Sunday, June 15, 2003

Review: "People of the Owl" by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

Thousands of people visit Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana every year, but no one's ever seen it in quite the way Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear present it in their latest book, "People of the Owl" ($25.95, Forge).

The book is the latest installment of the Gears' "People" series, which chronicles the prehistory of North America through fiction. In the novel, the familiar Poverty Point is transformed into a thriving hub of Native American life called Sun Town by its inhabitants.

We're introduced to six distinct clans that live in the different sections of the city. For years, the Owl Clan has held the reins of power in the matriarchal city, but the reign is coming to an end.

Wing Heart is the last female of her line but determined to hang on to her power. When her brother dies, she has to rely on her sons to perform the duties of Speaker. Her eldest son, White Bird, is perfect for the role. He's daring and heroic and has just returned from an amazingly successful trading journey far to the north. The other son is less likely to offer any assistance. At 15, Mud Puppy is a dreamer who seems a little slow-witted to most people.

When things go wrong, though, Mud Puppy, now known as Salamander, is thrust into the role of leader with all the political machinations and intrigue that go along with it.

Even though I've visited the Poverty Point site a number of times, the Gears were able to transform it into a new place for me, a much more vibrant place. Several of the ideas they presented in "People of the Owl" were intriguing to me.

One of the biggest battles the Gears say they face is against Native American stereotypes, and I understand that statement a little better after reading the book. There's a tendency to think of Native Americans as the warlike savages of the old Westerns or as an idyllic grand, noble and wise race.

There were certain elements of the book, such as the political backstabbing and intrigue, that I initially had trouble accepting. But the more I read, those things began to make sense. After all, we're not talking about mythical creatures, but people with all of the same virtues and vices that people have always had.

Though the people and events in the book were obviously fictional, I had the feeling that they could have been real. It also helps if you're familiar with the site and can visualize things more vividly than someone who hasn't been there.

It's been a few years since I visited Poverty Point, but after reading "People of the Owl," I'm ready to go back to perhaps sit at the top of the bird mound where Mud Puppy found his spirit guide or imagine the buildings of Sun Town sitting on the ridges.

With "People of the Owl," the Gears have accomplished what they intended. The book delivers what any novel should - an exciting, intriguing story with believable characters the reader can care about. But at the same time, by the end, I felt I understood the original inhabitants of Poverty Point just a little better.

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