[Review] Thieving Forest written by Martha Conway

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Title: Thieving Forest
Author: Martha Conway
Publisher: Noontime Books
Date of Publication: 15 August 2014
Number of Pages: 416

Rating: 3 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: On a humid morning in 1806, seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner watches helplessly from behind a tree while a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead from Swamp Fever and all the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna rashly decides to pursue them herself. What follows is a young woman’s quest to save her sisters and the parallel story of her sisters’ new lives.

Over the next five months, Susanna tans hides in a Moravian missionary village; escapes down a river with a young native girl; discovers an eccentric white woman raising chickens in the middle of the Great Black Swamp; and becomes a servant in a Wyandot village longhouse. The man who loves her, Seth Spendlove, is in pursuit after he realizes that his father was involved in the kidnapping. Part Potawatomi himself but living a white man’s life, Seth unwittingly sets off on his own quest to reclaim his birthright. He allies himself with a Potawatomi named Koman, one of the band of men who originally abducted the Quiner sisters, but who now wishes to make his own retribution. Together they canoe through the Black Swamp and into enemy territory looking for Susanna, and while they travel Koman teaches Seth about their shared heritage.

Review: I cannot think where to start this review. I feel as though the wet, cold, greyness of the novel has invaded my brain and it means I can’t think straight. Some might think this is a good thing but I do not. Let me try and unpack my thoughts in a coherent way.

Nearly 100% of this book is told in the same heavy tone and confusing turn of phrase. The sentence structure is problematic and would have benefited from a few commas or, even better, some brutal editing. Learning to read Conway’s prose and meeting four female characters who were, essentially, the same person, made the initial 10% hard work. It never improved but you got use to it. Meera is the strongest character and Susanna is a close second. I don’t feel that Susanna developed much in the five months she is supposed to have trekked to save her sisters. In the end she was still self obsessed.

From my understanding of the Ohio region at the time, it seems Conway’s history is correct but she does seem to gloss over a lot of the finer points. Conway also skips giving readers any kind of timeline and other points of reference. Perhaps this is a stylistic choice, designed to leave the reader feeling as disoriented as the characters. I have to wonder if this has been done to avoid cluttering the narrative or if it just lazy. I have read other works of fiction that gave this sense of confusion but still provided points of reference to assist the reader.

Conway states she “was not interested in the political landscape, but rather in the social landscape and how people really lived day to day” and this comes across clearly. As an anthropologist, however, I do not feel she achieved the social landscape and the social landscape does not exist without the political activities working in conjunction. Political dictates would have been harder to enforce in this era but I don’t know how they can be ignored completely and with this then being justified. To me, this read as an amatuer historian dabbling in complex narratives but not achieving anything solid.

This problem is further highlighted by the use of Delaware words at random moments in the text and expounded by the wooden use of the English language by the Indians. Expecting that indigenous communities would know fluent English is unreasonable and naive, however, there are ways Conway could have conveyed the lack of mutual understanding with greater effect and sensitivity than occurred in text. This issue is shared by other reviewers.

I don’t know what I expected from Thieving Forest but I don’t feel I got it. I see a lot of potential in Conway’s writing but something, this time, has let her down. This review might seem harsh but I believe the indigenous populations of any country are done a great disservice when they are broken down to basic parts and not rebuilt within any kind of context. Conway does have one character use the word “savages” and this is immediately negated as an appropriate word but ultimately, this is the only real instance.

Thieving Forest was a disappointing read and I had been looking forward to it.

Would I recommend this to other readers? No.

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