The enchantment of reading historical novels is renewed every time the casual reader discovers a really decent, in-depth account of a period and a place such as this account of the Civil War in eastern Oklahoma. Here is a fresh aspect of a war that everyone probably thinks they already knew about; contravening the notion that just about everything that could be worked into a novel set during the Civil War had been beaten into the ground by writers of popular novels round about the time that Margaret Mitchell received her first royalty check for ‘Gone With the Wind’.

That particular conflict and the passions that led up to it engaged every part of America – state, territory, settled or wide-open wilderness, not just that little part of it along the eastern seaboard. There was, as a casual reader may be startled to discover, quite a lot of Civil War action happening out west. (The very last pitched battle of that war actually took place in Texas, a month after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.) “The Confederate War Bonnet” focuses on the war as it was fought in the Indian Territories of Oklahoma, the home of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”. The Civilized Tribes were as split by the question of slavery and abolition, of old hatreds and regional loyalties as anywhere else during those war years. And curiously, their leadership and people were also tied closely to the white cultural and political establishment. One of the leading characters in “The Confederate War Bonnet” is Jack Gaston; half white and half Creek Indian, a Harvard undergraduate and completely astounded to discover that he has been commissioned as an officer in the Confederate Army and his father, the owner of the only printing press in the Territory has been killed. His best friend, Jim Tom Nokose comes to Boston to bring him home to the Territory, to fight for his people and to take up publishing his father’s newspaper.

One of the most curiously satisfying aspects of this novel lies in the description of the ordinary lives of the Gaston family and their friends; melding Indian and white customs. They are literate and cultured, good and careful farmers and craftsmen, poised between two cultures and fairly comfortable with both. Jim Tom Nokose loves playing the banjo and the songs of Stephen Foster; Jack’s younger sister Sarah names the farm animals after European intellectuals and musicians, and wears a beaded buckskin gown to be married in. This is not the society depicted in the B-movie, John Wayne westerns; it is something a little more nuanced, a little more complicated – and a great deal more interesting – than the simple red man versus white man narrative. The personalities are vividly drawn; interesting and quirky people all – and with the benefit of being based upon real and historic people, since some of them might have sounded otherwise rather contrived. Real life does pull wilder stunts than the most imaginative writer ever could.

The narrative is slightly marred by the occasional jarringly anachronism; describing the size of a meadow where Jack and his neighbors play an break-neck Indian ball game as being the size of a football field, or morning glories growing like kudzu, when such things would not have been known at all at that point in the 19th century. And the author stepped outside of period now and again, in explaining such matters as railway track gages, 19th century minstrel theater troupes, and the inter-tribal politics of the Indian Territory. Otherwise, it is a very readable and fascinating story about what was, relatively, an unknown backwater to the American Civil War.

The Confederate War Bonnet is available through Amazon and the publisher, iUniverse.

Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member (along with the writer of “The Confederate War Bonnet) of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her current book “To Truckee’s Trail” is available here. More about her books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.

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