MANY EVENTS of history, while they may be little-known to the general public, possess a natural drama born of both real and symbolic significance. Such an event, a 17th-century conflict called King Phillip's War, has been used by Zane Kotker as the framework for her third novel, White Rising.
Although the actual fighting was confined to the years 1675 and 1676, King Philip's War had its beginnings in 1620, when a group of Englishmen, dominated by a religiously conservative minority, established a colony at Plimouth. The colony owed its survival to the successful negotiation of a treaty with Ousamequin, the supreme chief, or massa-soit, of the confederation of Indian villages that controlled the region, the Wampanoag, or People of the White Rising. Though still powerful, occupying some 30 villages, the Wampanoag had been reduced by a plague in 1617. Ousamequin graciously allowed the Englishmen to take over vacant lands.
Shortly the English had expanded into new territory purchased with firearms and firewater. By 1643 the English, many of them newly-freed indentured servants, occupied 10 towns, and peace was growing fragile.
In 1661 Ousamequin died, and was replaced by his first son, Wansutta. The English, who had some particular difficulty with Indian names -- they had always called Ousamequin "Massasoit" -- labeled him "Alexander" because he was a pagan king and made noises opposing English expansion. Within the year he was dead under suspisions circumstances, and his place was taken by his younger brother, Metacomet, whom the English called "Philip."
Metacomet began rebuilding the power of the White Rising, unifying the tribe and attempting to form alliances with neighboring tribes. The effort met with some success -- in 1671 the English arrested him and fined him for engaging in warlike activities. They also stripped the Wampanoag of their firearms. This greatly weakened Metacomet's influence; while he was able to continue to unify, his control was tenous. In 1675, during a precipitated war, the braves, at a fever pitch, burst from his restraint and attacked.
Despite initial success, the Indian cause met with eventual defeat due to complex internal divisions and also to Metacomet's essential lack of understanding of the English. By the summer of 1676 the Indian confederation was fragmented and broken by the suddenly unified colonies, and Metacomet had been ousted as supreme cheif. In August of that year, with the war all but over, he was killed. His body was drawn and quartered. His head was impaled.
The characters and events of King Philip's War fall naturally into a tragic form, a fact which is not lost on Kotker. Metacomet -- high-born, crippled, flawed in judgement -- perfectly satisfied the prescription of Aristotle for tragic heroes; the final dismemberment is reminiscent of Seneca; the overall structure includes a sub-plot involving, after an Elizabethan tragic convention, the "lower-orders" -- the English settlers, represented by a widow named Witty Strong. Within the bounds of these ancient conventions, Kotker employs some modern fictional techniques, particularly third-person point of view precisely restricted to Metacomet or to Witty, and expressed in a flawlessly lyrical stream of consciousness.
Kotker has managed to capture what seems to be an authentic Indian mode of thought. This success, in a book replete with technical successes, allows her to give a new dimension to Indian-European conflict. We hear Metacomet and, through him, the old chief Ousamequin, as they struggle to understand what the English are all about. Says Ousamequin:
"Yengeesemen are curious and very strong. Not in their bodies; they do not run or swim. But in their things. Wonderful things!"
And Marvels Metacomet:
"One thousand six hundred seventy and six. The Englishmen though the world itself grew older, just as a man does."
This capturing of an unfamiliar point of view, coupled with the combination of ancient structure and modern technique, allows Kotker to dramatize forcefully the origins of the conflict, especially the complicated economical/ecological issues. The Indian point of view --
"They clear so much land that the game leaves. They bring the land they clear close around them, like a house. They rip open soil that is so hard it should be left to the beaks of birds. . . ."
-- is not negated, but certainly opposed by the English ideas, overheard by Witty:
"Unfenced land is public land -- " "What do they need land for? All the buggers do . . . is hunt and fish." "When your town's full, you've got a right to move into the next one."
Perhaps most tellingly, the combination of all these techniques allows Kotker to show the war in unrelievedly human terms, as when Metacomet, suddenly finds the place to which the warpath had led him geographically and emotionally irrelevant:
"What could matter, or even take place, outside the southland? At home the sky would be blue over naked birches; scarlet buds would be coming out. . . . Low flatness, the whole world would be blue and green. Not high and yellow like this."
Or when Witty connot separate common from personal history;
"It did seem Philip had always been coming and never gotten here. He hadn't arrived in '62, when he was supposed to be coming to avenge his brother's death and when Witty was meeting Issak in the Rose Meadow. . . . Nor in '69, when he was said to have befriended the Narragnsetts and the next thing she knew, she was pegnant with Caleb. . . ."
Through it all, Kotker's skills with words and command of technique are elegantly apparent.
But while the book is flawlessly executed, the sad truth is that it is not so well conceived. For while the modern technique give both the writer and reader full access to the human political breadth and historical length of it. Trapped in the minds of two people who do not understand the true dimension of what is happening, shackled by a style that is, of necessity elliptical, and referential, Kotker is powerless to explain simple objective facts with the same ease and impressive accuracy with which she dramatizes the complex subjective issues.
The lack of objective data, perhaps not a problem in dealing with a better known or more properly understood event, and not a loss in the case of a less important one, is here something of a tragic flaw. For without it King Philip's War simply does not emerge in its true proportion. This was the first of the North American Indian Wars, and its origins and outcomes can be seem the grim foreshadowing of all future interactions between the Native Americans and the; European immigrants and their descendants. It was as symbolic as it was serious -- the fate of Metacomet's body ws more or less the fate of tribal life throughout the East, and beyond; this hardly emerges from the pages of White Rising, even by implication.
Besides being historically unsatisfying, this is fictionally disastrous. Because the war is deprived of its greater significance the characters cannot achieve their rightfully heroic stature. It is, therefore, difficult to see White Rising is the tale of a tragic loss of human possibility; that, had the outcome of the war been different, this nation might have had a richer heritage -- and, perhaps, a more humane history.