4 out of 4 stars
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Dave Lloyd’s Fort Sarpy takes readers on a journey into the wilderness from Missouri to Montana in the mid-19th century. Fort Sarpy is part of the Riverboat Trilogy, following the prequel, War Cry. Readers will discover a world unknown to most outside of brief mentions in history books. The journey is told in the way people spoke during the time period, giving an added dimension to its authenticity.
Young farm boy, Caleb Shaw, sets out on a journey, eventually joining up with the American Fur Company to help build and run a trading fort in Crow territory. Along the way, Caleb spends time in St. Louis, where he begins to grow into a man, before heading “upriver.” Most of the story is centered on the time spent at Fort Sarpy, a real trading fort on the Yellowstone River, in what is now Montana. Life inside (and outside) the fort comes alive with Lloyd’s storytelling. A tribe of Crows lives outside of the fort, in peace with the White Man. Note that most Crows have good relations with the White Man. The two groups of people often work together, in war with other tribes and in life around the fort. They develop friendships and romances (however, this is not a love story or a romance), in ways that are often unexpected. This is their story.
A host of strong characters share their lives with us, giving us a glimpse of life on the fort. Lambeau is a French-Canadian who becomes the fort chef and is Caleb’s closet friend. Meldrum is in charge of the fort. Palmer is the bookkeeper and responsible for the trading. The Crow leader, Bear’s Head, also plays a pivotal role in the story. There are many other characters that tell this story, in unusual ways. Despite a large number of characters, it was easy to keep up with them.
The storytelling is fascinating and full of historical information. Palmer keeps a journal that he writes in the first-person format. Along with Meldrum, he also likes to tell Caleb stories about the past. Bear’s Head inspires many his speeches. Speeches and talks are scattered throughout the book, while the rest is told in third person narrative form. Each of the storytellers makes readers feel like they are there, listening to these men talk and share their lives with them.
The details in the story are often amazing. For example, when the tipis are put up and down, there are many steps involved, told in such vivid detail that one feels like they are watching the tipi being built. I wanted to curl up and fall asleep in a tipi. Throughout the story, there are small photographs and drawings, which add more detail to the story.
A major theme in Fort Sarpy are the wars between the Crows, the Cheyenne, the Blackfeet, and the Sioux. Readers interested in weaponry will find themselves learning about guns, arrows, and tomahawks. The war scenes are often gruesome, with details about scalping and the use of the scalps. Injuries and deaths are depicted in very realistic methods, which can make one’s stomach curl. Personal conflict is also often dealt with in horrific ways, often shocking to 21st-century minds.
Watching Caleb grown into a man was one of my favorite parts of the story. How he spent a break in St. Louis, compared to when he first visited there at the beginning of his journey, showed how much he had grown up. He went from primarily looking after Caleb to looking out for others, in a variety of interesting ways.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. There are some minor grammatical errors, but they do not distract one in their reading, nor do they impact the overall story. Fort Sarpy appears to be historically accurate based on some minor fact-checking. The only weakness is that there was not as much information about the women in the story as I would have liked. If you know quite a bit about this part of our nation’s period, then you will know how it ends. Readers who enjoy historical works from this time period will surely enjoy this story. However, if you do not stomach blood and gore very well, I would suggest that you refrain from picking this one up.
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