The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens (Atlantic Books, 460pp, £25) declares itself “the epic story of the Indian Wars for the American West”. Nothing, though, can quite prepare you for seeing the whole catastrophe unfold – campaign by campaign, treaty by broken treaty, battle by gruesome battle – over the course of 460 pages.
Whatever faint chance there was that two civilisations so far apart in their aims and means could have found a modus vivendi was crushed again and again by cruelty, greed, double-crossing and bad faith. The flashes of good intentions, mutual admiration and friendship that broke out between the combatants serve only to heighten the tragedy of the denouement.
Cozzens provides a masterful account of what is, I should add, not a simple tale of good and evil. The Indian tribes had been bullying one another about the plains before the whites arrived. Hatreds ran deep, treachery abounded and vengeance was brutal. But the next bully on the scene came with countless numbers and had the power to eat up all the space that must once have seemed so endless. In the words cried out by White Bull as he led a charge at Little Bighorn: “Only heaven and earth last long.”
As the title suggests, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting (MacLehose Press, 480pp, £17) concerns another of the greatest bloodlettings in history. The story opens, however, in an obscure corner of modern-day Norway. The protagonist, Edvard, farms alongside his grandfather, who has reared him since both his parents died when visiting the Great War battlefield. It is an event shrouded in mystery: why did they go there? How exactly did they die? Sixteen Trees answers these questions all in its own time and in its own way. The answers are not straightforward – one might almost say contrived – but the tug of this book on the heart and mind is irresistible.
There is a subtle religious undercurrent to the whole thing. And you will, I think, struggle to find a modern novel in which the emotional, imaginative lure of trees and wood is as powerful.
And finally a word for something very different, though also steeped in an appalling episode from history. Jim McDowell is a journalist who worked in his native Belfast throughout the Troubles, seeing the very worst of it up close.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection