Exiled and shorn of his family and clan, Duncan McCallum's path during the three earlier books has meant turning his medical training into the baby steps of a new forensic science. Technically he's still a runaway from government justice, living in the forests of Pennsylvania, far from the vicious man who claims to hold him within an indenture. But readers of the earlier books have seen Duncan transformed through learning the ways of the Algonquin Nation. His friend Conawago is an elder of the Nipmuc tride, and together the men have survived brutal attacks, rescued the well-meaning and innocent, and upheld the tribal rights and customs. Duncan has, in fact, joined a New World clan, and he's well aware of how fortunate he has been. Now in 1765, he even has a woman in his life, someone he trusts and respects and who is also working for justice and, dare we say it, peace.
That may be a lot to swallow for first-time readers of this series. If it sound like further than you can imagine stretching, don't read this one yet -- go to Bone Rattler, then Eye of the Raven, then Original Death. Follow along on this remarkable but step-by-step reasonable path that Pattison outlines.
But many first-time readers of the series will find instead that the quick pace, dramatic action, and fiercely honorable allies presented here make it easy to leap into Duncan's adventures right away. Remember how William Penn thought he was creating a "city of brotherly love" in Philadelphia? Duncan's beloved Sarah Ramsey makes a smaller version possible on the western frontier (yes, Pennsylvania edged the wilderness then), in her Edentown. And Duncan needs some of that peace and tranquillity for himself.
Especially now, because he has a mission from the Iroquois. Summoning him to use his skills, Adanahoe, an elderly woman who leads the spiritual side of the tribes, needs him to retrieve a holy item that's been stolen -- before the tribes lose their ability to survive in the new age.
Almost before Duncan can reach his heart's home, though, killings erupt around him -- and without time to consider, he's thrust out into the wilderness again, chasing murderers and trying to interpret cryptic clues that surround him.
Without our hindsight, Duncan has no idea that the colonists around him in 1765 have reached a boiling point. He's been out in the forest, after all. In the taverns, and the back rooms of powerful men, rebellion is brewing. War is on the table for consideration -- and Duncan takes far too long to grasp what's at stake.
But he sees clearly enough the folly of the settlers and city men, even the ones who think they are healers bringing their art to the natives, like the young Benjamin Rush, an associate of Ben Franklin's.
Duncan eyed the tied leather roll Rush had carried through his ordeal, now resting on the pile of logs beside the young scientist. Rush sighed but did not stop him as he unrolled it, exposing a row of silvery instruments, each in its own sewn pocket. Surgical knives, tweezers, a metal rule, a small bone saw, probes, long needles with silk thread, and a reed-thin stem of metal with a tiny mirror at its end ...
Duncan eyed the tools uneasily. "What exactly in God's name are you doing here, Rush?"But this interlude is almost a gentle one, compared with what Duncan and his friends are headed toward, as Duncan's hunt for a murderous cabal puts him into the way of the most angry patriots along the New World's coast. Duncan has never dreamed that good, wise men would ever actually choose to defy the King -- and as he begins to realize how wrong he has been, lives of the people he loves are on the line. He will have to mesh his training in deduction and reason, with the canny opportunism he's learned from both of his "tribes," to have a chance at surviving.
"Gathering evidence, of course. With doctors in Philadelphia paying three pounds a body, there's no end of cadavers there. But it's damnable hard to find a native specimen. ... I showed them my coin. I asked about the recently dead. They did not seem to understand. Only one spoke any English and that poorly. So I pulled out a surgical blade to help him understand. He asked what it was and I told him, very slowly, to help him grasp the word. Then he pulls out his war ax and shouts at me."
Duncan stared in mute astonishment. "You must have an angel hovering over you to have survived so long. ... You come from Philadelphia, where they pay bounties for Indian hair, you show him your coin, then display your blade, naming it your scalpel." Duncan repeated the word, slowly, the way Rush must have done. "Scalp-el."
The color left Rush's face. "Dear God! I didn't ... I never meant to suggest ... dear God!" he repeated.
Duncan stared at the forlorn man, wondering not for the first time how learned men could be so unwise in the ways of the world.
The horrible conditions of slaveholding, of manipulative indentures, of women who have no real rights, and of invaders uprooting a land's people in order to seize wealth -- all of these align againtst Duncan in this volume.
A small caution for mystery readers: Although Duncan's forensics operate powerfully here, especially in the first half of BLOOD OF THE OAK, several major twists and his eventual fate depend more on his ability to choose the right alliances and sustain them. Thus, this is less a tale of investigation than of revelation and maturing.
His confusion was like a physical pain. He stared at the foreboding words [on a slip of paper inside a Bible], which kindled anew his grief for the young couple in the churchyard.Pattison's deep strength is in his gift of in-life autopsy of the human mind and soul. He lines up, chapter upon chapter, the forces that Duncan must face in a new way -- or lose himself in the process.
It made no sense that amidst the urgent, mysterious work these men were engaged in they would take the time to speak of Shakespeare, to memorize passages ... He shook his head in bewilderment.
So, this one's a little less of a clue-based mystery, but instead a powerful book of transition: for Duncan, from naive to knowing; for his friends, from tribal loyalty to spiritual search; and for the settlers and their gatherings, from ruled colonies to something that dares to whisper: Independence.
There must be a sequel already in the works; I'm looking forward to watching Pattison carry this striking and passionate narrative into the explosions that will forge the American Revolution -- and Duncan McCallum's fate.