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With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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Song of the Tides by Tom Joseph

Reviewed on: December 1, 2009


University of Alabama Press:  Tuscaloosa, AL
2008 (pb)

Tom Joseph has written a wonderfully evocative tale of the Calusa people and their initial contacts with the Spanish in 16th Century southwest Florida.  He has carefully mined the relatively few primary documents from that era, mainly Spanish letters, memoranda and journals as well as the archaeology of the Calusa to render this richly constructed work of fiction.

The saga follows the efforts of several caciques, or tribal chiefs, of the Calusa, the people of Escampaba, to find a way to effectively deal with the invading Spanish military and the proselytizing missionary priests who follow closely in their wake.  It is a tale of kindness and gentleness coupled with unsparing brutality; it is a tale that describes bravery and gallantry as well as deception and cruelty on both sides.  Most of all it describes the painful dance of death the Europeans and indigenous people are locked in as the two cultures, so terribly alien to each other, follow paths of destiny that would ultimately degrade both.

Along the way, the reader is introduced to individuals who will loom large in the playing out of this tragedy:  Ishkara, the shaman, who as regent, struggles mightily to create a succession following the death of the wise cacique, Caalus, that might enable the Calusa to deal with the Spaniards—perhaps in a way that will make it possible to end the cycle of violence that is endemic whenever and wherever the Spanish meet the tribal groups indigenous to La Florida; Escalante, a Spanish prisoner and slave of the Calusa, who grows from boyhood to manhood during the twenty years spanned in the novel, and struggles mightily with his conscience and loyalties as he finds himself torn between his Spanish birthright and his hatred of the Calusa for killing his brother, which is tempered by his love for Aesha, daughter of Caalus; Carlos, son of Ishkara and successor to Caalus, who tries to steer a middle way between annihilation or abject surrender to the Spaniards; Stepana, the brutal and scheming young warrior who covets Carlos’s ascendancy to the leadership of the people of Escampaba as well as his wife, Aesha; Captain General Pedro Menendez de Aviles, governor of La Florida, whose duty to the king is to bring back gold and silver to Spain and Christianize the natives—peacefully, if possible, but by any other means, if necessary.

These thumbnail sketches do not do justice to the richness and depth of the characters Tom Joseph has fleshed out from the pages of history and his imagination, but they may hint at the conflicts—cultural, psychological, and historical—that drive the narrative.  This fiction based on fact is reminiscent of the wonderful novels of the First Peoples penned by Kathleen and W.Michael Gear, who rely on archaeology and ethnography to lend reality and verisimilitude to their tales; because Song of the Tides tells of the time of contact, Mr. Joseph is also able to draw from the historical record.  The novel is beautifully written—almost lyrical at times as it describes the lush beauty of ancient Florida—but it is ultimately a sad and tragic tale, for we know what the outcome must be—and even more tragic, we know this outcome will be played out over and over again over the next 300 years.

Three trowels for Tom Joseph’s excellent first novel.