On the surface, the idea behind Hundred In The Hand sounds like a surefire winner. For decades the story of the American West has been told from the point of view of the white settlers, the ‘cowboys’ in all those childhood games of Cowboys and Indians. This novel sets out to redress that balance: it’s set in the American West, but it’s told from the point of view of the Lakota people, and is written by a surviving Lakota member.
The writer’s credentials are impeccable too. Already the author of nine books, Marshall’s work is taught on several Native American literature courses at both high school and college level – the man can definitely write. He was also a technical adviser on the TV series Into The West, and appeared in two episodes as Loved By The Buffalo, a medicine man. He’s about as close to an authority on Native Americans as you’re likely to get.
All of which only serves to make Hundred In The Hand even more disappointing. Let’s be clear about one thing from the outset: it’s not actually bad. It’s just not the literary event that it might have been. In many places it’s extremely well written, yet there’s still a sense of anti-climax about it that’s hard to avoid.
In part this is due to the simplicity of the narrative, a device that may have been employed as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling forms. What might have worked for a spoken story, however, sometimes falls flat on the page, and the simple style often lacks the linguistic flourishes that might have spiced up the tale.
There’s also the fact that the narrative itself is relatively simple, and the characters are too frequently divided into ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’, with a few of ‘the ugly’ thrown in for variety. Westerns have always thrived on such black and white characterisation, but literature often relies on shades of grey. It may be what has made Wild West movies so much more popular than Wild West novels: Hollywood loves battles between good and evil, but most readers usually require something more complex.
Then there’s the ‘new’ Lakota perspective of events. For too long the Native Americans have been portrayed as brutal barbarians, with the settlers painted as being courageous and honourable. Unfortunately, all Marshall has done here is reverse the polarity. Here the settlers are barbaric and brutal; the Native Americans are now the courageous ones. It may be closer to the historical truth, but it’s hardly a new tale – just an old tale flipped upside down.
It’s worth reiterating that this isn’t a bad novel. If you like historical military fiction then the depiction of the battles is both exciting and believable, and if you’re familiar with the facts behind the Fetterman Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand) then this story sheds some light on the true events that caused it.
If you’re looking for a challenging, original Native American voice, however, then this isn’t it. Joseph M. Marshall III has written a credible novel set in the American West, that just happens to have the native Lakota people as its protagonists. After all that, however, it’s still a Western at heart, complete with all the genre’s weaknesses and failings. Those who expect something more will only be disappointed.