Novels set in the eastern U.S. in the early 19th century always interest me, in part, of course, because I have written a couple of them myself. I’m curious to see how other authors cope with the challenges of historical research in this period, Native American characterizations (especially difficult and important), and specifically the portrayal the lives of women who survived in tremendously difficult circumstances.
My personal test of a great novel is one in which I forget to pay attention to these issues which otherwise consume me. I was maybe three pages into Thieving Forest before the story caught me in its snare, and all the questions and observations I normally juggle while reading went away.
This story concerns five young adult sisters, recently orphaned, who are stolen away from their home by the Potawatomi, a tribe they have always been friendly with. All the sisters receive attention in the story — each of them dealing with shock and violence and loss in her own way — but it is the youngest who carries the largest part of the story. By fortunate circumstance Susanna is close enough nearby to see her sisters being taken, but not to be taken herself.
She sets off to find them, making her way through forests and swamps of what is now Ohio and north to the Great Lakes. I was reminded a little of Cold Mountain, another story of someone who must survive a long and perilous journey to redemption.
Conway tells a complicated story with grace, weaving multiple plot lines together in a way that never jolts. Her prose is elegant in its simplicity but still evocative in its imagery. Her research is top notch, but more than that, she has an eye for the perfect detail. A older Indian family friend who lives in her village carries his belongings in an old leather shoe he wears on a string around his neck, for example.
If you like historical fiction, you should really put this title on your list of books to be read. I