This mesmerizing novel centers on a Choctaw (Native American) tribal community at the close of the 19th century. The community faces two monsters: one is a panther lurking in the woods; the other is Marshal Hardwicke, a murderous, bullying alcoholic.
The tale hinges on a moment of motiveless violence – the marshal, drunk and staggering around the town’s train station like a wounded bear, physically assaults a Choctaw elder. This act ignites all kinds of reactions from the Choctaw community, ranging from promises of revenge to pledges to protect the family, but the most powerful reaction is that of Amafo, the victim. He chooses to react only with kindness. House of Purple Cedar follows this storyline – good versus evil, with a few digressions – to its inevitable end.
The novel’s point of view switches between Rose, Amafo’s grand-daughter looking back at her childhood many years later, and an omniscient narrator, and the tone is notably tender. The community is portrayed as honest and filled with goodness. Rose’s grandparents, Amafo and Pokoni, are calm, quiet beacons of tolerance and love, and not all the white characters are monsters. The station master, John Burleson, is a gentle giant who, in the book’s closing pages, gets his reward for a life well lived. Maggie Johnstone, a resourceful and fearless shop assistant with a wooden leg and an unbreakable will, entertains us with a spectacular scheme and some of the story’s best lines. These characters play their parts in several subplots which eventually cohere and culminate in a powerful, well-judged ending.
There are a few structural problems with the story. The novel follows numerous characters, getting inside their minds, and describes scenes and feelings that Rose couldn’t possibly know. In these chapters, Rose disappears from the story as both character and narrator. By the same token, the story occasionally becomes diffuse when we focus on yet another character who barely registered earlier in the novel.
Despite these criticisms, House of Purple Cedar is the work of a tremendous imagination. The novel really comes into its own in episodes that resemble Magical Realism. The author, in a talk at the Tucson Festival of Books in 2014, explained that Magical Realism isn’t an accurate term for the type of things that routinely happen among the Choctaw. In House of Purple Cedar, miraculous events take place at regular intervals. An unforgettable story told around a campfire will deter any child from slapping a parent. The identity of the ghost/man writhing on a cross in the church comes as a huge surprise. And although I’d guessed the secret of the panther long before it was revealed, it was still a satisfying twist.
Tingle is well-known as a writer of children’s books, and it’s easy to see why. His prose is clear and uses an understated lyricism that never calls attention to itself. The dialogue flows, and the period details that illustrate the setting are convincingly rendered, particularly the information about horses and other animals.
Overall, this is a winner – a very enjoyable novel with a warm, beating heart at its core.