cover image Lay the Mountains Low

Lay the Mountains Low

Terry C. Johnston. St. Martin's Press, $24.95 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-312-26189-4

The 15th volume in Johnston's Plainsman Series, second in a trilogy of works based on the Nez Perc War of 1877 (after Cries from the Earth) and first of the author's westerns to be published in hardcover, this grim novel tells a true tale of butchery and massacre. Supplying his real-life characters with fictionalized dialogue, Johnston has cleverly arranged the historical narrative to produce a graphically violent portrayal of the army's brutal campaign to move the Nez Perc Indians from their rich lands in Oregon and Idaho to a desolate reservation. The Nez Perc , led by Chief Joseph, resist fiercely, and the war commences. Johnston tells this gripping story from several angles, following the Nez Perc as they try to escape to Canada, the soldiers who pursue them and the settlers who thirst for revenge. Covering the period from June 24 to August 10, 1877, this day-by-day account of ambush, atrocities and anguish is not for the squeamish. The soldiers and civilian volunteers who pursue the Nez Perc are a mixed bag of frontier veterans and nervous recruits led by the one-armed Civil War hero, General O.O. Howard. Joseph is a master tactician and his warriors repeatedly deal the soldiers bloody defeats as the tribe moves ever closer to sanctuary in Canada. What Joseph does not understand, however, is that the soldiers will never give up, no matter how many die in fights echoing with gunfire and the screams of the wounded. Clearly, there are no victors in this struggle, and neither side can claim much honor or glory. This installment concludes with the soldiers and Nez Perc butchering each other at the Battle of the Big Hole in Montana. Johnston is a skilled storyteller whose words ring with the desperation, confusion and utter horror of a fight to the death between mortal enemies. This is uncomfortable history, and it hits home like a blunt instrument. (June)