When ensign Thomas Keating arrives at an out-of-sorts fort outside Pittsburgh in early American colonial times, many of its soldiers have already departed for a smoking encampment down the valley. Its remaining occupants are keeping a woman called Elizabeth — who’s heavily integrated into native American culture — captive, and grappling to muddle through as they await their colleagues’ return. Keating is an educated man, and connects with the soldiers in the fort in different ways, struggling at times to unwind their hidden agendas and alliances, and to understand the surreal and at times un-soldierly scenario he’s walked into. Eventually, the occupants depart the fort and immerse themselves in a wild and dangerous area of Native American land, where differing twists of fate await them.
Author Richard Snodgrass’s text is particularly engaging in its feel for his characters and their motives, all of which feed smartly into the turns his text takes away from the predictable. At times A BOOK OF DAYS is a little plodding in its pacing, but it explores the dynamic of a number of complex relationships and uncovers depths of character, as well as making clever use of phonetics to evoke a Scottish accent and differing cultural frictions. Real-world philosopher David Hume is an ever-present undertone in the tale, a figure whose role varies from light comic relief through the language of his still-revered texts, to a past connection with the lead character and the uncertainties of his romantic life back home in Edinburgh.
Where A BOOK OF DAYS triumphs is in setting a novel in a varied and engaging environment and managing to surprise in its twists. It’s a colorful tale, a portrait of landscape and character, nuanced with unexpected depth. While the action can be notably slow-paced, it’s given punch and shade by occasional moments of dramatic violence, as well as its clever way of simultaneously ‘humanizing’ and ‘othering’ Native Americans, whose culture is portrayed in shades of light and dark, which reflect the views of the characters themselves. The core, winding narrative of the story is set within a clever throwback tale that links the events Keating wrote about in his titular book to future consequences, making for a kind of formative multi-generational mystery with plenty of unexpected angles and lots of insight. You could summarize the pertinent plot points in a handful of minutes, but the pleasure here is in taking that road, in the subtleties of language, the descriptors, and the strength of the story’s delivery.
The undulating tale of a single colonial fort and its engagement with native American boundaries in 18th century Pittsburgh, A BOOK OF DAYS is a dark tale and a triumph of subtle life interactions and smart character development.
~James Hendicott for IndieReader