. We first meet him in Arkansas, where he is working on the Cherokee syllabary in 1816. He is also writing a secret history of the Cherokee people that the novel keeps referencing. His death is one of the most poetic passages in the book, and it is followed by the search for his grave and the return of his bones to Oklahoma. His voice is still present after death, thanks to his writings.
Plenty of other threads are woven through the narrative. There is the bloody battle between Gen. Watie, Tom Starr and John Ross for political power. Caught up in this struggle, and the war, are the medicine man Pumpkin and his family. There is also the story of the fictional slave Cassius and his wife, Sadie, from whom he is separated when she is sold to another farm.
Duvall, Jacob and Murray don’t pull any punches in their description of how the Cherokees treated their slaves, including slaughtering runaways to make examples of them. It is particularly poignant that this book, which has been in the works for years, is being published amid the legal battle in the Cherokee Nation over the citizenship of the freedmen, the descendants of the Cherokee slaves.
Overall, Secret History of the Cherokees is a compact historical epic that reads like a potboiler. It is recommended not just for history buffs but also for anyone looking for a good page-turner. A word of warning, though: The book is unapologetic in its Twainian uses of Ebonics and the N word, not to mention its explicit sexuality.