In 1746, Nathan Blake, the first frame house builder in Keene, New Hampshire, was abducted by Algonkians and held in Canada as a slave. Inspired by this dramatic slice of history, novelist Ernest Hebert has written a masterful new novel recreating those years of captivity.
Set in New England and Canada during the French and Indian Wars, The Old American is driven by its complex, vividly imagined title character, Caucus-Meteor. By turns shrewd and embittered, ambitious and despairing, inspired and tormented, he is the self-styled "king" of the remnants of the first native tribes that encountered the English. Displaced and ravaged by disease, these refugees have been forced to bargain for land in Canada on which to live. Having hired himself out as interpreter to a raiding party of French and Iroquois, Caucus-Meteor returns from New Hampshire the unexpected possessor of a captive, Nathan Blake.
He decides to bring the Englishman to his own village rather than sell him to the French. Ambivalent about his former life, Blake gradually fits into the routine of Conissadawaga. Meanwhile, Caucus-Meteor struggles to protect his people from the rapacious French governor. Constantly plotting and maneuvering, burdened by responsibility, the Old American exhibits cunning and courage. A gifted linguist who was forbidden to learn to read or write; a former slave who is now a king; a native leader who has seen more of London and Paris than his English captive, who knows more of European politics than the French colonial administrators, Caucus-Meteor is a brilliant, cantankerous, visionary figure whom readers will long remember.
About the Author
ERNEST HEBERT teaches writing at Dartmouth College, where he is Associate Professor of English. UPNE has reissued four books from his "Darby" series, including Live Free or Die and The Dogs of March, about which New York Times Book Review wrote, "The book rises or falls on the strength of Howard Elman, and this man could hold up a house. By turns tormented, funny, poignant and appalling, he lodges in the memory."
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"I wish to learn here on earth, not in heaven,
why my husband visits Mount Hope Bay every year."
ELIZABETH BLAKE, on her deathbed,
July 19, 1804, Keene, New Hampshire
The old American wears a red turban with white feathers sticking out of the last turn at the peak, a strategy designed to conceal a bald head. His habitual pose and features resemble that famous profile to the north that both English and native refer to as the Great Stone Face. Many years ago he named himself Caucus-Meteor, for he'd lost his childhood name. He uses no war paint, but his ear lobes are split and stretched an inch long and from each hangs a French coin. Except for the turban and highly decorated fringed moccasins reaching almost to the knee, he's dressed like a French soldier with brown pants and a blue waistcoat, which hides burn scars on his arms. He carries no musket, sword, or hatchet. A short knife with a bone handle dangles from a neck cord, but it's more a tool than a weapon, for the old American has no use for the excitement of bloodletting; he's too feeble to fight well, and the French hired him as an interpreter, not as a warrior, so he's not expected to engage in combat; even so, for the purposes of continuing instruction in those matters that concern a king, he always immerses himself in battle.
Because Caucus-Meteor knew he couldn't keep up with the troop, he had left the camp an hour early under moonlight to timehis arrival with the outbreak of hostilities. He likes to wander among the carnage, the exercise making him feel like a living ghost, which he reckons is another of those emotions unique to a king. And, too, there's something else in him, a wish; as his old mirror, adversary, and sometimes intimate, Bleached Bones, was fond of saying: "Call sudden death the best of luck." In an attempt to see into his future, Caucus-Meteor tries the conjuring trick of the ancients. But it doesn't work. He's too hale for release from the responsibilities of mortality.
He's surprised that he's arrived before the fighters. Something must have delayed them. He knows that this village is one of the newer settlements on the borderlands of New Hampshire, but he does not know its name and he wishes he did. To destroy a place without bothering to learn its name strikes him as disrespectful. It will be dawn soon, and he should stay in the woods until his comrades launch their attack, but he'll walk boldly into the town, for he enjoys the shiver along the spine when one is close to one's enemies without their knowledge.
He sees perhaps half a hundred homesteads, log huts, and timber-frame houses under construction. Most of these structures are strung along a muddy path. Beyond is a stockade with wooden pickets and turrets for sharpshooters at the four corners. But Caucus-Meteor has little interest in military matters. He's drawn to a light, a warm glow from a single pane of glass in a log cabin. He peers through the wavy distortion. The sources of light are a whale oil lamp and a blaze in a stone fireplace. Caucus-Meteor sees a man sitting on the edge of the bed putting on leather shoes held together with gut laces, a woman poking the fire with an iron. A two-year-old lies in a cradle only a few feet from the old American. He could break the pane and snatch the child, but he only watches its blue eyes suddenly widening, blinking, mouth opening, crying out, fists doubled. Caucus-Meteor guesses that it's a girl. The mother comes to tend to her offspring. Caucus-Meteor makes no attempt to conceal himself. Since his wife died, he never lets practical matters, such as possible threats to his life, stand in the way of satisfying his curiosity, and for the moment he's engaged by this English family behind the glass. The mother sweeps up the child, carries her to the hearth, and sits her down on a low stool.
The woman spoons white bacon fat in a pot and hangs it from one of the irons over the hearth. Through the cracks around the glass, the old American catches the aroma.
The husband has finished putting on his shoes, and now takes notice of his wife at her cooking pot. The two begin to talk. Caucus-Meteor presses his ear against the glass. He enjoys listening to English. It's an unmusical language, weak in ability to convey feeling but full of expressions for things and actions. He catches only a few words through the glass, but he surmises from the woman's tone and the pained expression on her face that she brims with sorrow.
"You peer so deeply, Elizabeth, even into the bottom of a pot," the man says.
"I have half a notion that God made the world and all the creatures in it merely for the pleasure of His viewing." The woman's eyes are wild, disturbed.
"It's a mere world. Or perhaps only meager. But does God ..." She halts in the middle of her thought, in order to hold the man immobile, keep him from breathing for a moment. It's the way of some women even in their lovemaking, thinks Caucus-Meteor, admiring the woman's trick. Finally she speaks. "But does God 'smell' his works as well? And touch? What of God and touch?"
The conversation goes on, and Caucus-Meteor begins to understand that there's a strain between these two that they're both pretending is not there.
The woman reaches into a plain ceramic pot for a handful of dried corn. She scatters the kernels into the sizzling bacon fat, and places the lid on the pot. Then she pours cow's milk into wooden noggins.
Caucus-Meteor realizes now how much like the woman he feels: tired, hungry, and full of despair.
Inside, the man notices what Caucus-Meteor has already seen, a tightness in the sinews of his wife's face. The man makes as if to speak, then falls silent, as if he understands her sorrow but has no means to deal with it. Caucus-Meteor bends his ear to the window.
The woman says, "If a cook could slow time to watch corn burst open, she might feel a little closer to heaven, do you think?"
"Aye," says the man, puzzled and disconcerted by his wife's strange question.
A few tears make her eyes glisten. She wipes them away angrily, and makes herself smile falsely. The man mumbles to himself. These people are like us, Caucus-Meteor thinks; it is only their learning that is disgusting. The man on the other side of the wavy glass is perhaps thirty or thirty-five years old, or maybe forty. It's hard to tell the age of white people; even those that live long lives often show time-wear early on. The man's movements, nimble and fluid, are unlike most Englishmen's. His face, sharp as rocks split by frost, seems to be a frame to display a long pointed nose and eyes the dark brooding gray of ledge. The hair, tangled and the same fusty brown as last autumn's fallen leaves under Caucus-Meteor's feet, is offensive to the old American. Don't these Englishmen know how to use a comb? The man wears a trade shirt, dark gray trousers, and white stockings under the laced boots. Lying on the bed is a buff-colored waistcoat and a tricornered hat. Caucus-Meteor concludes that an Englishman with no belly fat, no wig, and no buckle shoes cannot be very important in his world. Still, even an ordinary man has value as a captive, either for trade or enslavement. Not that the old American wants a slave. Slaves are trouble; he himself was once a slave and he was trouble for his owner. Still, it would be nice to have a captive for others to admire.
The woman is pale as if with fright; her hair is the color of corn silk and eyes like a winter sky on a clear day. She's small and doesn't look very strong, though it's obvious she can bear children. He guesses from her face, fighting itself, that she would make a stubborn captive, especially if her children were killed before her eyes, as they were likely to be, for they are too young to endure the march to Canada as captives. Only their scalps have value.
Caucus-Meteor notices a musket leaning against the inside wall by the door. He knows this kind of gun well. It's almost as ancient as he is, a 1680 New England trade fowler, the kind of weapon his own father carried in his great war. This farmer probably inherited it from someone in his family, and probably has fired it but half a dozen times in his life, if that.
When the corn finishes popping, the woman takes the pot from the hearth, empties the contents in wooden bowls. Another child appears as if by magic, scrambling down the ladder from her loft bed, and takes her place on a bench and drinks from her noggin on a slab-pine table. Caucus-Meteor estimates her age at four.
An Englishman, a Frenchman, or even a Mohawk, might regard the cabin as crude, for it has only one room of unpeeled softwood poles laid on the ground with no foundation, a dirt floor, logs chinked with mossesa temporary affair until a proper frame house can be built. But for Caucus-Meteor even the cabin is too refined, for he has always lived the nomadic life and structures built to last more than two seasons strike him as unnecessary and subtly corrupting of the spirit; also, prone to insect infestation.
The man shows little emotion, but Caucus-Meteor can read his eyes, for the old American has witnessed this kind of trouble in families before: the man cannot bear the sorrow in the woman, and cannot tell the woman that he cannot bear it. The man turns away from his food, grabs his coat, and starts for the door.
"What's the matter?" the woman says.
"Naught. I'm going to the barn. Breakfast can wait." He hesitates at the door, looks at the musket, and frowns.
"Nathan?" calls the woman, a touch of harshness in her voice.
The man responds sharply. "A man cannot chop wood and carry a musket, nor can he hoe the ground, pitch hay, scythe grass, plane a board, or even haul a bucket up from a well ... carrying a musket." His outburst stops abruptly, and he is instantly contrite. "I am sorry, Elizabeth. I did not mean to lose my temper." She gives him a bare nod, and he goes outside. The weapon remains inside, the woman's eyes wild and fearful.
The man needs only to look in the shadows twelve feet away, and he will see the profile of the great stone face in the old American, but he continues on, for he is more in his thoughts than in his environs.
He pauses at the barn, turns his eyes toward his town, gazes at it for the longest time with an expression that is a queer confluence of pity and confusion, or perhaps, thinks the old American, I am only mirroring myself, as I am wont to do when I require company to fend off morbidity. Caucus-Meteor wonders now what was here before the arrival of these invadersa meadow, swamp maples, and strange gods that have long withdrawn. Caucus-Meteor is aware that the English divide land into measured lots, but the sightfenced boundaries, cabins and frame houses under construction, and barns, and pigsties, everything lined up in squaressends surges of revulsion through him. He wants to tell the Englishman, who like himself is still looking out, puzzled, over the town, that Christian hell must be like his village, row upon row of square-made structures. In this near-dawn light all is shapes and shadows, though in the distance Caucus-Meteor can make out the log fort and under construction a kind of church, which the English call a meeting house. It's a good idea to mix religion with statecraft, for the errors of one can be blamed on the other. Before Caucus-Meteor can meditate further on this notion, before the Englishman breaks off his attentive gaze, they're both distracted by the pop of a musket. Then another. The attack has begun.
The woman is already out the door with both children in her arms when she meets the man. In the dawn's first light and in their silence and fear-frozen expressions, they resemble something like statues Caucus-Meteor saw in Europe. The man takes the children from the woman. She hikes her skirt, and the family runs for the fort. Caucus-Meteor is glad they got away.
The old American listens for the sounds of war. In times gone by, Americans believed that devils could be frightened by loud noises, so warriors whooped and hollered in battle. These days Americans have largely discarded these beliefs, but they still whoop and holler. The old American pulls back his mind so that the gunshots, yells of alarm and terror, war whoops, threats, curse words grow dim. He thinks only of his hunger and fatigue. The door to the cabin is ajar, and Caucus-Meteor enters. He takes note of a sagging mattress of straw and feathers, a spinning wheel, tools on wooden hooks. He picks up one of the whimsy-doodle toys that the English father carved for his children, inspects it, and puts it down gently. Englishmen beat their children, and yet they make toys for them. How can such brutality and kindness be reconciled? He walks over to the stone fireplace hearth, tosses on some fatwood kindling, and a couple of hardwood sticks.
Familiar images from a thousand brooding moments float through his mind: a house of poles, birch bark, tied grass-bunch for insulation, a tiny fire in the middle on the earthen floor. The wigwam fades, replaced by a stick castle complete with moat, stained-glass windows, mannequins in armor with feathers sticking out of the helmets, a king's throne of lashed-together sticks upon which sits a younger version of the old American himself; people of all races appear in adoration at the foot of the king of America.
The vision fades, and Caucus-Meteor turns his attention to the food on the pine table. He sits on the bench, a disagreeable and unfamiliar position. Caucus-Meteor thinks in various languages, favoring none, no more than the wind favors a particular leaf that falls from a tree. Now, in an Englishman's cabin, he thinks in English: How can people sit like this? He picks up a bowl of popped corn and the child's deserted noggin of milk, brings them by the fire, and puts them on the floor. He drops to both knees, sits on his heels, and starts eating popped corn, one kernel at a time. He used to lecture his children and later his grandchildren, "No two popped corn kernels are exactly alike, nor is the circumstance of eating them. So, to obtain the full benefit, don't stuff your mouth." The old American takes a long drink of the creamy milk. It satisfies, though later it will probably upset his stomach.
After he's finished eating, he walks to the bed, tears open the mattress with his knife. Feathers and straw spill out. He unstops the cork from the Englishman's ceramic rum jug. The stink fills the old American with anger and loathing. He pours rum on the straw and feathers and the log walls. He grabs the fireplace poker and pulls the fire out of the hearth onto the earthen floor. Flames catch the rum-soaked straw and flare up into a wave of orange and black.
He's about to leave when he glances through the windowpane. The cabin owner, the man named Nathan, has returned to his home. Caucus-Meteor watches him pause at the barn and go in. The pine siding and split-cedar roofing are eggshell brown, softly iridescent. No sag in the roof, no rot in the boards at ground level. It strikes Caucus-Meteor now that the Englishman built the dwelling place of his animals to last beyond his own years. Moments later two oxen lumber out, then a cow, a pair of sheep, chickens, pigs, geese. Apparently, the man left the safety of the fort to free his animals from the barn. An odd but endearing vanity, thinks Caucus-Meteor.
The smoke from the burning cabin now obscures the old American's vision. He grabs the musket and goes out the door. A score of raiders, mainly Iroquois, run toward the front of the barn. These men may be his brothers in battle, but they are also his competitors, for under the rules of engagement established between the French and their native allies, captives belong to those who capture. Caucus-Meteor goes around the rear of the barn. Coming out a back door is the man Nathan. He's holding a lamb in his arms. The man Nathan sees him, drops the lamb, and the animal scampers off.
Caucus-Meteor cocks the musket, and muses that he hasn't fired one of these things in years.
Seconds later warriors pour out of the back door of the barn, while others appear from around the sides. The Englishman is now surrounded. He extends both hands palms upward, turns a half circle to show he is unarmed. The man's demeanor, apparent mild amusement and the kind of radiance found only in saints and the insane, elicits admiration in Caucus-Meteor.
"You've come too early. I've not had a chance to eat," the man Nathan says. Caucus-Meteor understands the technique: in the face of disaster, act casually defiant.
Caucus-Meteor translates the man's words first in Iroquois, then in Algonkian, and finally in French. The warriors laugh at the captive's joke. Then Caucus-Meteor utters his own response in the three languages. More laughter. Finally, the old American speaks in English, "It must be a poor Englishman who cannot go to Canada without his breakfast."
The man Nathan appears shocked that his captor has responded to him in his own language.
Caucus-Meteor ties the man's arms to a stake shoved crossways against his back. The captive's brazen front falls away as he watches white smoke pouring from his barn. "Can you smell your hay burn?" Caucus-Meteor says. "Your cabin, Nathanthat is your name, is it not?"
"Nathan, Nathan Blake," the man says in a whisper.
"Nathan, your cabin, it burns with the sound of a winter wind, does it not?" taunts Caucus-Meteor.
The captive's body shivers along the spine where the strain of the stake is. He is no longer able to pretend contempt for self-concern. Other than the experience of false cold, he'll be an empty vessel of feeling for a while, thinks Caucus-Meteor. Which is what a master desires from his slave in the early stages of captivity.
Minutes later the attack is over. The raiders leave as swiftly as they arrived. They cross a meandering stream on a single-log footbridge, felled precisely to drop on the further shore, one side hewed flat. Caucus-Meteor finds the cleverness behind the idea as well as the skill used in carrying it out suspicious and oddly disheartening. It's strange but interesting to be old, he thinks. The troop moves swiftly west in single file and in silence. The old American strains on three counts, to keep up with the younger men, to pretend he is not close to exhaustion, and to keep an eye on his prisoner.
An hour away from the battle site, the troop slows briefly. Caucus-Meteor blindfolds his prisoner, ties a rope around his neck, and half drags him as he starts for the head of the column, winding his way through the men. Some are the sons of the northern Algonkian tribes whose territory is now inhabited by the EnglishPenacooks and Squakheags and Abenakiwho have banded together in the French missionary towns, but most are Christian Mohawks from Kahnawake across the river from Montreal. Only Caucus-Meteor represents the mixed-tribes' village of Conissadawaga.
At the front of the column he's met by the commander, Ensign Pierre Raimbault St. Blein. The ensign is very young, with flowing locks of dark brown hair, blue and silver eyes. He has a pretty face, little nose, almost like a girl's, and like a girl sometimes he pouts; nonetheless he is already a veteran of many campaigns and his men respect him, for he never shows fear. Before a battle he trims his thin mustache and hair patch under his lower lip and parades before his men. "I defy the Englishman to take this scalp," he'll say, pulling on his hair. "Come, my savage brothers, let us fight together." Then he'll laugh, a laugh that inspires confidence.
With the ensign is Furrowed Brow, a middle-aged Mohawk with a deeply lined face, features permanently fixed in gravity so extreme he inspires in Caucus-Meteor the opposite emotion of giddiness. Furrowed Brow is holding a tether to which is tied a big white man whose wrists are crossed behind him, his mouth gagged, his eyes covered.
"Now I know why you were late to the battlefield," Caucus-Meteor says in Iroquois.
"We surprised this fellow and three others in their camp while they slept," Furrowed Brow says, and he makes a motion with his hand to his temple, which tells Caucus-Meteor that the other men were tomahawked.
"Is he a soldier?" Caucus-Meteor addresses his question in French to St. Blein.
"From his papers, an English naval officer," says St. Blein.
"I did not know the English could bring the sea so far into the mountains," says Caucus-Meteor.
St. Blein laughs; Caucus-Meteor laughs; Furrowed Brow's permanent frown deepens. The old American is aware that he and the French officer share a sense of humor that unsettles others, especially humorless men like Furrowed Brow.
"More likely the Englishman lost his ocean," says St. Blein. "We will discover why when we interrogate him and your own prisoner at our camp by the great river."
In the tongue of the destroyed tribe that gave him life, Caucus-Meteor speaks the name of that riverKehteihtukqutand feels a pang, a longing, for his parents.
The old interpreter and the young commander start talking in the friendly dueling way of French intimates until they are interrupted by Furrowed Brow. "The two of you speak too fast and too cunningly in a language where I am slow and seek certainty."
"Our apologies," says the ensign in French.
"You have a worthy captiveyou're a credit to your kind," says Caucus-Meteor in Iroquois. The old American is annoyed that the Mohawk has a more important captive than he does.
Furrowed Brow is not sure whether he's being insulted, teased, or complimented. In frustration, he tugs on the tether of his captive.
Minutes later, the march resumes. The men walk until late in the afternoon, when they reach the river.
Caucus-Meteor takes the blindfold off his captive. Nathan is coming out of the shock of capture, and Caucus-Meteor decides to address him to see how he behaves.
"Can you swim?" he says, knowing that the water, icy cold from snow melt, would kill a man before he could cross.
"If a savage can ford this stream, an Englishman can," he says.
Does the Englishman really think that we are going to plunge into the waters? wonders Caucus-Meteor. Is he confused, stupid, or merely inexperienced in the ways of native humor? He attempted some humor himself back when he was captured. But that was only nervousness and bluster in the face of personal disaster. Perhaps he will be funnier and wiser when he is nervous again. When the local Abenaki fellows arrive with the canoes, the old American searches the captive's face for a reaction. But the Englishman conceals all emotion. He is cleverer than Caucus-Meteor had thought. Already his captive is probably thinking about escape, perhaps even laying a plan. I admire him very much, thinks the old American.
The brown water of the river is high, moving with the treachery of malicious whispers. Two canoe men ferry the raiders to the other side. It's flat above the river banks, good soil. The troop makes camp in the woods just off the flats in the cover of the forest. From this vantage point, they can see the open areas along the river where distressed cornstalks from the last growing season stand like weary sentries. The corn was planted by the wandering and secretive Abenaki. The old man gives Nathan some pemmican. Later St. Blein arrives, talking to Caucus-Meteor in French. Then the old American says to Nathan in English, "Come. Follow." And then a dangerous idea sends a shiver of excitement through him. He pulls the blindfold off. "If you should happen to escape," Caucus-Meteor says, "I wouldn't want you to get lost going home."
Another French commander might be appalled at the action of the native, but St. Blein is only amused; Caucus-Meteor thinks: the pleasure of amusing one's superiors is a remnant of my slave days.
He leads Nathan to a huge sugar maple tree with rot oozing from its crotches, the bark twisted and colorful. "You are a farmer, are you not? And a woodsman?" Caucus-Meteor strikes a formal tone.
"Aye," says Nathan.
"What will happen if I hit this tree with that fallen branch?" asks Caucus-Meteor.
St. Blein looks on, a sardonic smile on his pretty face. Nathan is confused. Perhaps he suspects he's being made sport of. But he answers the question. "Likely, it will ring hollow," Nathan says.
"And why is that?"
"Because the maple dies from the inside. In old age, the core is likely to be rotted out. Eventually, the weight of the tree will bring it down for the weakness of its empty chamber."
"Let us test it." The old man unties Nathan from the stake at his back, and points to the fallen branch. Nathan's arms are so stiff he can barely pick up the branch, but finally he gathers the strength to swing it against the maple.
"It makes drum music," says Caucus-Meteor. "You know your treesis there a god in the tree?"
The Englishman ponders the question, apparently trying to devise a cunning answer. Finally, he says, "The Lord God is everywhere, so in the tree, too, I imagine."
Table of Contents
|The Great River||55|
|A House like the English Build||210|
|A Far Place||257|
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“The Old American is a great novel about what it means to be an Indian, and an even greater novel about what it means to be human. Funny, dramatic, beautifully written, and eternally surprising, it is a master-work from a fiction writer as accomplished and insightful as any at work in this country today.”
“I am delighted with The Old American. The author both knows his history and knows our Native cultures. I’ve rarely read a book which does a better job than this does in presenting the intellectuality and the humor of Native people in the colonial period.”
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