Yellow Hair is an epic novel detailing the history between the United States and the Sioux Nation. Throughout the 19th century, the Sioux were repeatedly manipulated, lied to, and cheated by a government power who saw them as less than human, with an insatiable greed to claim all the Sioux lands at any cost—continuing a centuries-old policy of taking whatever they wanted from Indigenous Peoples, and leaving death and devastation in their wake.
The story begins with a large group of people heading west to seek a better way of life. Included among them is Jacob Ariesen,heading to California with his parents and siblings. But it’s a lethal trip—tragic accidents, an Indian attack, and a deadly cholera epidemic leaves Jacob as the sole survivor, and he is at death’s door when he is found and cared for by a Dakota woman named Suni. Once he is well enough, she takes him to her home and teaches him the ways of her people. Jacob chooses to stay with Suni and becomes known as Yellow Hair. As Yellow Hair, he experiences first-hand the treachery and deceit meted out by the United States, with one treaty after another being broken practically as soon as the ink dries, and feels the desperation and anger of his adopted people as more of their lands are stolen and they are starving from lack of food—setting into motion an unstoppable chain of events that leads to war, loss, heartache, and the complete destruction of their way of life.
There were many things I liked about this book—the use of the Lakota language, detailing actual events that have been lost to history, to name only two— all of which enriched the story in many ways. The portions dealing with the actual people and events were fascinating to read. For some readers, it may be the first time they hear about certain events, inspiring them to learn more and (as someone who loves history) that’s a very good thing.
But—if I’m being honest—there were a lot of things that bothered me, as well. The repeated use of “as the whites count time” and other “as the whites…” phrases felt like overkill after a while. I felt like an unnecessary reminder.
Another thing that bothered me was the way the narrative would switch, without warning, from the fictional world of the story to detailing historical facts (sometimes decades beyond the time frame of that moment in the story) in a very non-fiction kind of way. It was almost as if I were reading two books—one fiction, one non-fiction— that had been merged together. I enjoyed reading those parts, but they always felt out of place… as if I were reading something best used as a footnote… and threw me out of the story.
The thing that bothered me the most (and prevented me from giving a higher rating) was ‘too much tell, not enough show’. This is the issue that made me hold off on writing my review for two days, because I dreaded addressing it. I enjoyed the book, but I never really connected emotionally to any of the characters, and I think that’s because I was never shown how they were feeling. I read the words they spoke, but there was rarely, if ever, a strong indication given by their actions of what they were feeling inside. Sometimes (many times?) the words spoken by a character aren’t nearly as powerful and meaningful as something they could be doing instead. Bear with me as I make up my own (not so great) example of what I mean:
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Talk to me.”
He turned away and said, “I don’t want to talk right now.”
Her brow creased, and she bit her lip to stop its trembling. “What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice shaking with the strain of keeping her fear under control. “Talk to me.” Her eyes silently pleaded and she reached out to touch him, only to be stopped cold by the sudden clench of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes.
He gave her a scathing look and turned away, his back stiff with barely-repressed rage. “I don’t want to talk right now,” he hissed.
Both examples use the same dialogue, but when descriptions of their actions and demeanor are added, it gives an additional depth to what they’re saying, and creates an emotional connection. This is the sort of thing I’m always subconsciously looking for when I read, and I always notice when it’s not there, because (for me) it leaves a void that makes the characters feel somewhat two-dimensional. Same goes for long passages of dialogue without actions of any kind. I need to know more than just the words they’re saying. I need indicators of how they feel inside… and not by being told about them, but by being shown.
Despite the things that bothered me, I still enjoyed reading the book, and would recommend it to others who enjoy historical fiction, with the caveat that there were a few things that bothered me, but not enough to quit reading altogether.
I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the author.
Rating: 3 stars
About the Book
Through no fault of his own, a young man is thrust into a new culture just at the time that culture is undergoing massive changes. It is losing its identity, its lands, and its dignity. He not only adapts, he perseveres and, over time, becomes a leader—and on occasion, the hand of vengeance against those who would destroy his adopted people.
Yellow Hair documents the injustices done to the Sioux Nation from their first treaty with the United States in 1805 through Wounded Knee in 1890. Every death, murder, battle, and outrage written about actually took place. The historical figures that play a role in this fact-based tale of fiction were real people and the author uses their real names. Yellow Hair is an epic tale of adventure, family, love, and hate that spans most of the 19th century. This is American history.
About the Author
Joyce now lives aboard a boat in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his dog, Danny, where he is busy working on his next book, tentatively entitled, Mahoney: An American Story.