The Dawn Country

Written by Kathleen O'Neal Gear W. Michael Gear
Review by Cecelia Holland

The Dawn Country concerns the peoples of the Iroquois in the generation before the coming of their great peacemaker Deganawidah, when the several clans’ unrelenting warfare was destroying them all.

As the novel begins one tribe has attacked another and stolen several children, who are being carried off into slavery. The slave trader is a fearsome witch, Gannajero, whose cruel ambitions and terrifying magic overshadow the novel like a spell. The children’s parents give chase through the dripping oak forests and rushing rivers of primeval New York, while the witch schemes and the children try valiantly to escape.

The authors’ deep immersion in native cultures (this is the latest in a long string of books on First Peoples) brings this book to a fierce and wonderful life. The many characters move with assurance through a landscape steeped in magic and spirit, where the evil of the witch and the steadfast courage of the children take on a mythic intensity.

The Gears express the stirrings toward a better way with an understated charm, saving the big wallop for another book, one suspects, but affectingly human. There are a lot of characters, not that well defined, but the real hero is the Iroquois people, so this worked. The writers adhere to a very European approach to time which jarred me. Nonetheless the novel comes across as experience, as a gateway into a past unavailable to many of us, presented in vivid and immediate life. This is part of the American story as surely as the pilgrims, and the Gears have given us access to it.