The Removes is a brilliantly-written and well-researched novel. The settling and (so-called taming) of the American frontier in the 1800s is often romanticized in fiction. Very little in this book is romanticized. It brings to life, in vivid description and with brutal realism, a shameful and terrifying period in our nation’s history.
Three intertwined stories are told – those of 15-year-old homesteader Anne, Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer, and Custer’s wife Libbie. When Anne survives a Sioux attack on her family, she’s taken captive to live among the tribe where she endures near-starvation, rape, and hard labor over many years. Young, pampered Libbie also is thrown into a harrowing life when she marries Custer and travels with his regiment as they battle the remaining Indian tribes in the territories.
Tatjana Soli creates characters with depth. While some are fictionalized interpretations of famous people (the Custers), others are pseudohistorical compilations of everyday people from the time (Native Americans, homesteaders, cavalrymen, small town folk, big city socialites). The worst among them are violent and vindictive, the best are often self-indulgent and turn a blind eye to the cruelty around them. There are very few innocents in this story. They all are tragically human.
Soli’s writing evokes strong, often visceral, emotion. The story contains many descriptions of cruel, senseless violence against people and animals. Beyond the anticipated death-toll of war, countless bodies are mutilated, women and children enslaved and abused. Beyond hunting, innumerable animals are slaughtered – dogs, buffalo, horses – for military strategy, for amusement, for vengeance. Several scenes brought tears to my eyes and created a knot in my stomach. This book is not for the faint of heart.
At the same time, Soli captures the beauty of nature and the fortitude of humanity in a way that often consoled me. In relating a rare moment of peace for the young captive, Anne, the author wrote, “The cool nights and nearby river lulled her to a peaceful state. For the moment, she was content. Human happiness was like a flower insistent on burrowing its way out despite the most inhospitable conditions.”
There were a few historical information dumps that could have been handled more lyrically, and several inconsequential scenes that could have been cut to improve the overall story’s pace. But that is a minor nitpick compared to the broad impact the story had on my heart, mind, and soul.
The Removes* is not what I would call an “enjoyable” book, though I’m glad I read it, and I recommend it to anyone able to bear the pain of it. This is historical fiction at its best.
*Purchases at Bookshop.org help support indie bookstores and authors, including me.