Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
Here’s Catherine Bell’s first sentence of her novel, Rush of Shadows:
It was a beautiful country, though I hated and feared it, coming over the mountains with the wagon staggering on a gimpy wheel, black crags towering over the track, the sky blue and thick as a flatiron, and the vultures turning and turning on the hot wind, waiting for somebody to die.
Wow. Now here was some finely crafted prose worthy to open a novel. Was the whole book to be this way? Well it was, and much of the many themes woven together in this story of the settling of northern California can be discerned in that first sentence. Especially the vultures. And as I read through the book I was amazed at how polished it was. What a joy to read.
The story follows the lives of Mellie and her husband, Law, as they try to make a living settling in a valley in northern California from 1855 to 1867. The hardships they endure make one wonder how they, and indeed anybody, ever survived. In addition to the vivid descriptions of the scenery and the various chores they must do to build houses and barns and take care of their animals, there is an ever growing cast of characters with whom they interact. These characters are rich and complex and often do things not completely “in character.” Yet it works as we find these people to be very real.
The main conflict in the novel is between the increasing number of white settlers and the local Indians who have lived there all their lives. Mellie is sympathetic to the plight of the Indians as they are slowly pushed out of their homes and forced onto reservations many miles away. She befriends an Indian woman and does her best to help her, but eventually it becomes a lost cause. These are “Digger” Indians. Not your colorful buffalo-hunting, majestic horseback riding Plains Indians, but Indians who know how to live off the land by fishing when the salmon run, collecting almonds when the trees bear, likewise with acorns, digging for edible roots (thus the name “Digger”), and occasionally hunting deer. They don’t have, or need, horses. The whites who want them out display all the ridiculous racist arguments of how the Indians are stupid and dirty and could never be trusted. Somehow their “Digger” status makes them even lower than the Plains Indians, and they are treated with much disdain by most of the whites.
While there is a sense of pride and accomplishment as their white community grows, there is an underlying sadness that follows the story through to the end. Though Mellie and a few others try to defend the Indians, their removal seems almost pre-ordained. They will lose not only their land but their very way of life as well. This sadness also shows up in the conflicts that break out among the whites themselves including some that end in bloodshed. Then there is the overall hardship of frontier life in dealing with things such as epidemics of diphtheria and other diseases. Life before modern medicine was tenuous at best.
The book is well researched. There is an overall authenticity in terms of lifestyle both of the Indians and the whites. For example, Mellie never learns her Indian friend’s name. In the culture it is impolite and offensive to ask one’s name. By the end of the story, Mellie still hadn’t learned it. Rush of Shadows is well worth the read.
Reviewer Reilly Ridgell is the author of the widely used textbook Pacific Nations and Territories, in print since 1983, and co-author of its elementary level version Pacific Neighbors. Also, he has written Green Pearl Odyssey, an adult adventure/chase novel set in the islands of Micronesia, and The Isla Vista Crucible, a novel set in UC/Santa Barbara in ’69 to ’70. He also wrote Bending to the Trade Winds, a collection of Peace Corps stories from Micronesia.