By Melinda Guerra
Growing up, I never learned much about Native American history. There was a cute romance between John Smith and a pretty and totally consenting young-enough-to-still-be-pretty Pocahontas. Some Native Americans were quietly relocated from their original lands because the American Dream was burgeoning, and that’s why many live on reservations even today. The first Thanksgiving was a love feast eagerly celebrated by two very friendly communities. It’s only been in my extra-curricular learning I’ve discovered the truth behind these and many more sanitized lies I learned in school about American Indians. Even with all I’ve learned, I still occasionally encounter historical facts that catch me completely by surprise, and Tiya Miles’ first novel chronicles one such fact.
Tiya Miles has had an impressive career. Besides being an award-winning author of two non-fiction books and the recipient of a coveted MacArthur fellowship, she is also a professor at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She teaches, among several other courses, Afro-American and African Studies and Native American Studies. A lifelong student of African American history, she was introduced to Native American history and culture by her Native American husband. Having written two nonfiction books exploring the links between African-American and Native-American history, she recently published her first novel on the same subject: The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens & Ghosts.
“Like most other kids in Atlanta, Cheyenne had toured the Hold House once or twice in grade school. But having a chance to own it, to hold it for herself, was only a fantasy until this week. Her parents thought she was obsessed with genealogy because she hadn’t found the right man to settle down with. Her father humored her with fabricated interest in the draft charts that filled the pages of her Black Indians Genealogy Workbook. Her mother didn’t even pretend to care, waving away her grainy prints of family census records. To them, genealogy was a hobby. To her, it was a quest to find the missing pieces of an inner puzzle that could finally tell her who she was.” – page 31
The Cherokee Rose tells the story of a former plantation in northwest Georgia. In the early 1800s, the plantation had belonged to Chief James Hold, a man of mixed Cherokee and Scottish heritage. Chief Hold, like a minority of other Southeastern Native Americans, owned black slaves to work his plantation, a practice that “normalized” them to the American government officials and helped prove they were “civilized men.” The Hold House had later been seized by the state of Georgia in the 1830s and eventually opened to the public as a historic site. As the book begins, the Hold House is being sold at auction, and its sale catches the interest not only of local residents, but also of three women who travel to the property.
Jinx is an American Indian (Creek and Cherokee) who works as a researcher and librarian, and she’s traveling from Oklahoma to track down the story of a young girl she’d encountered in her research. Ruth is a mixed race (white and African-American) magazine writer chasing an interesting story while taking mandatory unpaid vacation time from her struggling magazine in Minnesota. Cheyenne is an African-American convinced she has Native American ancestry which connects her to the Hold House. She heads from Atlanta to bid on the land she hopes will bring her closer to her history. From the very different places they call home, these three women converge upon the small town that houses the former plantation.
“Jinx pictured her ancestors inside the tent village, a makeshift concentration camp. Old ladies with sagging eyes, grown men with flagging spirits, babies dying of heat exposure against their mothers’ mourning breasts. It was as though they were all there with her at the wharf, behind a sheer curtain sewn of nothing but time. She could almost reach out to touch them, to whisper in their ears, to tell them that although it would cost dearly and always, their people would manage to survive.
And so would the slaves of her ancestors, who, though ignored by history, had walked the Trail of Tears alongside them.” – page 52
Over the course of the long weekend that finds them all together, Jinx, Ruth, and Cheyenne come across some terribly interesting information that impacts each of them in unique but important ways. Their interaction with their discovery is, I think, where Miles’ passion for the subject matter really comes through. The section of the book (most of parts two and three) in which they’re actively interacting with the history of the Hold House seems to read differently from the rest of the book, and I found myself enjoying the novel more and more the farther I got into it. The book is an easy read, with straight-forward characters, plenty of dialogue, and accessible writing. The first third or so of the novel is set-up, bringing each of the three women to town and laying the groundwork for the rest of the story. While I wished it could have moved faster, especially toward the beginning, the story is worth it.
My favorite thing about The Cherokee Rose was the amount of history woven into it. Having had no idea the Cherokee owned black slaves, I was fascinated by how much of the story was actually drawn from historical people and the documents available about them. Miles dedicates several pages at the end of the book to explaining the historical information we have about the people and places on which the novel was based, and she also gives additional reading suggestions for those who want to learn even more.
The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts will be our Bookish read for our July meeting. It’s a quick read, and if you get the chance to read it before our next meeting, we’d love to have you join us. As always, email me at GPLbookclub[at]gmail[dot]com for more details and to reserve your spot!
The Cherokee Rose is available now at GPL.