Wil Usdi: Thoughts from the Asylum, A Cherokee Novella

Written by Robert J. Conley
Review by Ann Pedtke

This book presents the lightly fictionalized biography of William Holland Thomas – an Appalachian frontier boy adopted by the Cherokee Tribe, who became an advocate to help preserve Cherokee lands in western North Carolina. A successful businessman, politician, and Civil War colonel, “Wil Usdi” (as he was known to the Cherokees) could have made a fascinating subject for a fictional treatment. Unfortunately, Conley has bowdlerized Wil Usdi’s story to the extent that it becomes a cardboard exercise – lacking both the depth of good nonfiction and the emotional pull of affecting fiction.

We meet Wil Usdi as an aged man confined to a mental asylum, reminiscing in disjointed fragments about his glory days as politician, lawyer, and soldier. Even if the reader can put aside the tedium of the day-to-day asylum descriptions (how many tasteless asylum meals must be described in detail?) and the occasional jarring shifts in perspective (why do seemingly random paragraphs jump suddenly to the perspective of Wil Usdi’s jailor, or of his visiting son?), even potentially dramatic narrative flashbacks remain bloodless. Case in point: “Wil grieved for Tsali. This was a selfless thing he was doing.  He was giving his own life so that others would be able to stay in these mountains… Any way you chose to express it, it was a brave and generous act.” The result? History as sterilized middle-school textbook, told by a character who is as unsympathetic to the reader as he is to his bewildered jailors.

For those with a specialized interest in William Holland Thomas, this volume does fill a gap where few other targeted biographies exist. But those with a broader interest in Cherokee history or the history of western North Carolina should find a better historical treatment that gives this story the context and emotional power it deserves.