History is an interesting subject, we could learn so much about our modern life if only we took the time to understand the past. I can think of almost no conflict that was simple, the movies tend to use good versus bad, in fact even the way history is taught in our schools has been reduced to these simplistic concepts, often ignoring the subtle and complex forces that were at work

The late 1700’s were a tumultuous period in the history of America. The movie makers would have us believe that it was battle between the savage scalping Indians and the peace loving pioneers from Europe. This could not be further from the truth. This was not a two way battle, the Brits, the Colonists, and the French had all had formed relationships with the diverse native tribes, and this led to a situation where we find a very complex situation. White man against white man, and native against native, and everyone had an agenda.

Ok, enough of the history lesson, lets talk about P. M. Terrell’s latest book Songbirds Are Free.  Historical fiction is the blending of known facts and weaving a storyline around them, it is notoriously difficult to do well. Ms Terrell is to be commended, she has produced a very fine work. Songbirds is her fifth book and the writing reflects this maturity.

The story follows the real life story of Mary Neely who at age 19 witnesses the killing of her father by a marauding band of Shawnee Indians who then take her captive. Over a two year period we follow her captivity as she moves steadily north from present day Nashville to the northern tip of Michigan.

Mary is desperate to escape, but also desperate to stay alive. She becomes part of the extended Shawnee family, although she is treated with an amount of mistrust “Are you a songbird or a Goshawk” the Shawnee warrior asks? After reading Mary’s story I conclude that she is neither, but she certainly goes down as one of the most resilient people I have ever heard about. Enduring conditions that we today can not even comprehend, her will to survive should be an inspiration to us all.

As Mary discovers, being part of an Shawnee family is hard, but for the most part they do at least have a level of respect for human life. This is more than can be said of the British, although they are fellow ‘White men’, they treat the settlers like bugs needing to be exterminated. They pay the various Indian bands to perform their dirty work, and the Indians are required to bring the scalps back as proof! This is something that Hollywood has skillfully avoided in the multitude of movies in the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ genre!

One aspect of Songbirds Are Free that I thought was wonderful, was the inclusion of the entirely fictional character Jim (Lieutenant James J. Hawkins), Ms Terrell uses Jim as the conduit to explain the larger picture of the conflicts occurring during the latter years of the 1700’s. This is a wonderful way to give clarity to Mary’s story in a historical and political perspective.

Songbirds Are Free is actually a bit of a corroborative work, Patricia (oops cats out the bag on your pen name) was assisted by her father John William Neeley Sr. who is a very keen genealogist, and has been piecing together the Neely or is it Neeley family tree for quite a number of years. Genealogy is not always straightforward, names change over time.

There is a web site dedicated to the book, and it is well worth visiting. I give this book very high marks, the writing quality is impeccable, the subject well researched, the fiction well developed and innovative, but most of all, it is a ‘cannot put down’ read.

Songbirds Are Free will be available on Oct/1, you can pre-order your copy from Amazon.

Simon Barrett


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