Saturday, April 17, 2021

Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds - for the 1936 Club

Title: Drums Along the Mohawk
Author: Walter D. Edmonds (1903-1998)
Publication: Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 1936
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Upstate New York, 1976-84

The 1936 Club is hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.
Description: When pioneering farmer Gilbert Martin sweeps 18-year-old Lana Borst off her feet and away from her family to help him settle his new farm in the Mohawk Valley, she anticipates a life of hard work and challenges but does not expect Indian warfare, violence, starvation, or Gil’s disappearance for endless periods of time when her husband is conscripted to the Revolutionary forces. She complains much less than I would! 

Much of the story involves a battle in 1977 when General Nicholas Herkimer, a Freemason and slave-owner of German descent, led a motley crew of New York militia (Gil and other farmers reluctant to leave their crops) against the British and Indian forces in Oriskany (not far from the future Erie Canal, which would be built from 1817-1825). Although the battle was a draw, the Revolutionary forces delayed British General St. Leger from reaching General Burgoyne in the south, which George Washington considered crucial to the outcome of the war. Herkimer himself, an appealing character, dies of injuries from the battle (I will spare you the non-chloroform details). The aftermath of the battle for those sheltering at Fort Herkimer is dire: most cannot return to their lands because they have lost everything and are vulnerable to atrocities from the enemy. Gil and Lana are lucky to get work from a widow who needs a man to farm her land, and she becomes family to them. When the war finally ends, many of the Indians on both sides have been killed and survivors have gone to Canada, and the exhausted farmers try to rebuild their homes and lives.

My Impression: The story of the settling of the Mohawk Valley during the years of the American Revolution was Edmonds' most successful book. It was a bestseller for two years and second in popularity during that time only to Gone With the Wind. It is an interesting story, told mostly from the perspective of this young pioneer couple, although at a certain point it was hard to keep all the characters straight and it would have benefitted from a list. There is also a lot to offend a modern audience: what seems like marital rape when Lana is in shock after her home was torched and she suffered a miscarriage; frequent use of the N word; depiction of indigenous people as violent, dirty, and dishonest, and of slaves as simple-minded and treated with contempt; and men who threaten to beat their wives And rarely have I read such vivid depictions of scalping! The Oneida warriors allied with the colonists but most of the other Iroquois tribes fought with the British, especially the Mohawks and Senecas, although it sounds very haphazard.
The book is well researched and does a good job conveying how ordinary people were swept along by revolutionary forces, particularly when they were not very well informed or even interested in what was going on in Philadelphia or Boston (shocking to one who grew up in Boston!), and that war really is hell. I did not know that many of the farmers of the Mohawk Valley descended from early 18th-century German Palatine emigrants, who escaped the Heidelberg area for England, then were sent to America by the British early in the 18th century. The Mohawk Valley is 250 miles and a lifetime away from the Dutch settlers of Manhattan who seem more sophisticated than the Palatines (this is also noticeable in modern-day statewide elections, much to the resentment of upstate New York voters, as I noticed when living in Manhattan). 

Lana’s family is relatively prosperous but she chooses to marry Gilbert after meeting him twice, without understanding the hardships ahead. She is well equipped with household goods when she leaves her family, including a peacock feather, a family treasure from a seafaring uncle who gave five to Lana’s mother. Everyone in her new neighborhood wants to see and marvel over the feather, and I knew it was only a matter of time before it was stolen, although it does reappear in the last pages as a bedraggled symbol of hope. Lana is not well developed as a character but she deserves better than the hardships she endures in this book. I do not think I have ever read such a vivid and disturbing depiction of the violence of war. I guess I won't complain about a little snow on April 16th!

Movie Version
: There was a movie starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, with (who knew) William Faulkner as the screenwriter, although filmed in Utah rather than New York. The Video Librarian describes it: 
Director John Ford seamlessly blends romance, adventure, and comedy in this expertly made film, one of the most commercially successful for 1939. In addition to Fonda and Colbert, many other members of legendary filmmaker Ford’s “stock company” are on hand, including John Carradine, Ward Bond, Arthur Shields, and Russell Simpson.

Adding immeasurable value is veteran character actress Edna May Oliver, playing yet another horse-faced spinster (she steals practically every scene she’s in). Stirring and evocative, Drums Along the Mohawk brings a fascinating period of American history to vibrantly colorful life.
There Are No Coincidences: In The Goldfinch, which I was reading simultaneously with this equally long book, Theo’s mentor Hobie is from upstate New York and tells Theo about a mahogany sofa encountered in his youth that inspired his interest in furniture, which was rumored to have belonged to General Herkimer.  I had not previously heard of the war hero but what can I say?  I majored in the 16th century, not the 18th.

Message from the Author: To those who may feel that here is a great to-do about a bygone life, I have one last word to say. It does not seem to be a bygone life at all. The parallel is too close to our own.  Those people of the valley were confronted by a reckless Congress and ebullient finance, with their inevitable repercussions of poverty and practical starvation. . . . Outnumbered by trained troops, well equipped, these farmers won the final battle of the long war, preserved their homes, and laid the foundations of a great and strong community.
Source: Library. This is my ninth book in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader, and at 592 pages it took me quite a while to wade through.  It was an interesting read, although for those interested in historical fiction about the Revolutionary War, I would suggest Dawn’s Early Light by Elswyth Thane or Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow, which have better-drawn characters and less gratuitous violence.


Cath said...

Well, I must've seen the film many years ago but couldn't remember what it was about. Excellent review, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the book and it's historical setting and point of view. I shy away a bit from rape in books but it is necessary to know about these things. The one in Life After Life (I'm halfway through) took me completely by surprise. So casually was it done by the perpetrator that I felt as shocked as Ursula. But then that's the power of fiction and long may it be so.

CLM said...

You're right, the rape in Life After Life was particularly shocking because it was so casual and because of the ripple effect it has on Ursula's life (at least that particular one!). I suspect all rape victims struggle with how to respond but girls of Ursula's era probably were all conditioned to blame themselves, which is awful. That book was very readable but disturbing! I have the second one but really don't know if I want to read it. The marital rape in this book most unfortunately seemed to wake up the heroine from her misery and restore her relationship with her husband - obviously written by a man.

Cath said...

Interesting that in a subsequent life when he kissed her in the woods she slapped him away and things turned out very differently. A lot to consider about the way men behave and the conclusions they come to about women. I wish it were possible to alter the mindset of quite a few men but fear it's an uphill struggle. Even the good ones don't fully understand, sadly. (I speak as a 'me too' woman.) Huge subject and I get into long discussions with my husband about it quite a lot. How unfortunate that the marital rape in Drums restored her relationship with her husband. As you said, written by a man. I've given up reading at least one series where the middle-aged male author has written his male hero as irrestible to young women with the resultant sex scenes clearly acting out his own fantasies. The older I get the more distasteful I find that. I needed a short break from Life After Life (I'm reading about disappearances in American NPs) as it's so intense... a bomb just fell on the place where she lives!

TracyK said...

Although this sounds like a good book from the viewpoint of learning about history, I think I won't be reading it. I appreciated the depth of your review, though.

Katrina said...

That's a very interesting review but I'm quite gkad that I'm unlikely to find a copy of this book easily as I don't fancy reading a description of scalping.

Those 'coincidences' are always happening to me, it seems quite spooky at times as there are usually three mentions of something obscure that I knew nothing about within a day or so.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

That last para, I completely agree with. History is too similar to the present, and those who don't learn from it, are bound to repeat it. Or so the saying goes.
And your comment about coincidences made me shiver. It happens a lot to me - I'm thinking of new book to try, and someone blogs about it. I find a difficult word, and somehow that word comes back to me in another form.
I'm not sure I'll be able to read a book that's not so sensitive of more modern sensibilities. I do understand that books are products of their times, but I think it would be wrong to say that sensitivity is only a modern phenomenon. A very challenging lens to review any book, at any rate.

Lory said...

Oh no, byegone ages are not byegone at all! I was reading the book "The Year of Lear," set in 1606, and I was stunned by the parallels to today - with two intransigient parties at loggerheads in the Catholics and Protestants, a deadly plague, a narrowly averted violent insurrection in the seat of government (the Gunpowder Plot of 1605), and lies, lies everywhere.

I knew the title of this one but did not realize it was so grim and graphic. Your description gives me a good sense of what to expect, should I ever decide to read it.