Monday, June 1, 2009

Book Review: "Rotting Face"

The title of R. G. Robertson’s “Rotting Face” is immediately intriguing, the term being the name used by American Indian tribes of the Upper Missouri for the disease of smallpox, which ravaged the area in the mid-19th century. The book details the disease’s introduction to the tribes of the Upper Missouri region, extending north from St. Louis into Canada, on as personal a level as possible. Clearly using a few key primary sources, such as Francis Chardon’s personal diary, Robertson carefully notes names, dates, and places in an effort to be historically accurate. In addition, Robertson alternates this narrative of the introduction of smallpox with chapters detailing a plethora of related topics, such as the history of the region’s fur trade, American Indian commercial practices, and the history and clinical features of smallpox itself.

Unfortunately, this minute attention to detail in the narrative combined with the alternating chapter structure means that the book moves incredibly slowly. Though I feel as though I now have a firm understanding of the process of shoveling coal into various types of steamboats in order to fuel their long journeys upstream, the process of obtaining this information was at times tedious, and more attention to smallpox than fur trading may have helped to focus Robertson’s expository. Repetition of a few key grammatical errors also hindered the narrative’s flow.

Another point I found troubling within Robertson’s prose was a tendency to use phrases that, while likely intended to make the text exciting, succeeded also in sounding pejorative toward many of the Indian tribes in question. For example, Robertson is wholly dismissive of any Indian attempts to treat the disease, recounting the activities of shamans with an almost playful tone. The sentence, “Having no understanding of property rights, Native Americans signed countless treaties, thinking they were licensing the English to work their land while maintaining their own claim of usage” fails to note that while the Indians may have had little understanding of the European property rights claimed by white settlers, tribes did in fact have systems of land distribution of their own.

In total, the book does record the outbreak of smallpox primarily in the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arickara tribes, a subject that seems to have attracted little scholarship so far. Additionally, Robertson tackles his subject from an interesting angle in his exploration of fur trading culture, so that readers are left with an understanding of the economic-cultural system as a whole, rather than of a few individual components. With the hard work of a stringent editor, this book could become incredibly important on the scene of academic literature on smallpox and the American Indians in the 19th century.


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