Sunday, February 03, 2008

Tibetan-Native American-Scottish Spirituality: Following Eliot Pattison into the New World

Impassioned admirers of Eliot Pattison's Shan detective series, set in Chinese-occupied Tibet, will understand why I hesitated to read the first volume of his new series: BONE RATTLER, a historical mystery set in 1759 in Colonial America. The change of genres seemed an abyss. I resisted.

But Kate Mattes at Kate's Mystery Books assured me it was worth the plunge, so I clipped a chunk of time off the calendar and waded into the first few chapters. And was I ever stunned: Pattison has created another lonely, angry, kind, and spiritually seeking protagonist, every bit as heart-piercing and compelling as Shan. And the issues that displaced Scottish Highlander Duncan McCallum wrestles with have as much command on his soul as the life-threatening mystery that surrounds him.

Virtually kidnapped via an English courtroom and an avaricious Army, McCallum sails to the New World as a prisoner. But his skills in medicine -- the field where he'd just been about to be credentialed -- and his pursuit of knowledge and truth pull him out of the cells after all. Unfortunately, the people doing the pulling are about as crooked and avaricious as possible. Deaths multiply, sacrilege erupts, and McCallum's own lost brother has reason to hate him -- despite the fact that the two brothers are the remnant of their persecuted clan.

McCallum's hunger for knowledge equips him with rudiments of Iroquois language, and soon with clues to the powerful mystic symbols and rituals that lie underneath the culture of the Six Tribes. On these, his life depends repeatedly. But it's the loyalty to the lost Highlanders around him, to friends, and to his own clan ancestors and traditions -- even his ability to play the bagpipes, the pibroch -- that are his strengths at the edge of the deep and frightening forests that face him.

As Pattison has done with Shan, straddling a Chinese heritage and a deep longing for the teachings and peace of the Tibetans around him, he does here with McCallum. One powerful scene unfolds after McCallum's been partially scalped, then rescued. In early recovery he doesn't quite put together the gentle English voice of his healer/rescuer and the Indian he sees near him when he regains vision, and he attacks the Indian, desperate to recover or avenge the presumed death of his tender caregiver:

Duncan stared at the man, his jaw agape, looking about the small clearing, then into the forest and back to the stranger again. The man's face was as worn as a river stone, and his bright, intelligent eyes fixed Duncan with a steady, if sad, gaze. Around his neck hung a necklace of glass beads from which hung a small fur-bound amulet. [...]

When the stranger lifted his hand, Duncan thought it was to make a gesture of warning. But instead he slowly extended one finger, first to his lips, then to a shrub at the edge of the clearing. Duncan followed the finger to a bird, with scarlet body and black wings, that burst into a light melody as it studied the two men. They listened without moving for over a minute, until the bird flitted away.

"In the tongue of my boyhood we called him Firecatcher. I have never heard an English name for it. You English have so few names for the important things."

Duncan looked back at the man with the same curious gaze the bird had used. "I am called Duncan McCallum. In the tongue of my boyhood I would be called ungrateful."

A small grin stirred on the man's face.

Though there are no references within BONE RATTLER to Pattison's "other world" of fiction, McCallum's authority in solving the mystery and bringing events to a satisfactory plateau draws on the same ground as Chan's:

"There are other motives to consider [...] And there is the science of their deaths. Science does not lie. [...] Science, like justice, instructs the truth."

I recommend the book highly. Don't think of it as a historical, if that's going to get in your way. Think of it instead, like the best of Tony Hillerman, as a seeker's mystery. And a book that follows knowledge toward wisdom, and loss toward hope.

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