James Alexander Thom,
Panther in the Sky
(Ballantine, 1989)

Panther in the Sky is a fine piece of historical fiction that relates the story of the mighty warrior Tecumseh and the Shawnee people. While it is a fictionalized biography of one man, this book has more value as a cultural study of the people and their situation nearing the turn of the century and through the War of 1812. It won the Western Writers of America award for best historical novel.

Tecumseh was named Tha'mthka (The Panther Crossing the Sky) because when he was born a green shooting star, known as the eye of the panther that stalks the night sky, crossed over the region of his birth. He was the son of the chief of the Kispoko -- the Panther or warrior sept -- of the Shawnee Nation. His people believed the shooting star was a sign that he was destined to become a great leader of the people.

As he grew, he adopted his father's belief that the natives should not accept the white ways and that the only way to continue their lifestyle was to drive the whites from their land. He traveled from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to unite the native nations in a war against the English. Once united, he aligned the native forces with the British during the War of 1812 in a final effort to defeat the Americans.

In a note at the end, the author explains that there has always been great controversy about Tecumseh: his life, career and death. From the most basic facts, such as where he was born, to the details about who killed him on the battlefield, this man remains shrouded in mystery. These perennial disputes can never be answered concretely.

Thom used the usual sources for information: maps, treaties, diaries, government documents, history books, battle accounts, interviews with experts from all realms and visits to the battlegrounds. However, he states he was looking specifically for insight into the people and their "culture, morality, ceremony, and psychic condition."

Thom says he has "carefully sought the ascertainable truth," but often had to choose between two unverifiable versions. He chose the red version, in order to "make my reader walk in the Shawnees' moccasins, to help him appreciate what they once had and comprehend the devastation they were suffering."

The author achieved his goal. You will feel as if you are right there alongside Tecumseh and his siblings, wearing holes in your moccasins. You feel their emotions; their despair; and understand their dogged determination to resist the white invasion. You read this book with all of your senses. It is a complete experience of the Shawnee world.

Panther in the Sky is an outstanding read. For almost 700 pages, you will experience the lives of the Shawnee in their final effort to remain free on their homeland. It is a story that will leave you in awe of Tecumseh and with a newfound respect for his people.

James Alexander Thom is married to Dark Rain, of the United Remnant Band, Shawnee Nation. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marines and author of Long Knife, Follow the River, From Sea to Shining Sea and The Children of First Man. This book was developed into a movie, Tecumseh: The Last Warrior.

review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

25 October 2008

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