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Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation, by John Sedgwick.

March 27, 2018

Bolld Moon

Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation, by John Sedgwick. Simon & Schuster, 2018.


4 stars

A powerful and moving account of the Cherokee people, from the arrival of Europeans on their land through the Civil War, told with factual accuracy and the grace and beauty of literature.

John Sedgwick is a journalist, novelist, memoirist, and biographer who has written or co-written 11 books and over 500 articles, many of them appearing in major magazines.  His books include a variety of genres.  He is not a professionally trained historian, but in Blood Moon he reveals his ability to research his subjects thoroughly and fairly.  I found his ability to tell a story to be his greatest achievement.

Blood Moon is not the type of history book that I was taught to admire when I was a grad student in US History in the 1980s.  The history held in most esteem then was analytical.  It had a thesis to prove which might or might not involve a narrative. Often the point was to disprove what another historian, or the profession generally, had said.  Charts and statistics were seen as valuable if not essential. Documentation included long footnotes explaining debatable facts and interpretations.

In contrast, John Sedgwick writes sweeping, but detailed, narratives. Major characters are described in full and minor ones identified with a few telling descriptors.  He has consulted a host of reputable experts on Cherokee history and refers to them only in brief, almost hidden, notes.  He tells his story from the perspective of the Cherokee, and he tells it with careful fairness. By focusing on the Cherokee, he is able, for example, to provide the most coherent account I have read of initial years of white settlement in eastern Tennessee, where I now live. None of the characters in his story are perfect heroes, and most of them are capable of atrocities. Sedgwick tries not to take sides in the fights among historians or in the history of the Cherokees.

Sedgwick’s thesis is that the Cherokees could never have continued to live as a sovereign nation in their homelands, but they deserved better than they received from the American nation and from their leaders. He is most interested in the long, ugly, internal struggle between John Ridge (The Ridge) and John Ross and the Cherokees who supported each one.  As Sedgwick emphasizes, the two leaders exhibited strong differences and each represented one group of Cherokees, especially as pressure increased for their removal.  The Ridge was one quarter Cherokee, raised in traditional style, looking the part of an Indian warrior. He quickly profited from a degree of assimilation to settler life. He realized that his people would not be allowed to stay in the southeast and worked with other “half-breeds” to get the best deal they could.  His major opposition was from John Ross, who had even less Cherokee linage, looked very white and didn’t even speak their language.  None the less he had the ardent support of the “full-bloods” because he refused to consider removal even after it had begun.

In narrating the story of these men, their families and their followers, Sedgwick refuses to blame a lone villain. All the characters are caught up in the story and there is more than enough blame to go around.  He also refuses to blame any group, not even the US government or the white settlers in Georgia.  The story he tells is connected by interwoven narratives, not analysis.  At times the story doesn’t “make sense.”  For example, I simply do not understand the full-bloods loyalty to Ross.  I am not sure that Sedgwick understood that either, but he tells the tale anyway.  People and countries do not always act rationally, and to paraphrase an old quotation from Toni Morrison, “I don’t know why it happened. I can only tell you how.”

I remain an historian with a commitment to analysis, but Sedgwick reminded me history is about people who can never be assumed to behave rationally. Analysis has its limits. Story has its own particular wisdoms.

Read this book.  It is simply wonderful reading, and maybe help you think about the importance of accurate and well-told stories.

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