House of Purple Cedar

Written by Tim Tingle
Review by Cecelia Holland

“The hour has come to speak of troubled times. Though the bodies have long ago returned to dust, too many ghosts still linger in the graveyards… It is time we spoke of Skullyville.”

This erratic and ambitious novel, set in the Choctaw settlements of Oklahoma in the 1890s, tries to encompass not only the way of life of a people, but the depth of the Choctaw conflict with the white people (Nahullos)—not all, but some—who want their land.

Tingle is very good at observed details. “The road to the church was the color of a roan horse, lined with tall pines, deep green and sweet to smell.” “The windows were open and the curtains moved with the soft life of an old man napping.” The larger structure of his novel is less satisfying, however. He winds a wide range of stories and myths into his tale and his sympathy for the embattled Choctaw gives his telling the feel of elemental conflict, but these same assets sap the novel of its cohesion and its forward drive. The stories often wander far afield, and the tone wavers from epic incantation to mawkish sentiment. Tingle’s love and outrage turn his Choctaw people into such spotless, noble souls, and make the Nahullo so evil, they become caricatures. I do not need another white sheriff who gets drunk and beats his wife so the hero can save her and look good.