It’s 1875, and Check Singer is a Cherokee Nation matriarch with five sons, the wife to a dying husband and the manager of her family’s successful potato farm. Although she is wealthy, influential and respected in the Nation, there are times when Check wishes she could “unclasp the confines of the feminine role like she unclasped her corset at night.”
Margaret Verble’s “Cherokee America” — a prequel to her debut, “Maud’s Line,” which was a Pulitzer finalist — is packed with subplots: a quest for hidden gold, a murder in a bawdy house, the threat of the new federal judge in the Western District of Arkansas, a missing girl, an ambitious politician and a long-term romance. It’s a lot, but the novel is about more than individual events; it’s about life in the Nation when it was a sovereign land with a government of its own. It’s also about the Cherokee culture and its rules, spoken and unspoken, that have been passed down for generations. That culture is both ancient and forward-thinking: In the late 19th century, women in the Cherokee Nation have more rights than women in the States, but those rights only extend so far. Even a smart, gutsy woman like Check is usually thwarted, kept in the dark by men who decide what she should and should not know. The author’s desire to keep to cultural accuracy is understandable. Still, readers may wish Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, had used authorial discretion and given Check enough agency to drive the plot rather than sideline her as a frustrated observer.
But Verble’s decision to stay true to Cherokee history ultimately pays off. Viewed as a cultural and character study, “Cherokee America” sings. Though the omniscient viewpoint dilutes Check’s story, that sacrifice is in service to understanding the variety of people in the Nation, where the designation of “full blood” is determined by whether someone lives according to the old ways, not by who their parents and grandparents were. A non-Cherokee man might be married to a native woman, but he will still retain the prejudices of his birth culture; African-Americans are treated better in the Nation than outside, but they have their own unique set of challenges. “Cherokee America” is an essential corrective to the racially tinged myths created to justify the annihilation of indigenous cultures and the theft of native lands.
The pacing of the novel mimics the rhythm of a Cherokee neighborly visit: conversation about the weather, crops, family and gossip before getting around to the real point of the call. No matter what was discussed, no matter what was resolved (or not resolved), there was joy and satisfaction in spending time with friends and family. That’s how you will feel about Check and the other characters by the end of the novel. You’re invested in them, their culture, their life. Verble has given historical fiction lovers a real gift: “Cherokee America” is an excellent illustration of how diverse books enrich literature, and the minds of those who read them.