by Margaret Wyman
Category: Fiction / Historical
311 pages; ISBN: 1931857008
Rating: 9/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Paul Lappen
Subtitled "The Birth of California, The Death of a Nation," this novel tells the story of a Native American tribe who were losing their freedom at the same time that the United States was gaining its freedom.
A young woman named Web (because of her webbed fingers)is a member of the Kumeyaay, a tribe living near present-day San Diego. It's marriage time, and Web is taken to another Kumeyaay band, several days journey away, to meet her new husband, Shadow Dancer. Because of her webbed fingers, the reception is not pleasant. In the beginning, Shadow Dancer wants nothing to do with Web. Another woman in the band, Crooked Basket, who can't deal with not becoming Mrs. Shadow Dancer, makes Web's life as difficult as possible. One day, Web catches Shadow Dancer and Crooked Basket having an affair. Casts No Shadow, the band's shaman, and Shadow Dancer's father, makes it clear that the affair shall stop-now.
Around this time, the paleskins (Spanish) arrive in their giant canoes. Some of the other Kumeyaay bands advocate ignoring the Spanish, figuring that they'll leave, while others say Attack Now. An attack is launched, which turns into a disaster for the Kumeyaay. Shadow Dancer decides that he must go to a nearby Spanish mission, and learn their magic to bring back to his people. Casts No Shadow wants him to stay and continue his shaman training. The Kumeyaay who visit the mission to see what this new thing is all about are taught that their culture and religious beliefs are wrong, and the only way to clean out their "heathenism" is to be forbidden to go back to their band.
Later, after another disastrous Kumeyaay attack, Spanish troops arrest Casts No Shadow and throw him into a "dungeon." Web is able to regularly bring him native food. Separated from his sacred herbs and from nature, Casts No Shadow turns into an old man practically right before Web's eyes. Shadow Dancer, back with the Kumeyaay by this time, offers himself in exchange for his father. He is forced into slave labor by the Spanish, and is released months later, almost worked to death. The growing string of bad happenings is blamed on Web, because of her webbed fingers.
In a way, this is not pleasant reading. It's highly recommended because this is a well-researched, interesting novel that helps put to rest the perception that Spanish imperialism in the American Southwest was run by kind, benevolent people whose only motivation was love for all of God's children. It's very much worth reading.