Business Times of Edmond, Oklahoma August 2018 - Page 29

BOOK REVIEW BY CAMERON BRAKE | BEST OF BOOKS “The Removes” by Tatjana Soli c.2018, Sarah Crichton Books 384 pages In Review: The Removes I f there is one uniting experience in America today it is worry. You do not need advanced degrees in psychology to see that most of us spend at least some portion of our day worrying about big, weighty stressors. Consider our politics, our climate, our economy, our ability to understand one another. None of these inspire much in the way of optimism. We are a divided nation united in concern. At such a time it is wise and understandable for serious literary fiction writers to really dive into where we are, and where all this is heading. Many of our best are doing just that, but problems this big do not just spring into being overnight. There is another piece to this that needs to be explored: How we got here. Has anything like this happened before? Does history offer us a way out? Tatjana Soli attempts to answer these and more with her latest novel, “The Removes.” “The Removes” focuses on the lives of General George Armstrong Custer, his wife Libbie Custer, and Anne, a 15-year- old girl who is taken prisoner by the Cheyenne. Right away, Soli baptizes us in the brutality of America’s post-Civil War westward expansion. The Cheyenne’s attack on Anne’s Kansas town is described in accurate, gut-punching detail. Of her family, she is the only survivor. Soli leaves little doubt that even though “The Removes” features General Custer as a primary character, this is largely a story about what women were made to endure in the war for the West. Though often heartbreaking and occasionally downright devastating, it is refreshing that women’s stories are now being added to the tapestry of Old West fiction. Over masculinizing is a problem with many genres, but Westerns have always had a particularly male-centric tilt. Anne’s imprisonment by the Cheyenne may be fictional, but her story is drawn from numerous, true events. Many campaigns against the tribes of the great plains were waged under the pretext of rescuing wives and daughters captured during raids. Soli masterfully depicts how the capture of women was used by both the tribes and the U.S. Government as a means to destroy one another. Stealing the enemy’s women and children is of course not new, but too often these stories are not told with the depth they demand. Omitting women’s stories from history and popular culture does us no favors. Anne’s trials as a captive of the Cheyenne gives us a glimpse into what the war for the West did to the tribes, but it is through Libbie, General Custer’s wife, that we see what American life was like on the frontier. Libbie’s decision to marry Custer carries with it obvious dangers. Already a national hero for his service for the Union army, Libbie knows he will continue to pursue his military career. Despite the obvious dangers of a military wife’s life, Libbie sees in him a chance to escape the traditional cage of domestic marriage. Soli’s descriptions of married life for women of the era are incisive and thoroughly depressing. It is really not that shocking that Libbie would rather live on remote, frontier outposts than wither away in a suffocating small-town marriage. After the devastation of the Civil War, many Americans could not resist the West’s calling. It seemed a second chance for America to save its soul. What Soli asks us to consider is what that calling cost, and if anything resembling salvation was found. The answer, for the tribes, was extinction. For Custer, death at Little Big Horn. For Anne and Libbie, transfor- mation, suffering, awe, grief, and wonder. These are the sorts of Westerns we need. America was built with slave labor on stolen land. Soli demands we reckon with the latter part of that bitterly painful truth. “The Removes” is historical fiction of the most valuable variety. It is brutal. It is honest. It is a reminder of what it cost to build this enormous, gorgeous, difficult country of ours. With this powerful novel, Soli begs us not to forget. REVIEWER CAMERON BRAKE works at Best of Books, Edmond’s independently owned bookstore at 1313 E. Danforth in the Kickingbird Square Shopping Center. August 2018 | The Business Times 29