Tuesday, December 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Follow the River by James Alexander Thom

Our historical fiction book group is meeting this weekend to discuss Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. This fictional captivity narrative, based on the true story of pioneer Mary Ingles, is an interesting adventure. However, first published in 1981, the story shows its age.

In 1755, at the time of the French and Indian War, the heavily pregnant Mary Ingles lived with her husband William and two young sons in Draper’s Meadows, a small community in western Virginia, the first white settlement west of the Allegheny divide. One morning, while William Ingles and Mary’s brother were working in the fields, the settlement was raided by a party of Shawnee. Several members of the community were killed. Mary, her sons, her sister-in-law Bettie Draper, and one man were taken captive.

The first part of the novel charts the journey upriver, though Ohio, near to present day Indiana. Mary impresses the Shawnee (particularly the chieftain) with her quiet dignity and bravery. She passes some kind of test when she gives birth to a daughter three days into the ride without making a sound, and then continues the journey without complaint.

They arrive finally in the Shawnee village where they meet with other white captives. There is a gauntlet to run. The captives are either killed or parceled out as slaves. Mary is offered the opportunity to become the woman of the chieftain but refuses. He sells her to French traders, but takes her two sons from her.

Broken-hearted, Mary decides to escape. While on a salt-gathering trip, she makes a run for it, leaving her infant daughter with a native woman. She is joined by a tough old Dutch woman. Together, they begin the return trip, on foot, with no provisions, late in the fall.

The second part of the book chronicles their harrowing adventures as Mary leads the way back to Draper’s Meadows by following the river. The women are dependent on one another, but very different in temperament. As they slowly starve, the older woman loses her mind and becomes as much of a threat to Mary as starvation and exposure.

It is a truly amazing survival story. The rich detail of the return journey makes the incredible believable.

While this old-fashioned historical adventure is the type of book I usually  enjoy, I found the second part of the book more engaging than the first. The story of the massacre and Mary’s interactions with her captors utilized every trope of captivity narratives and stereotypes abound. Although the novel is based on oral tradition from the Ingles’ family, the generic quality of the first part of the book made it less interesting.