New York 1609 – Harald Johnson
New York 1609: A Historical Novel (Omnibus Edition) is a collection of 4 novellas, each covering the following 4 time periods i) 1609 ii) 1612-13 iii) 1625-26 iv) 1640-44, and each chronicling the stages of European colonisation of Mannahatta Island and its surrounding area. As a complete set of novels, they form an incredibly visual and epic story of a changing native culture and landscape. It’s about family, friends, society and our coexistence with threats and collaboration. It illustrates the struggle with freedom, survival, beliefs, learning, greed, and an erosion of natural skills and identity. Harald Johnson tells the story primarily from the perspective of the Native American Indian, accepting that much is already written from the settler’s point of view. This is a wonderful mixture of historical fact and fiction, expertly written.
The story is vividly brought to life as we follow a young Manahate Indian, Dancing Fish, (part of the Lenape people who occupied the area known today as New York), as he experiences the growing involvement and occupation of Europeans on his ancestral home. I have a fascination with how our great cities developed from green fields and forests to how they appear today. The sad part is that it doesn’t happen without the destruction of nature. In North America, this also came with the demise of many Indian tribes and traditions.
On September 3, 1609, Henry Hudson sailed his ship, the Half Moon, into a bay and after anchoring, is greeted by naturals that come alongside his ship in their canoes to trade oysters and tobacco for knives and glass beads. Following the further engagement, Dancing Fish is selected by his tribe to accompany Hudson up-river, (the river that’s now named after him), as they attempt to find a new route to Russia. During his travels with Hudson, Dancing Fish sees the adventure and capability of these white men but also witnesses their greed, dishonesty and brutality.
“He knew now that the Souls of both prophets of the Fourth Fire had been on the ship. Good and evil. Light and darkness. Hudson and Joo-et were the two sides of the prophecy. Hudson was curiosity and open-mindedness. Joo-et was anger and hatred. Both sides had competed with each other, and both had influenced Dancing Fish in their own ways.”
Dancing Fish is a fabulously drawn character who is quite unique, even within his own tribe; a dreamer, an inventor, a thinker and a natural leader. He develops a close relationship with his mentor, Owl, and asks him if he will play a part in dealing with these white strangers. “You will play the most important part of all.”
The storyline also involves his childhood nemesis, High Limb, and their relationship is in constant thread throughout the book. High Limb is a warrior and has physical dominance over Dancing Fish which he uses to win personal battles when he’s not outwitted. What I loved about the characters is their depth and the evolving relationships throughout the years. There isn’t the presumption that the Native Indians are all good and Europeans are all bad, there is a wonderful array of personalities with mixtures of traits on both sides.
The story passes through periods when the traders started to arrive and trade knives, kettles and other tools for furs and tobacco. One particular trader injured and left behind during the winter, Claude Boucher, is to have a massive impact on Dancing Fish not only teaching him the Dutch and English languages but leaving a legacy and realisation that not all whites are evil. Traders give way to settlers and the inevitable conflict materialises.
Harald Johnson tackles various deeper issues in his novel with such a balanced and complementary approach that the entertaining story is never compromised. Many native cultures had such a spiritual connection with nature where it thrived and co-existed. With our progress and consumption exceeding what nature can provide, we kill to the point of extinction, we permanently destroy forests and we harm nature with pollution. What started in 1625 in this book could not be more evident than it is in today’s world.
This is a very entertaining story that took my imagination on a wonderful excursion and never seemed to slow in its telling. But it is so much more, it is an exposé of how we dealt and continue to deal with cultures we have physical supremacy over and how we treat nature with greed and over-indulgence.
I would highly recommend this book and I feel a sense of loss now that it’s finished.
There is a great TED talk on the Mannahatta Project which sought to recreate the landscape and ecology of 1609 when Henry Hudson first sailed into the bay.