Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: Rotting Face

Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian by R.G. Robertson chronicles the story of smallpox in 19th century North America, where it spread through fur-trading networks and devastated the native populations it contacted.

The book has a unique structure. In odd-numbered chapters, Robertson tells the story of the 1837-1838 epidemic in the Americas, which killed vast numbers of Native Americans and altered the power structure of the Great Plains. In even-numbered chapters, he gives readers a global history of smallpox, starting with an overview of its biology and moving on to its initial introduction in the new world.

That structure, like many aspects of Rotting Face, has its ups and downs. In one sense, I appreciated the “background” chapters because I could apply them directly to my understanding of the chapters on the Americas epidemic. In chapter 2, for example, Robertson reviews the symptoms and progression of smallpox; in chapter 3, he describe the first case in his story—in a European fur trader on the upper Missouri river. Having already given us the relevant disease-related background, Robertson is free to stick to his more creative narrative in describing the fur trader. He knows we’ll understand what is going on, and doesn’t have to stop his story to give a more technical description of smallpox’s biology.

But the alternating structure also makes the book feel disjointed; it loses any “flow” it might have had before. Every chapter, I felt like I had to re-orient myself to Robertson’s changing style and purpose. The structure also means that the paired stories, particularly the 1800’s narrative, move painfully slowly—it takes seemingly forever for anyone on the upper Missouri to get smallpox, let alone for the epidemic to start.

Unfortunately, Robertson’s writing, as well as his structure, contributes to the snail’s pace. In an effort to “set the stage” for the reader, he provides minute details on fur-trading life in the Americas, including several excruciating segments on things like steamboat design and coal-shoveling practices. His intentions are noble and occasionally succeeds—the historical setting sometimes helps explain the epidemiology of the disease. But overall, the description (unless you are an 1800’s-Americas-history buff) makes large sections of the book boring. In the middle of long descriptions of steamboat or Native American life, it was almost possible to forget the book’s main topic.

Robertson’s style (maybe due to his attempt to balance technical information with an exciting story), threw me off the most. The book is an awkward mix of flowery description and technical, almost heartless-sounding narrative. Robertson describes Chardon’s Indian wife, whose “long black hair cascaded over her shoulders like waves of glossy silk.” When she dies suddenly in the next few pages, Chardon “[resigned] himself to her death” and “rode across the prairie, searching for a buffalo.” Sometimes Robertson’s descriptions get downright odd. At one point, he gets vaguely Victorian on us: “many a comely damsel has weathered [smallpox] only to forsake the company of men.” At others, they are just perplexing—“above the Missouri floodplain existed an ocean of grass, an expanse so vast the mind struggled to hold it.”

Robertson’s main source on the 1837-1838 epidemic is the diary of a European fur trader named Francis Chardon. It is fantastic that he went back to a primary document for most of his information. The journal appears incredibly detailed, and captures the culture of the fur-trading life as well as the dynamic between European traders and Indian tribes. Europeans were incredibly dependant on Indians for business as well as supplies, and were organized largely around them, with trading agencies and sub-agencies dedicated to the different tribes. However, I wondered about Robertson’s use of a single source for so much of his information. Chardon, of course, had biases, and Robertson doesn’t seem to acknowledge them in his narrative.

Gaps in Chardon’s diaries lead to more unfortunate stylistic decisions. When Robertson wants to describe a particular scene but doesn’t have enough information to do so factually, he uses qualifiers to a distracting extent. “Aboard the steamer, Jacob Halsey and his wife may have conversed with a passenger…or perhaps they accidentally encountered…then again, the Halseys could have…”. It felt like Robertson was trying to bridge an impossible gap between the type of story he wanted to tell, and the facts he actually had.

Robertson (as Molly and other reviewers have pointed out) seems to take an overly critical and even prejudiced attitude towards Native American culture, describing their “shortcomings” in blunt and unthoughtful terms. He describes Indians as having “no understanding of property rights,” living in huts that were “bunched together at random,” and as unable to “fathom a sickness being passed from one person to another any more than they could imagine a warrior with an arrow in his leg transferring the wound to another.” He doesn’t seem to consider the idea that Indians may have a different, non-European conception of property rights, or community organization, or contagious illness. Perhaps Chardon’s diaries had too much of an influence on Robertson’s own perspective?

Ultimately, the unique and sometimes interesting aspects of Robertson’s book—its alternating structure; its use of Chardon’s diaries—come back to haunt the author in its slow-moving style and impossible gaps in the historical record. This book may be a great reference for perspective on the 1838-1838 epidemic, but I don’t think it’s a good cover-to-cover read.


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