Bone Rattler
by Eliot Pattison
(Counterpoint, $26.00, V) ISBN 978-1593761851
***
You know how a handheld camera produces a wavering picture which occasionally dips and wobbles leaving the viewer disoriented? So it is with this tale set during our first global war - the one known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies and the Seven Years War on the continent. It wobbles. Sometimes important events happen off screen - events that are very important to the story line but the reader has only the perspective of the narrator. So there are gaps in the story line which are not completely explained.

The tale begins aboard a ship on its way to the American colonies with a cargo of goods and criminals destined for either the Caribbean plantations or the western limits of North America, those territories being disputed by France and England where Native tribes have chosen their allegiances according to which countries’ representatives promise the most trade goods.

Duncan McCallum is a young Scottish student of medicine whose studies were interrupted when his clan called him to arms. The English were determined to tame the Celtic tribesmen who inhabited Ireland, Scotland and Wales and wanted to retain their individual identities. To the British wearing the kilt or playing the bagpipes or speaking Gaelic was criminal so they persecuted, pillaged and harassed any who defied the government.

Duncan was one such rebel. His family was slaughtered, his house burned and his only remaining brother had hied off and joined an English regiment in the American colonies. Captured and sentenced to a certain early death in the tropics he spends his days either in his reeking cell or lashed to the deck suffering the cat-o-nine-tails as “discipline.” There are many mysterious things happening on the ship and as the story opens two of his companions have died under circumstances which do not fit into the category of “suicide” as the ship’s officers have decided. Then there is the madwoman who gibbers in a language no one can understand and has the cell next to Duncan. One old sailor admits he has been hiding his Scots heritage and calls on Duncan to serve as clan chief.

Most of the ship’s company work for the Ramsey Company which holds a royal charter to thousands of acres in the New World. When the man who was to be the tutor of Lord Ramsey’s children dies, Duncan is offered his job with the understanding that he will become an indentured servant. Soon his observation skills are put to the test when he is asked to decipher a strange and bloody message left in the compass room.

As the ship docks in New York an arrow barely misses Duncan. Shortly afterward he sees his first “savages” and is arrested by an officer in the British army who claims that Duncan’s brother is a traitor wanted by the Crown. Then he finds himself accompanying Lord Ramsey and his children into the New York wilderness and the model settlement he is trying to create. Using Plato as his muse, Ramsey intends to create his own fiefdom and is determined to rid the land of any who oppose him.

Too much of the story seems only half told with mere hints as to actual events. Descriptions are vague and suppositions presented as truth. No one is who he or she appears to be but the true identity remains unclear. Atrocities are glossed over and indigenous rituals undefined. Keeping track of where loyalties lie and who is trustworthy is tedious.

Pattison has spent much time doing research and is very educational but spends less time developing characters and motives. People instantly form opinions about one another with little or no time to actually have a conversation and are prepared to entrust their lives to one another. A great deal of the action happens off stage or is related as a past event but the whole incident is colored by the understanding of whoever is telling the story. This leads to confusion and a tendency to distrust everyone.

The basic principles of writing are to explain who, what and why. We know the when, it’s 18th century America but it would help to know some of the other basics as well. Because no one emerged as a fully developed and believable character it’s hard to care what happens to anyone. Read Bone Rattler for information on a little discussed period in history or reread or watch The Last of the Mohicans or Rob Roy. The film versions don’t wobble.

--Jane Davis


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