CLIMB THE WIND
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Pamela Sargent's Climb the Wind is not the first alternate history which postulates Indian victory over the Americans. It isn't even the only recent one (Jake Page's Apacheria and Operation: Shatterhand come to mind and Orson Scott Card's "Alvin Maker" series seems to be heading in that direction). It may, however, be the best and most realistic of them, granting Sargent the licence for the magic realism which she incorporates into the tale of Touch-the-Clouds, a Lakotan chief who is inspired by the tales of a Russian adventurer of the exploits of Ghengis Khan.
Climb the Wind tells the story of Touch-the-Clouds, this latter day American khan, through the eyes of some of his associates. Although the concept is relatively straight-forward with a seemingly telegraphed ending, Sargent incorporates several unexpected twists and turns throughout the novel with the result that the ending is not quite the conclusion that the reader expects when the start the novel. In fact, the twists come so frequently that eventually the reader gives up trying to predict what Sargent is going to do next.
Many of Sargent's characters are living on the edge of their society. Lemuel Rowland and Katia Rubalev are Indians who have raised in European-American settings. Grisha Rubalev, Katia's guardian and Touch-the-Clouds's mentor, is a Russian-Inuit who has been dispossessed of his lands by the Seward purchase of Alaska. "Calamity" Jane Cannary is the sole survivor of the Seventh Cavalry attack on the Black Hills. All of these characters are catalysts for Sargent's history as they try to carve out a place for themselves to fit in. The major Indian characters, such as Touch-the-Clouds, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull are attempting to avoid their own marginalization by creating their own empire which can stand up to the expansionist policy of the Americans.
One of the more interesting things that Sargent does, following the Indian victory at the Mountain Goat, is to allow Katia, Touch-the-Clouds's visionary wife, to see events which occured in our own world, but which couldn't possibly happen in her own. These visions are then interpreted by Sitting Bull and Touch-the-Clouds in relation to their own timeline.
Sargent's characters are complex individuals whose motivations are not always apparent. Rubalev obviously has his own plans for the ultimate goals of Touch-the-Clouds's actions while Touch-the-Clouds has a different outcome in mind. Rowland is working towards a result which may, or may not be coincident with either of theirs. Perhaps Sargent's most interesting character is Katia, a strong-willed woman who still manages to conform to the social mores of the 1870s.
Just as her characters are complex, so too are Sargent's situations. The main difference from our history as the novel opens is Touch-the-Clouds's vision of a unified Indian empire, but changes occur in other places as well. Some are hinted at or outlined only in the most broad way, but Sargent has obviously thought out her changes and their ramifications. Even before major Indian action, President Grant is killed in an accident which results in major (off scene) changes for the rest of the United States.
While not all the events in Climb the Wind are likely, Sargent successfully portrays an alternative America which is not a utopic society for anyone involved. Instead, her world has many of the issues which still divide Americans (and the rest of the world) in the twentieth century. While not all of Climb the Wind is an enjoyable book, it is all an intelligently written book which will cause the reader to think about questions of racism, democracy, government, relationships and several other issues which Sargent examines.
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