A review of The Old American by Ernest Hebert

Reviewed by Maurice A. Williams

A review of The Old American
by Ernest Hebert
University Press of New England
ISBN: 1584652135, 287 pages, $24.95

The old American wears a red turban with white feathers.  His head is bald.  His habitual pose is like the great “stoneface” mountain formation (a famous natural rock formation in New Hampshire, USA).  He has given himself the name “Caucus-Meteor” to replace his lost childhood name.  In 1736, when the novel starts, Caucus-Meteor is watching Nathan Blake, 34, through Blake’s windows.  When Blake leaves the cabin to fetch something for his wife and daughters, Caucus-Meteor and other Indians surround him.  “You have come too early,” says the surprisingly calm Blake, “I’ve not had a chance to eat.”  Caucus-Meteor answers in English, “It must be a poor Englishman who cannot go to Canada without his breakfast.”

So begins a fictionalize version of this famous adventure involving Nathan Blake of present-day Keene, New Hampshire, and his capture by an Iroquois war party.  His real captor kept Nathan as a slave.  Ten years later, when Nathan was 44, he was ransomed by his wife.  Not much else is known of his captivity except that Nelson said his ten years with the Indians were the happiest period of his life.

Intrigued with this true story, Ernest Hebert, a professor at Dartmouth, well versed in early American history, wrote a historical novel in which he described, from an expert’s point of view, the Indians and pioneers.  He wrote an interesting novel.  He describes how the Indians lived, what they were like, and shows their truly human side.  Hebert fictionalized the Iroquois captor, whom Hebert names “Caucus-Meteor,” and a son of King Philip (a real historical figure) and portrayed Caucus-Meteor as “king of the remnants of King Philip’s tribe.”  In those days, the Indians, rather than the pioneers, were called Americans.  Hebert refers to Caucus-Meteor as “The Old American.”  The novel is more about Caucus-Meteor than about Nathan Blake.  Caucus-Meteor is the main character.

Caucus-Meteor comes across as a deeply human and interesting person who will win your respect and compassion.  His tribe made Nathan and two other captives run the gauntlet.  An old acquaintance and rival of Caucus-Meteor, Bleached Bones, a gambling man, places bets on Nathan bring deliberately harmed.  Caucus-Meteor accepts the bet.  Working behind the scenes, Caucus-Meteor tries to make the gauntlet easier for Nathan.  He succeeds, and Nathan’s bravery as he ran the gauntlet wins the Indian’s admiration.  They adopt him.

Caucus-Meteor becomes more a father and mentor to Nathan than a slave master.  He takes Nathan to Canada to his home village: Conissadawaga.  Caucus-Meteor is chief.  He has a rival, Haggis.  Caucus-Meteor decides to improve Nathan’s position from slave to Provider of Services (a willing servant).  Nathan has to be tested in advance to see if he is worthy.  First test is wrestling.  Nathan is a good wrestler.  He wins the matches and the eyes of some Indian maidens.  Second test is racing.  Caucus-Meteor explains that the old time “pure men” (runners) ate special diets, had long hours of sleep, no women, and plenty of exercise.  Caucus-Meteor trains Nathan to run.  Bleached Bones notices that Nathan is preparing to run the first race.  Bleached Bones bets Caucus-Meteor that Nathan will lose the race.  Caucus-Meteor bets his prized turban against a handful of French coins.  Nathan, a natural runner, easily beats his Indian opponents.  Nathan is accepted by the tribe.  He becomes Caucus-Meteor’s personal servant.  His new title is “Provider of Services.”  Somewhat of a ladies man, Nathan takes advantage of the women’s interest.

The last race of the season is at Chicoutimi.  The contestants include a legendary Cree runner, Mercuray, one of the pure ones.  Caucus-Meteor suggests that Nathan let the Cree win.  Haggis had hired Mercuray out of retirement.  He believed that Mercuray was faster than Nathan and would be unbeatable.  Haggis plotted that, if Nathan wins, Nathan must be a sorcerer.  Haggis would then stab Caucus-Meteor and become chief.  Herbert characterizes his main characters very well and deeply.  Bleached Bones, for example, thinks Caucus-Meteor’s powers are in his turban.  From this beginning, Hebert weaves a fascinating adventure involving Caucus-Meteor and Nathan.  You will come to know and respect the original Americans as well as the pioneers.

This fascinating novel ends with a description of a stone that marks where Nathan was captured.  The stone’s caption reads: Site of first log house built by Nathan Blake 1736.  He was captured by the Indians and taken to Canada in 1746.  Ransomed by his wife Elizabeth Graves in 1749.  Six generations of Blakes lived on this spot.

If you like historical fiction about pioneer times and American Indians, you will like this book.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER:  Maurice A. Williams is a retired director of Research and Development for a company that does business all over the world.  He has traveled to many countries himself.  He is author of technical articles in scientific journals, chapters in technical books, and poems and inspirational articles.  He has published a book Revelation: Fall of Judea, Rise of the Church.  You can visit his Web Sites http://www.mauriceawilliams.com.