Regional books of note for March:
“The Rebel Nun,” by Marj Charlier (Blackstone Publishing)
As Denver bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, Marj Charlier reported on everything from beer to hard-rock mining. Now, she turns her considerable investigative skills to a subject she never would have covered as a reporter: a rebellious 6th-century nun.
Clotild, the bastard daughter of a king, joins a convent at the age of 13 to escape ambitious stepmothers who would marry her off for political advantage or even have her killed. Raised by a pagan mother and grandmother, Clotild is polytheistic, praying as often to the goddess Frigga as to the Virgin Mary.
Nonetheless, she is drawn to the religious sisterhood and is intensely loyal, with hopes of being named the abbess one day. Her ambition is thwarted when a venomous bishop installs his own foil. The new abbess is gluttonous and greedy, robbing the cloister’s treasury, cutting rations and allowing a man into her quarters. The nuns rebel. Clotild leads a contingent of them out of the cloister on a remarkable journey to demand the church hierarchy give them control of their order.
Charlier draws on history not only for details about the real Clotild but also for the circumstances of women in a time of growing religious misogyny, and that is what makes “The Rebel Nun” so impactful. Women in the early church had a certain amount of freedom, but by Clotild’s time, the priestly establishment was intent on freezing them out. Clotild and the members of her cloister are no longer allowed to touch holy objects or to control their religious orders. They are called sinful and unclean and even soulless, with no control over their destiny. They could be wives, prostitutes or nuns.
So it is unspeakable that Clotild would dare to dream of independence. Charlier writes vividly about an appalling time when women were little more than chattel.
With its rich liturgical and feminist detail, “The Rebel Nun” is a story of an age-old rebellion that speaks to today’s women.
“Beyond the Rio Gila,” by Scott G. Hibbard (Five Star)
In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, some 500 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enlisted the U.S. Army to fight against Mexico. The so-called Mormon Battalion, the only religious unit in U.S. military history, marched 2,100 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego. It was the longest march in U.S. military history.
At the same time, the First Dragoons headed west to the same designation.
Montana author Scott G. Hibbard draws on this tandem march for a character-driven story that is not so much a tale of war as it is the story of soldiers caught up in the challenges and hardships of frontier army life. These are ordinary men who face extraordinary circumstances, from saddle sores to starvation, from boredom to murder.
Hibbard tells the story mostly through the eyes of two young privates. Moses Cole is a run-away Virginia farm boy who joins the Dragoons in Pennsylvania. There he is taken under the wing of an erudite companion who molds him into a soldier. Gabriel Hanks, 15, joins the Mormon Battalion only because Brigham Young has told him to do so. The battalion’s pay will go to the church, not to the men. Still, Gabriel says, “All the king’s oxen won’t hold me back.”
The lives of the two men intersect as both are conflicted about the life they’ve chosen. Gabriel hopes to rejoin the Mormons headed west while Moses can’t forget the girl he left behind.
Infused with historical and military detail, “Beyond the Rio Gila” tells of the lives of hardship faced by soldiers some 150 years ago. As they trek across the unforgiving desert of the Southwest, they tolerate the officiousness of their officers, even as they develop a respect and friendship for each other so deep they risk their lives for their comrades.
This is a rich story of everyday soldiers.
“Commendable Discretion,” by J. Hoolihan Clayton (Dog Soldier Press)
Did white men fight on the side of the Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn? A secret report sent to President Grant suggests they did. So Grant calls on former Pinkerton and Civil War spy C.W Collins to check it out. This is the basis of a first novel by Native American writer J. Hoolihan Clayton.
The assignment is not an easy one. Collins first deals with Army generals in the West, one of whom — Nelson Miles — is decidedly uncooperative and wants to enlist Collins’ help in his own fight against the Indians. Collins also visits the horror of the Little Bighorn battlefield, where he searches in vain for a distinctive gun that belonged to Miles Keogh, killed in the battle.
Collins is fortunate to team up with an Indian guide and interpreter as he makes his way to Sitting Bull’s encampment. Arbuckles, as she is known, has a keen knowledge of the land, and together, they confront blizzards and Indians as well as Miles’ soldiers, as they make their way to the Hunkpapa Lakota camp and an encounter with a strange band of white men.
Clayton has done a prodigious job of research into the aftermath of the famous Custer battle. She writes vividly of the treacherous journey that Collins makes in his hunt for the Indian chief. But the book suffers from too many extraneous scenes, and Collins would have been more believable if he’d had a flaw or two.
Still, the idea that there might have been white men fighting with the Indians is intriguing. And the period detail will appeal to Western readers.
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