Secret History of the Cherokees (Indian Territory Press, 2011) by Deborah Duvall, Murv Jacob and James Murray is a highly entertaining nonfiction novel, the first in a planned series that is as ambitious as it is concise. Within a mere 288 pages, more than half a century of Cherokee history is covered—from Thomas Jefferson’s 1808 meeting with a delegation of Cherokee representatives to the Cherokee Confederate Brigadier General, Stand Watie, battling in the middle of the Civil War in 1863. Along the way, dozens of characters appear and retreat.
As a historical novel, Secret History evokes E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Many of the characters are real, but every now and then you wonder if a minor point is fact or fiction—and that is what gives the narrative its power. For the curious, a bibliography is included.
The spiritual heart of the novel is Sequoyah. We first meet him in Arkansas, where he is working on the Cherokee syllabary in 1816. He is also writing a secret history of the Cherokee people that the novel keeps referencing. His death is one of the most poetic passages in the book, and it is followed by the search for his grave and the return of his bones to Oklahoma. His voice is still present after death, thanks to his writings.
Plenty of other threads are woven through the narrative. There is the bloody battle between Gen. Watie, Tom Starr and John Ross for political power. Caught up in this struggle, and the war, are the medicine man Pumpkin and his family. There is also the story of the fictional slave Cassius and his wife, Sadie, from whom he is separated when she is sold to another farm.
Duvall, Jacob and Murray don’t pull any punches in their description of how the Cherokees treated their slaves, including slaughtering runaways to make examples of them. It is particularly poignant that this book, which has been in the works for years, is being published amid the legal battle in the Cherokee Nation over the citizenship of the freedmen, the descendants of the Cherokee slaves.
Overall, Secret History of the Cherokees is a compact historical epic that reads like a potboiler. It is recommended not just for history buffs but also for anyone looking for a good page-turner. A word of warning, though: The book is unapologetic in its Twainian uses of Ebonics and the N word, not to mention its explicit sexuality.
From Children’s Books to Grown-Ups’ Novel
Deborah Duvall and Murv Jacob are known for their children’s books. Screenwriter and farrier James Murray has spent his life on the Cherokee Nation. Indian Country Today Media Network asked Duvall and Jacob why they decided to switch gears and write a novel.
How do three authors co-write a novel?
Jacob: We wrote it in my art studio, right in the middle of Tahlequah [the capital of Cherokee Nation] with everybody coming by. And it wasn’t just three people writing it; it was everybody that came in. People were reading it while we were writing it, and they would make suggestions, so it was like a community.
Duvall: We combed through every word of it and battled our way through it. It was three of us pulling in three directions until we finally agreed about how it would go.
Jacob: One person writing it, they would’ve gotten away with more stuff. We didn’t let ourselves get away with that crap.
How much of it is true?
Duvall: Some of these scenarios never took place, like the kid who wants to fly. He’s not a real character, but the kids he is playing with are real: Redbird Smith and Neddie Christie. Cassius is not real, but he becomes real by the end of the book. However, his wife Sadie and the slave revolt that occurs at Louis Ross’s farm is a true story taken from the slave narratives. A lot of this came directly out of slave narratives, like the lady chopping her hand off and throwing it at her master is a true story. If it seems too crazy to be real then it’s not real, but otherwise it basically is.
Jacob: We knew when we were putting this together that we were going to have people trying to climb up our asses. Now don’t quote me on that, try to find a more literary way of saying it, but.… No, I don’t care. I like the idea of people trying to climb up my ass and what happens to them. And what happens is there’s a bibliography there, so if they want to climb up my ass they have to read about 200 books to do it. We did not write this by committee; you mess with us, you’ll find out we’re a gang! I don’t even know which of us is the best armed.