While the story of the exploration and settling of the American West by white Americans in the face of stubborn resistance by red Americans is a staple in all U.S. history textbooks, few accounts take up the period from the Indian point of view. James Alexander Thom, author of the award-winning Panther in the Sky and other Western novels, provides this neglected view by having an Indian named George Drouillard narrate the saga of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Drouillard was an actual member of the small band of explorers. He was enlisted for his hunting skills and ability to communicate with tribes encountered along the way (“sign-talking”) and served throughout the epic journey.
Initially apprehensive about being so close to white men, Drouillard soon grows to admire and envy the courage and fortitude of William Clark and Merriweather Lewis as they face unprecedented challenges in their long and debilitating trek to the Pacific and back. We observe as he tries to comprehend the attitudes and behavior of his white colleagues as they face the dangers of the trail and the inevitable interpersonal squabbles. We also watch as the white men react to the nuances of the Indian societies they encounter.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition is an enduring American saga in and of itself. Drouillard’s view of it is a refreshing change and aids the reader in understanding the impact this new world will have on the Native American inhabitants of the old one. Realistic in its description of the land and its peoples and written from a point of view rarely encountered, Sign-Talker is a fine introduction to Lewis and Clark and the Indian world they witnessed. It is also a fascinating view into the people and customs of the red and white populations which will wage a long and tortured series of wars for dominance over the American west. Thom takes us there in a way a more conventional novelist never could.