Review of Eliot Pattison’s Blood of the Oak

Blood of the Oak is the fourth in the so-called Bone Rattler historical series, setting a Scottish protagonist, physician Duncan McCallum, centre stage during the early days of America settlement. He is known among the native peoples as a Death Speaker – someone who can read corpses and find out the truth about what happened to them. As such, he becomes a de facto detective in this excellent historical mystery.

Set in 1765, Pattison uses the Stamp Tax dissent, arguably marking the beginning of organised resistance to English colonial rule, as the backdrop to this tensely crafted tale. McCallum starts to track a series of ritualistic murders, connected both to the theft of an Iroquois artifact, known as the Blooddancer, and to a series of horrific murders and kidnappings. These are of the network of underground runners, who are, for their part, starting to put together the beginning of organised struggle against colonial rule. McCallum starts to journey south from Pennsylvania, to uncover the truth and track the Blooddancer and the murders that seem to have occurred in its wake. He is enslaved in Virginia, on a tobacco plantation, when captured, alongside other runners. There he starts to put the story together, and why he, and others, are suffering: behind the killings stands a conspiracy of highly placed Englishmen, who want things to stay as they are.

The centre part of the book is set on the plantation, and at this point key characters move in and out of focus. This is useful (one could argue key) for both exposition of history and also to establish the wide range of peoples contesting power at this critical historical juncture. However, the pace slows down during the part, though that may be justified, given the power of the writing at this point. The cruelty of slavery which, as Pattison demonstrates, is clearly related to torture – emotional and physical – is portrayed unflinchingly. “The days became a blur of pain and toil. The crack of a cane and the bray of “sotweed!” grew as constant as the drone of flies. At night men collapsed onto the sleeping racks but in the small hours Duncan often heard them talking in their sleep to loved ones they might never see again. Friends whispered to each other of simple things, like picking apples with a son or kittens delivered on a hearth on a snowy night. Duncan, lying on his pallet in the dark, found himself spending more and more time thinking of Edentown, and the contentment he had known in the years since the war.”

The book speeds up again, in the last part, when McCallum decides to escape and to turn the intrigue of the Englishmen against them.

Pattison weaves real historical characters deftly into the novel, including Benjamin Franklin, early rebels and even Washington himself, in a cameo role. However, Pattison’s favoured viewpoint is from bottom up – with the voices of new settlers, Native Americans, black slaves and others speaking eloquently of how American was made, and who sacrificed most in that bitter struggle. A lost world is glimpsed, in beautiful writing about the bond between nature and people, showing how harmonious that world could be. Sadly, it is captured just at the moment of its disappearance; similarly to his Tibet series, Pattison wants to reclaim the voices and experiences of peoples whose lives have been destroyed by colonial rule – whether that be English or Chinese powers. What Pattison does best is allow the voiceless to speak, whether they are women, or people from ethnic groups whose rights have been trampled upon in the quest for territory, wealth, dominion. Here is a sense of the iniquitous pecking order on the plantation, in McCallum’s voice:“We are chattels of the estate,” Duncan replied. “If you were to rank the population of this plantation, there would be the unseen owner, then the aristocrats of the manor and the superintendent, after that there is the house staff, the field overseers, the Africans, the horses, the pigs, and finally those of us who inhabit this stable.”

As he says himself, in an author Q&A, all too often history, as it is taught in schools, is bloodless and pale, compared to the lives of real people at any moment, who burned with the same passions as we have today. Pattison’s take is to bring history to life, through the medium of accurately researched historical fiction. As a writer embarking on her first historical novel, I can feel the research in this book, and how it has been weighted to work in a fictional form. This poignant book  is also beautifully told, in nuanced language that fits well to the period. It is well paced and reminds us, rightly, of the cruelty of colonial rule and of many of the first settlers.

I hope that Pattison’s character, Jaho, is right, when he talks of freedom on the plantation to McCallum:

“Freedom? Here is where you learn about freedom, McCallum. The only real chains you wear are those you put on yourself.”

Acknowledgment: I was sent a copy of Blood of the Oak for review by Julia Drake Public Relations.

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