The Ohio River surrounds the State like a hospital gown, protective on the front and exposing the back side for the entire country to see. Growing up in Cincinnati at the turn of this century, the river was always known as the place downtown that required a tetanus shot to swim in. Before the barges full of coal made their way downstream, before cars and trucks displaced the railroads which displaced the riverboats, even before Harriet Tubman crossed the icy river with runaways in tow, the river was home to many tribes of Native Americans.
Generations of these tribes used the river as a means of sustenance and transportation. When the pioneers and colonists began to cross the river to the west in their never ending thirst for expansion, the river turned from a peaceful harbinger of life, into a bloody stream of death. This story is worth telling, in "That Dark and Bloody River", Allan Eckert attempts to do so.
THAT DARK AND BLOODY RIVER
By Allan W. Eckert
880 pp. Bantam Books, $22
Imagine that you have a time machine. You go back in ti me, stop at the river bed near modern day Wheeling West Virginia, and spend the next 80 years stopping every single person who passes by. You write 250 or so words about them, jot down the day of the week, and send them along their way.
Later, back in 1995, you sketch out a loose timeline of events, slap it around your endless collection of vignettes and cram all of that into a 700 pages. When you're done you call up some friends at Bantam Books, compile your notes into a volume, and sell it for $22.
Minus the time machine portion, this is more or less the story of this book.
The problem with "That Dark and Bloody River" is that most of the events and dialog never really happened. The characters are fake, and not in the sense that they are fictionalized, but in the sense that they only exist to painfully push forward whatever semblance of a plot exists here. Both sides of the struggle are described, and even though many of the white pioneers speak in some strange dialect of English skin to Steinbeck's "pidgin", the narrator still seems to justify the atrocities committed against the native people.
The back cover bills this as "narrative history", but after slogging through hundreds of pages of 10p font, it feels more like historic fan fiction to me.