A Forgotten EvilFiction
Reviewed By Nicholas Litchfield
- Cynren Press (2019)
- 280 pages
In this epic story of love and friendship, war and savagery, courage and survival, award-winning historical fiction writer Sheldon Russell spirits the reader to a perilous post-Civil War period where bloody skirmishes rage between the U.S. Army and Native American peoples. Russell is the author of ten books, ranging from American frontier novels to postwar mysteries. In A Forgotten Evil, he delivers a powerful account of the struggles faced by those trapped in the cross fire of combat, and casts a welcome light on the atrocities perpetrated at the Battle of Washita River, a controversial, yet little-known battle.
The poignant narrative begins with Caleb Justin, the main protagonist, burying his father: “Filling his shovel, Caleb tossed the dirt onto the casket, its thud irrevocable against the pine, and a pain twisted like wet rope within his core.” Caleb, a hardworking, young Ohioan, who has been a woodcutter since he was strong enough to lift an axe, finds himself orphaned and alone, acutely aware that “nothing would ever again be the same.” Hampered by a broken foot, he struggles to maintain his regular delivery of wood to the dock for the steamboats.
However, Joshua Hart, a young runaway from Cincinnati with romanticized notions of being a soldier, changes Caleb’s life. Shorthanded and eager for company, Caleb offers him work, and during their months together, he falls in love with Joshua’s dream of enlisting in the Army and becoming “an Indian fighter and a hero.” He pursues this dream when he loses his cabin in a fire, and he and Joshua work their way downriver to Louisville, earning money for their passage to Kansas.
Once at Fort Leavenworth, Joshua joins George Armstrong Custer’s troops, but the Army rejects Caleb on account of the untreated fracture in his foot, and he hops a work train west “with no thought or care of what might happen next.”
Though resourceful, Caleb is limited by education and opportunity. He can sell wood to the railroad, but the journey is fraught with danger, and although the Army lets him reside in a root cellar on an abandoned barracks and cut wood for the nearby military fort, it won’t pay him. All he can do is trade with the crooked, spiteful quartermaster for supplies.
Through realistic descriptions of Caleb’s harsh, alienated existence, and suspenseful passages exposing the threats around him, including graphic scenes of Native Americans slaughtering Army deserters, Russell brings richness and authenticity to the period drama. The one curious aspect is why Caleb persists in remaining in this grim, unsafe region.
Presumably, he does so because he is smitten with the smart and goodhearted Joan Monnet, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and yet there is a stubborn consistency to his procrastination. In Ohio, tragedy and disaster force change upon him. In Louisville, Joshua sells Caleb’s wagon and mules for train tickets, or they might never have left. In Kansas, the Army and the railroad no longer require his services, but, once again, outside forces bring about change, this time when a group of Cheyenne capture him.
The unique facet of the novel, which sets it apart from similar tales, is Caleb’s fascinating relationship with the Cheyenne tribe. Flaunted as Little River’s slave, the imposing Indian warrior’s acts of compassion and devotion to tutoring his captive highlight the deep respect Little River has for him. Through Little River’s instruction, Caleb learns about Cheyenne culture and traditions, as well as essential skills like how to forage for food or make a quality bow and arrow, and while hellish and terrifying, ultimately his ordeal educates and empowers him. Through his bravery and hunting skills he earns the respect of the tribe. Nevertheless, he knows that because of his race, he is “a stranger in their land” whom they will never fully accept as one of them.
Fearful, lonely, and displaced, he believes that his only hope for survival is to escape and stay alive in the wilderness long enough to catch up with the cavalry. However, desertion means relinquishing the tribe’s support, and with winter coming and Custer’s U.S. 7th Cavalry gearing up for a vicious attack on the Washita River, the war-ravaged prairie is a harsh and precarious place to hide.
Rich in detail and exquisite prose, and with an unpredictable, weaving narrative, A Forgotten Evil is an ambitious, impressively told tale full of vivid landscapes and unique characters with an authentic voice and a distinctive presence. The inconstant Little River, though fierce and remorseless, is imbued with prudence and benevolence, and his expressive observations carry emotional clout. Caleb’s unexpected evolution from a vulnerable invalid to a resilient, self-sufficient hunter has sincerity and charm, as does the love story that unfolds between him and the mentally tough Joan Monnet. Joshua and Caleb’s relationship is also tenderly presented, with Caleb mourning the loss of their friendship and imagining his friend’s face in that of dead strangers.
Arguably, the most striking aspect is the inhospitable environment and the hardships faced by those trying to evade capture and survive in the wilderness.
The gale blew from the north, a bitter wind, a wind that worked into the marrow of their bones and eroded their strength and their will. Mesas rose about them and into the sky, the impenetrable red clay beneath their feet, the stunted and knurled mesquite, starved and desperate with lack of rain. An occasional yucca struggled from the rocks, or a shriveled cactus purple with cold, or a sage, battered and ragged with the ceaseless winds.
It is a place where starving, weary Army deserters are as likely to be shot by their unit as killed by Native Americans, a place where everyone, from military personnel and warriors to peaceful natives and railroad workers, is at risk of being slaughtered or caught in the crossfire of one bloody battle after another.
Russell convincingly conveys the gory conflicts, the injustice felt by Native Americans and their acts of retaliation, and the assault on Washita River, one of the bloodiest in frontier history, making A Forgotten Evil a compelling, moving story that will linger in the memory.
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a journalist, librarian, and media researcher and resides in western New York. Formerly, a book reviewer for the Lancashire Evening Post, syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK, he now writes for Publishers Weekly. Roam his website at www.nicholaslitchfield.com.