Outstanding and brilliant…..A few SPOILERS included!!!! I felt it’s important to let readers in on the few I share. But none of them will take away the readers own spellbinding experience.
This is a novel written with purpose beyond the storytelling….yet its page turning storytelling-engrossing.
The American Civil War was brutal….1861 to 1865…. between the north and south. It was a nasty war of controversy over enslavement of Black People in our America.
Following the Civil War…( the story that author, Michael McLellan brings us), ….
attitudes regarding race in the south hardened. Reinforced by pseudo-Scientific reports that claimed that whites were a superior race, and by religious claims that whites had been chosen by God to have domain over others, the southern states passed laws regarding miscegenation and other forms of racial mixing ( including segregated schooling, housing, and healthcare). Race functioned to rationalize thoughts and behavior, to explain both human behavior and social status as being innate.
As a biracial South developed, The Indians were placed in a difficult position. Many had been slave owners prior to the Civil War and had attitude toward African-Americans that were similar to Southern Americans. On the other hand, the Southern Americans viewed the world as having only two kinds of people: Whites and others, (including African-Americans, coloreds, and Indians).
This historical fiction novel mostly focuses on ‘the others’: The horrific devastation done to Blacks, and the Indigenous People.
In the war, both sides used African-Americans for military purposes; in the south as slave labor and in the north as wage labor and military volunteers. Over 100,000 ex-slaves fought for the union and over 500,000 fled their plantations for union lines.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, making 3 million blacks legally free….
Henry, a tall black man, over 6 feet tall, was one of those free slaves…..with legal ‘freedom-papers’ that wouldn’t mean a damn if caught by a Jayhawker. But he heard from several sources that they would do better heading north – rather than south. So, leaving Missouri, Henry and Eliza, ( a petite black slave woman – the love of each other’s lives, from the same tobacco plantation), followed the river northeast with their destination being Illinois. Eliza dies early in the story. The events that happened never leave you.
Henry was raised on a plantation near Osceola, Missouri, by a woman named Harriet. His own mother died during childbirth. His father, had been stabbed to death by another slave when Henry was 3 years old.
Harriet taught, Henry, at a young age, not to argue with white people. She wasn’t particularly affectionate, and put him to work by the age of 7, ( drying tobacco), but she certainly never hit him.
Henry’s life changed forever at age 15, when he was bought at the slave auction.
It wasn’t long until the hitting and whipping began.
“Remove your clothes and put them over there”. He choked back tears- was homesick for his little shanty on the edge of the tobacco field. He would never hear Harriet’s sweet singing voice as she chopped vegetables ever again.
Much later in the story – Henry will name his mare, Harriet.
His journey as an African American in the south – after the Civil War – is gut wrenching – DEVASTATING EXPERIENCES – with moments of hope, blessings, and thankfulness, too….( especially to Cheyenne Indian Chief and tribe), but so much was terrifying. The violence, depravity, and mayhem, was horrifying. I kept reading because I trusted the storytellers, (author’s ), authenticity.
But there were a few scenes where I had to break my reading – TO RECOVER.
Michael McLellan’s sharply chiseled prose sets up two story lines:
Clara Hanfield and John Elliot love each other. Both have powerful, controlling, ruthless & righteous father’s.
Clara and John are forbidden fruit to each according to their fathers.
John must leave West Point Military school to fight off the Indians. John wanted no part of murder. Frank Picton was John’s commander. Picton accuse John of being naïve and a coward. Picton was simply an immoral, sinful, and vile!
John takes his journey…..
Clara takes her journey …..first by stealing money from her father and running away from her family and school to find John. He doesn’t know that she’s pregnant.
Clara’s journey turns violent too.
The adventures, trauma, the sufferings > are stories told with mesmerizing prose.
For me – this was one – if not ‘the’ best novel – written about this period of history. I really ‘experienced’ – vicariously – this searing world of long ago.
Scenes were achingly beautiful. —Elyse Walters, Goodreads Top Reviewer.
Historical Fiction isn’t something I reach for all the time, but Michael McLellan’s In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree blew me away. I think it is my favorite book I’ve read so far, this year!
The characters are absolutely the most intriguing part of this story. I love how we jump back and forth from each character, and watch how each story intermingles. The smallest details in the beginning can be the biggest detail toward the end, and I think that calls attention to the incredible talent of Michael McLellan.
The story is heartbreaking and beautiful – with themes of love, friendship, hatred, conspiracies, and murder. It’s difficult to read, but also something I think that is important. This part of American history is shameful, but this story is able to show that everyday heroes do exist and not everyone conforms to social norms.
I’m so impressed with In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree. It’s an emotional rollercoaster I don’t think I will forget, and I am so glad I was able to read it.
5/5☆ —Jessica Belmont
McLellan has produced in his third novel a searing tale of the 1860s, intertwining Southern slavery with massacres of Native Americans as white settlers expanded westward. It is not for the squeamish.
“In The Shadow Of The Hanging Tree” ($15 in paperback from Sweet Candy Press; also for Amazon Kindle) begins in 1861 in Missouri, charting the horrific life of 20-year-old Henry, a newly freed slave, attempting to escape the roaming militias intent on killing runaways.
Caught by Emmet Dawson and his band, Henry and his companion Eliza face almost certain death. They are taken to a big tree by the road. “There were six people hanging from the tree limb. Even with the blood from his cut face blinding one of his eyes, Henry saw more than he could bear: five men and one small boy, all slaves.”
There is a parallel story. In 1865, John Elliot is expelled from West Point at the behest of influential East Coast businessman Jonathon Hanfield. He is shipped off to Fort Laramie in the Dakota Territory to assist Colonel Frank Picton “with the Indian situation.” John, in love with Hanfield’s daughter Clara, is also the son of Hanfield’s rival.
Henry survives, recuperates with the Cheyenne, and becomes a military guide at Fort Laramie. When it becomes clear that Picton has formed a militia intent on fomenting an all-out race war against the indigenous peoples, Henry and John (now reunited with Clara) face stark choices. There is graphic violence (with the N-word used fifty times) in this deeply affecting, gut-punch of a novel.
“The white man only knows desire,” Standing Elk tells Henry. “He knows nothing of contentment… The white soldiers murder without regard, but themselves are spiritless and go screaming into their own deaths as they were born into life…There can be no peace with such men.” —Dan Barnett, Chico Enterprise Record