Rating: 4/5 stars
Length: 268 pages
Genres: Historical Fiction, Historical, War, Military History, Fiction, Civil War Fiction
Publication date: April 26, 2017
I found In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree to be hard hitting and powerful. While I’m lucky enough to be a white female that was born to well off parents, I can’t even begin to imagine what Henry and others like him had to face every day of their lives. While I’d love to say that slavery and racism is in the past, the sad truth is that it still runs rampant in the world today.
This novel was a hard hitting look into what life was truly like for many people at this time. The horror of the reality that people were treated like cattle, like they were less than human. That treating people like this was socially acceptable. If that isn’t horrible, I don’t know what is.
As if that isn’t bad enough, he American Civil War carried even more darkness than slavery alone. No one was safe from the clutches of the all powerful white man. Going after the “Indians”, as the Indigenous peoples were so distastefully called, seemed to be the next logical move for these men.
If you’re looking for a glimpse into the past, a chance to see what life in America was like for many people in the 1800s, I recommend picking this novel up. McLellan does a wonderful job at bringing his characters to life, of making it possible to love and hate the people of this world. To hope for some and condemn the wicked. It’s tales like this that make me recognize my privileges, to be thankful that I was born when, who, and where I was.
As long as you’re aware that this time period – and therefore this novel – is filled with bias, violence, bigotry, and hate, I truly believe there is something that everyone can take away from this tale. The best way to avoid repeating history is to learn from it, to not ignore what happened and try to better yourself and those around you. Though this novel offers so much more, this tale acts as a wonderful lesson of how not to act, of how to be the best you can be. It is a cautionary tale, and one that many people alive today could learn from.
Michael’s love of books began with Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle when he was seven-years-old. Later influenced by the works of John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Stephen King, James Baldwin, and Cormac McCarthy, Michael developed his style of storytelling. A self-proclaimed blue-collar writer, he draws on his experiences and observations to bring relevant and compelling topics to life.
Michael lives in Northern California and when he’s not writing, he can usually be found wandering around the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.
His body of work includes the 2014 novel After and Again, the 2015 novel American Flowers, and the 2017 novel, In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree, as well as various shorts and essays.
Emmet Dawson pulled the crumpled sheets of Henry and Eliza’s free papers from his coat and held them close to his face, squinting. “…Samuel Cromwell.” He held the papers out. “Can you read these?”
Henry averted his eyes. “No, sir,” he lied.
“No, of course you can’t. It’s not only near to impossible to teach a nigger to read but it’s also against the law—God’s and man’s.” He lowered the papers to his side. “These jayhawkers are burning and pillaging their way across our great state. They’re murdering innocent Missouri families in their sleep, then setting niggers loose on the land like a pestilence. That boy’s an orphan. His father, his mother, and his little baby sister were inside the house when it was set fire. They were unable to escape. We found their niggers a few miles away, riding their horses and leading their pigs just like they had the right to. We are at war, Henry. We are at war to save our families and our way of life.”
Emmet turned and looked at Bob. “Hang him with the others.”
Eliza let out an anguished wail and dropped to her knees where she began screaming hysterically. Henry tried to kneel down with her but Bob yanked the rope tight and wrapped it on his saddle horn. This left Henry standing at an awkward lean as he tried not to drag Eliza.
“What about the woman?” Bob asked.
Emmet Dawson looked down at Eliza appraisingly. “Shut her up and tie her to my wagon…and here,” he handed Bob the free papers. “Pin these to his shirt. There aren’t any free niggers in Missouri.” He gave Henry a final stony look then walked into the camp.
Having Eliza and Henry receive their freedom was a powerful start to this story. The truth is that most slaves lived and died as slaves, never seeing their freedom. Never knowing what it means to be your own person, to not be treated like property. While Henry was born into the life, I’m glad that he was able to experience as much freedom as he could.
The relationship between Clara and John was also a powerful one. Her father might not have wanted them to be together, but that didn’t stop them from doing everything in their power to be together. They truly loved each other and were willing to do whatever it took in order to remain together. I honestly felt for them and the struggles that they went through.
Watching the morally superior being placed an the wrong side of history was hard to stomach at times. It was devastating to watch what Henry, Clara, Standing Elk, and John were forced to endure in their struggle to right the world’s wrongs. They could see the injustices of the world and were willing to do everything they could to fight them.
However, the most terrifying part of this story (to me) is how real the villains felt. I’ve witnessed racism like this taking place in modern times. I’ve seen the hatred and bigotry in the world, the way it seems to take people over. I know people who have been hurt by these things, who can’t always overcome adversary. My heart weeps for everyone to has to deal with these things in a world where people should’ve outgrown this childishly harmful mentality. While I hope and pray that people will outgrow hatred and bigotry, at this rate I doubt I’ll ever be able to see it in my lifetime. It gives a really bleak outlook on the world, and I can only hope that we can overcome it.
All of that being said, I’m not the biggest fan of historical fiction because I often feel like it’s a dry read. However, McLellan did a fantastic job at bringing this story and its characters to life. I could image the auction and the way the white folk treated those on the block as cattle. It infuriated me, even knowing that this is how people were actually treated. I felt for the struggles that the characters went through trying to right the wrongs of others. My heart ached for everything that they had to go through.
Before this read, the only other historical fiction novel that stood out to me was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. And the only reason I read that book was because my best friend talked me into it. However, if it wasn’t for To Kill a Mockingbird, I never would have picked up In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree and would’ve missed out on this fantastic tale. These two novels have opened my eyes to what a fantastic world historical fiction novels can be. I look forward to picking up more from this genre, of widening my horizons and trying to find another story that I adore as much as these two.