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Thursday, February 2, 2017
"Trail Of Tears The Rise And Fall Of The Cherokee Nation" by John Ehle Book Review
Ehle, John, Trail Of Tears The Rise And Fall Of The Cherokee Nation (New York: Anchor Books 1988)
Several months ago, I began a research project connected to the Eastern Band Of The Cherokee, primarily about one particular chief from the late nineteenth century. I have not set the earth on fire with the research due to a variety of other demands on my time. But I have been wending my way through a long list of books, articles, and other media about the Cherokee. The book has been positively reviewed more than once, sold a reasonably successful number of copies, and was well received by the general public. But I found it cumbersome to read, inadequately documented, and worst of all, highly fictionalized. Admittedly, Mr. Ehle's major stock in trade has always been fiction and he has been successful as a novelist. He also grew up in the same area of the country in which the book is set. I do not deny that he has a plethora of knowledge about the subjects of the book. But his writing style, in addition to the freely administered fictionalization, is awkward, disjointed, and at less than academic standards for a book which was marketed as history. I did slog on through the book and finished it in a period of time in which I might have read two similarly sized works. The book is not all bad and is worth reading for the person who is not seeking well resourced and documented history. The text contains no footnotes and the reader must decide to go to a "Notes" section in the back to determine if a particular segment was even sourced and documented when they meet a passage needing source documentation. The "Notes" are simply inserted with a page number and a quote from the beginning of the notated segment to identify it. The work would have been much more satisfactory to me if it had been footnoted in some particular style of documentation such as Chicago Style or MLA. The simple act of numbering the notes in each chapter sequentially and placing the notes at the ends of chapters would have been better for the academically oriented reader.
I have no doubt that Mr. Ehle did far more than adequate research before he wrote the book and it does appear that it might be the product of a lifetime of study and personal experience on the subject. For me the best part of the book was the extensive use of personal correspondence of several people from the period under discussion. Mr. Ehle uses many letters and military reports from first level sources and they enhance the work a great deal. In particular, a series of letters from the march west from a soldier L. B. Webster to his recently married wife at home shed a great deal of light on conditions along the Trail Of Tears. They show a soldier who was in command of a portion of the tribe who was compassionate and deeply affected by the death, disease, and mistreatment he saw being perpetrated against the Cherokee people. Several documents from General John E. Wool, who was in charge of the mission, also work well to provide insight into the military thinking which led to the deaths of several thousand people. The book also gives interesting insights into the life and motivations of President Andrew Jackson and how he brought about one of the most horrifying acts in US Government history. If you wish to read about the Trail Of Tears, the book is worth reading but I would suggest that it be supported with other, better written, less fictionalized, and more appropriately documented works.