Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: Rotting Face

In the purported speech given by the Mandan War Chief before he died, the Chief indicted the White Man for their crime: “I have Never Called a White Man a Dog, but to day, I do Pronounce them to be a set of Black harted Dogs.” Most of us have learned this by now – that the White Man screwed up a lot of things for a lot of people. Disappointedly enough, in his book, R.G. Robertson chooses the blame game again and misses out on the opportunity to present new insights on the cultural, social, and economic phenomena experienced during smallpox’s scourge in America. “Rotting Face” becomes a mere telling of facts detailing to readers what they already knew: That, boy, oh, boy, the White Man sure did screw things up again for the Indians.

Readers are inundated with facts that become daunting paragraphs one after another. R.G. Robertson places blame of the Indian smallpox outbreaks on individuals, forgetting to factor in crucial points that history has taught, such as prevailing social attitudes or the weight of faulty public health opinion. The stand-out character in “Rotting Face” is Francis Chardon, a trading post commander introduced in Chapter one and who lasts until the final pages. Chardon’s story is fascinating, but the exhaustive research Robertson churns out on this single character turns out to be the author’s crutch. Ultimately, Rotting Face delivers a story about Chardon, relying too heavily on the journal entries written by Chardon and spinning these observations into narratives about the commander’s interaction with the Indians.

I appreciated the sentimental pieces added to “Rotting Face,” such as Charles Larpenteur’s valiant efforts to help the stricken Indians, among whom were his loved ones. Yet, these stories were over-extrapolated, becoming segments about individuals here and there and forcing smallpox to relate in some way. R.G. Robertson does a fine job in his book, but his analysis on this subject is one that has been done enough times already and now needs a novel approach towards looking at American Indian history.

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