Grant’s Indian, by Peter Johnson, follows the life of Seneca Indian Ely Parker through the rich and turbulent period of mid to late 19th century American history: from the boom of towns in the East and the stifling bureaucracy of Washington, to the decimating battles of North vs. South in the Civil War, and to the grasping westward expansion of the white man that inevitably forced the Indians of the Great Plains onto reservations. Engaging from the first page to the very last, Grant’s Indian brims with memorable characters, entertaining dialogue and an unlikely love story that is sure to enthrall.
Ely Parker emerges from his Seneca roots in upstate New York as a young man determined to learn the white man’s tongue. Very soon, he is sent as a translator for his tribe to Washington, where he quickly learns the futility of the crawling pace of government, yet still manages to delay the loss of his tribal lands by greedy land companies. Never idle, Parker gradually rises from ditch-digger, to engineer, to army general.
Parker ‘s relationship with Grant is the keystone to much of this story, as it carries both men from the battlefield, to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, to the convoluted inner workings of government and diplomacy. Although Parker may never have risen to the level of professional success that he did without Grant’s patronage, one also wonders who Grant might have relied upon if Parker had not been so faithfully at his side at critical times. Throughout his life, Parker accomplishes much, despite the limitations imposed on him by an often intolerant majority.
An unexpected gift in this story is the arrival of the precocious and charming Minnie Sackett, who challenges Parker with her lightning wit and outspoken nature. Less than half his age when they first meet, Minnie captures Parker’s attentions. Their engagement becomes a scandal among the social elite and a source of media fascination. Ultimately, it is Minnie who gives Parker’s life dimensions beyond his professional accomplishments and Minnie whose wisdom rescues him from despair.
Grant’s Indian is an absorbing and well-told story that reaches beyond the rote repetition of historical dates and events to a more human level. Although Johnson leaves no doubt as to how thoroughly researched the background for this story was, it is never bogged down with dry, unrelatable details. If U.S. History classes were taught with half as much realism and energy as is found in Grant’s Indian, more people would take an interest in America’s past and have a far better understanding of it. Grant’s Indian should be a recommended read, not just for those who have an interest in the Civil War era, but for anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the foundation on which America was built.