Reviewed by Vickie Fang
There’s a good reason that historical fiction has broken free of its bodice ripper status and is rapidly becoming part of the modern literary canon. It’s a genre that offers the writer an impressive array of tools beyond the delight of creating a dramatic and different setting. Writers can use the readers’ knowledge of history to swiftly create a resonant story that echoes far beyond the confines of the book (think Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra — the audience watches the lovers squabble already fully aware of what great kingdoms are at stake). Conversely, the writer can use the readers’ misunderstanding of history to create a shock that wouldn’t be possible if only the lives of fictional characters were at stake. it lets us write origin stories that show the foundation of our world, and it helps us to create literature with an enormous range, from the petty details of the characters’ lives to the great events of human history. In one slender book, Norman Lock has made use of all the tools in the historical fiction writer’s arsenal, telling a sweeping story of the American West through the single eye of a child veteran of the civil war.
The veteran in American Meteor is young Stephan Moran, a bugler who loses his eye in battle, but still manages to patch together a life as a not particularly talented photographer of the West after the war. Having begun his adolescence in the midst of bloodshed, he swiftly loses his innocence, saying,
And heaven? A boy, I pictured it as a field of fireflies on a
summer’s night — each tiny yellow light a blessed soul. If
my childish fancy is true, then the end of days for hosanna-
hymning bugs lies in the bloated belly of a bat.
This voice, as vivid as it is grim, never becomes nihilistic. Stephan, who has no high opinion of himself, is deeply touched by the poetry and person of Walt Whitman, searches for beauty and love, and possesses “the child’s eager and easily wounded heart.” What he does not possess is any illusion about the world around him. Although he was a union soldier, he doesn’t hesitate to say,
In the days after the Draft Riots, the northbound Marion
might have passed corpses of former slaves lynched and
butchered by New York’s resentful poor — their bodies
dumped in the East River and left for the currents to
carry them resignedly south into everlasting captivity.
Though he loves Walt Whitman, he recognizes the much older man’s racist hatred of American Indians, and though he is indebted to a wealthy railroad owner, he despises the man for his arrogance and his destruction of the Western landscape. He is shocked, though, as I was, by his discovery of hundreds of dead buffalo.
The wind pushed a lumbering cloud across the face of
the sun, and the bones, which an instant before had been
slashes of fierce light, darkened. The mule shied, whinnied,
and hee-hawed. I whipped it with an anger I did not
understand. I suppose what provoked me and agitated
the poor beast was fear. The soughing of the tall grass
couldn’t be heard for the flies, as loud and insolent as they’d
been four years earlier in the Armory Square Hospital’s bedpans.
. . . .The commander of Fort Dodge, where pretty boy Custer
was stationed, liked to tell the newspapers, “Every dead buffalo
is one Indian gone.” The government was hell-bent on exterminating
His child’s eager and vulnerable heart carries him onward across the great expanse of the American West, following with mixed wonder and grief the meteor-like path of Manifest Destiny. Along the way he has flashes of the future that stretch to the present and beyond, creating a book that is a paean to beauty and a warning of its loss.