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When it came time to design the jacket of this book, my editor Steve Saffel asked me how I would describe The Rivers of War and the story which it launches. It's an alternate history, obviously. But of what?


That's a harder question to answer than it seems.

On the simplest level, it's an alternate history of the Cherokees. In fact, the story originated when Steve asked me some time ago if I could write an alternate history wherein the Trail of Tears could be prevented.

I told him I could do it, but not precisely. "Prevented" was simply impossible. Given the political, social, demographic, and economic forces at work in North America by the early nineteenth century, I couldn't think of any plausible mechanism by which the southern tribes could avoid being driven off their land by the expanding United States. Not, at least, without positing some sort of time travel or science-fiction element— and that's not what we were looking for.

Nor was that a story I would have wanted to write. Even if I could have figured out a way for the Cherokees to make a valiant and successful stand, retaining possession of their traditional lands, where would that lead? None of the answers to that question genuinely interested me as a writer.

That sort of valiant effort by an embattled minority has its precedent in world history, of course. For one example, many of the shattered Bantu tribes of southern Africa were rallied by Moshoeshoe in the early nineteenth century. The result was the country known today as Lesotho, which is completely surrounded by South Africa.

But I wasn't attracted by the idea of writing a North American equivalent of the Lesotho story. I don't mean to take anything away from the accomplishments of the founders of that nation. However, the fact remains that for the two centuries since, Lesotho has been entirely overshadowed by the much more compelling story of South Africa as a whole.

The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became at the idea of an alternate history in which the relocation of the southern tribes happened, but did so in a very different way. A way which, over time, would have a tremendous impact on the unfolding developments in North America as a whole.

What if, in short, an "Indian nation" emerged in the heartland of America—something more than a place where the broken pieces of the tribes were herded like cattle into a pen? This "Indian nation" would of necessity wind up becoming something of a hybrid, and would be powerful enough to withstand the blasts of later historical developments.

That was... plausible.

Not likely, perhaps. But "likely" isn't the business of alternate history. What matters is that the story be reasonably possible, and that it results in a story which will be entertaining in its own right.

In the end, Steve proposed that we call it an alternate history of the American frontier. I agreed, since that seemed as good a description as any. True, it would probably be most accurate to call it an alternate history of the United States and the surrounding territories during the Jacksonian Era and the period leading up to the Civil War. But that's an impossibly long description to fit onto a book cover.

So, The Rivers of War is an alternate history of the American frontier. That said, you can expect this story as it unfolds to spend plenty of time with many very unfrontierly characters, such as James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Winfield Scott— and, for that matter, a retired British major general named Robert Ross.

The Cherokees, on the other hand, are very frontierly, and they are the prism through which this story will project an alternate history of North America. That's because—as the character of Patrick Driscol says at one point in the novel—this is a family saga. A tale, if you will, of the new clan emerging on the continent, with its many disputatious nations, races, factions, and creeds.

* * *

Now for the details that will be of interest to many of my readers.

First, I should explain what the break point is in this story. For those of you not familiar with the conventions of alternate history, a "pure" alternate history like this one—one without a science-fictional element that causes the change in history—is based on the notion that a single altered event is what causes the deviation from history as it actually occurred.

There are informal rules governing this, and the most important is that the author is only allowed one such "break point." Everything that follows has to be logically connected to that one change.

In the case of this story, the break point is simple and surprisingly modest. In the fifth chapter, as Sam Houston scales the Creek barricade at the battle of the Horseshoe Bend, his foot slips. As a result, the arrow which in real history caused a terrible wound to his groin simply produces a minor flesh wound.

And... that's it.

In real history, although Houston finished the battle—even led another charge which resulted in two more wounds—he was so badly injured that he was actually given up for dead. And, although he survived, he needed to spend a year recuperating from his wounds. So he missed the rest of the War of 1812.

In this alternate history, his continued activity after the battle means that he can serve as a catalyst, connecting people who would become critically involved in the basic issues dealt with in the story. And that's important, because they were all at the Horseshoe: Andrew Jackson, John Ross, Major Ridge, and Sequoyah—the men who would wind up being the central figures in the dispute between the Americans and Cherokees in the years to come.

Moreover, Houston's own life changes drastically. In real history, he became one of Andrew Jackson's closest associates. In fact, until his alcoholism and a terrible first marriage wrecked his initial political career, he was widely considered to be Jackson's most likely successor. And after he regained his stature as a result of the Texas Revolution, he again became one of Jackson's closest allies.

Here, however, the connection with Jackson happens much sooner, and with many unforeseen consequences. So, in one sense, this story can be viewed as an alternate biography of Sam Houston.

Beyond that, all of the major characters in the story are, with one exception, real historical figures. That one exception is the freedman teamster, Henry Crowell, whom I invented out of whole cloth. Still, even in Crowell's case, his character is based on real people of the time.

The extent to which the personalities of the novel's other characters match their personalities in real history varies a great deal from one character to the next. In the case of such characters as Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, James Monroe, and—albeit to a lesser extent—John Ross and Major Ridge, there's an extensive historical record which enabled me to base their personalities as closely as possible on the real people. Thus, while some modern readers might be skeptical that Sam Houston's attitudes on race were as depicted in the novel, those were in fact his attitudes, and they're amply recorded in existing documents.

With other characters, much less is known. The basic facts of the military career of Robert Ross, for instance, are well established. But his personality seems to have largely vanished from the historical record. So I felt at liberty to develop his personality as it best fit the story. First, because nothing I posit stands in contradiction to what is recorded. Ross was, for instance, known for being a "soldier's general." And, secondly, because since I saved his life—in a manner of speaking—I figured I was entitled to some dramatic leeway. (In real history, after the successful British attack on Washington, D.C., Ross was killed a few weeks later leading the attack on Baltimore.)

At the far extreme, the characters of Patrick Driscol and Anthony McParland are based on real historical figures. The execution of the deserters depicted in the beginning of Part II of the novel did, in fact, happen as I portrayed it. But so far as I was able to determine, even the names—as well as the personalities—of both the sergeant and the young private involved have disappeared. So, I developed them as I needed for the purposes of the story.

Tiana Rogers occupies a category of her own. She did exist, and became Sam Houston's second wife from 1828 to 1833, when he went back to live with the Cherokee after the wreck of his political career in Tennessee. They divorced after he moved to Texas, and Tiana eventually died of pneumonia in 1838.

To the greatest degree possible, the depiction of her in the novel is true to life. Indeed, she was by all accounts very tall and, though slender, very strong. There are stories of her marching into trading posts where her husband Sam had gotten stinking drunk and hauling him out over her shoulder—and Houston was a big man, standing at least 6 feet 2 inches tall and powerfully built.

But there are so many legends surrounding Tiana that separating fact from fiction is simply impossible. Even her name is a matter of dispute. I chose to use the variant of Tiana, although it was probably spelled Diana or Dianna in writing, because the name would most likely have been pronounced that way by Cherokees.

However, the name on her tombstone in the officers' circle of the cemetery at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, is spelled "Talihina." That name was bestowed on her by a journalist in the 1890s, half a century after her death—and is almost certainly wrong, because it is probably Choctaw rather than Cherokee in its origins.

But that's to be expected, since it is also a matter of dispute whether the body buried in that grave is hers in the first place. Most scholars think that it probably is, but there are a number who dispute the claim.

I made my own decision as to how I would portray Tiana during the hour or so I spent at the cemetery in Fort Gibson, contemplating her tombstone. (Which it is, after all, whether or not the body that's buried there is really hers.)

In the end, I'm a storyteller. And this is the Tiana whose tale I chose to tell.

Finally, a word on dialogue and Cherokee orthography. An author of historical fiction set in a period when people spoke an older form of English faces a peculiar problem. Readers think nothing of reading a story set in ancient Egypt or Rome, where the dialogue is all in modern English. But, perhaps oddly, if the setting is English-language, many people expect an archaic form of dialogue to be used.

I sprinkled a bit of the dialect of the time into the dialogue of my characters in this novel. But, for the most part, I simply used modern contemporary idiom, except that I avoided terms which would be obviously anachronistic.

The reason is simple. Period dialect inevitably sounds stilted to a modern reader. But those same words and phrases and sentences would not have sounded stilted to the people at the time. They would have sounded like modern contemporary idiom.

So, given a choice between violating the letter and the spirit of the law, I chose to violate the letter.

The same principle applies to my use of Cherokee orthography. It is the standard practice among scholars to separate all syllables in Cherokee with hyphens. Thus, properly and technically, a name I use such as Tahlonteskee should be spelled Tahlon-tes-kee.

But I'm writing novels, not monographs. That means I deal, ultimately, more with emotions than intellect. And it's simply an emotional fact that to people raised in modern Western culture—that is to say, at least 99 percent of my audience—that words divided by hyphens look stilted, at best. Often, they seem downright comical or derisive. As if the peo-ple of the time we-ren't ve-ry bright, so they spoke ve-ry slow-ly.

Well, they didn't. Early nineteenth-century Cherokees spoke to each other in modern contemporary idiom, as well. All people do, in all places, and in all times. So, again, I chose to stick with the spirit of the law rather than its letter.

I admit, it's a low trick. But as I told you, I'm a storyteller. Ours is the oldest profession, and it's probably even less reputable than the second oldest. So what did you expect?

Eric Flint
December 2004

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