Allan W. Eckert winds up the fifth volume in his "Winning of America" series restaging the Chicago Massacre of 1812 as a drama of epic proportions. As usual, he has assembled a large cast of Indians, fur traders, frontier settlers, white and Indian captives, French voyagers, British agents and American soldiers. These characters, many of whom carry the names of real people, appear in scenes set at points from Quebec to the Mississippi during the most volatile period in the history of the Old Northwest, the years 1763-1816. Eckert has selected as his central figure John Kinzie, the violin-playing silversmith and trader who became the recognized founding father of Chicago.
To call Chicago at the end of the 18th centry a "gateway to empire" strains the facts, since the settlement got its start as an outpost of trading operations based farther south at Peoria. But "Hinterland of Peoria" would not have been a suitable grandiloquent title for a novel aspiring to imperial dimensions.
The actual "gateway" providing a geographic focus for the book is some miles distant from the present Chicago at a portage between the south branch of the Chicago River and the headwaters of the Illinois River. Kinzie bemoans the unappreciated potential of the Chicago River mouth, though Indians knew the drawbacks of windswept dune country without adequate shelter or firewood.
Eckert presents a series of separate incidents, arranged chronologically without connecting narrative. Running through the novel is a slender thread of romance involving John and Eleanor Kinzie, but it often is lost completely in the kaleidoscopic pattern of events.
Charging through the first section of "Gateway" can be a befuddling experience. A short prologue covers the 1763 birth of Kinzie in Quebec. The first chapter opens in Cahokia, Ill., in 1769 with the plot of a Peoria Indian to kill Pontiac, Ottawa leader of an uprising against the British. Subsequent episodes in the first chapter describe Little Turtle's Miami tribesmen fictionally placed around southern Lake Michigan, the birth of Eleanor Lytle at Lancaster, Pa., a return to Cahokia for Pontiac's murder, a scene among Tecumseh's relatives in a Shawnee village in Ohio, and the captivity of two Kentucky girls by a band of Shawnee Indians.
How these incidents are related remains a mystery gradually dispelled during the next several hundred pages. No clue reveals that one of the captive girls will be Kinzie's first wife. Eleanor, who also spent time in captivity, never meets John until Page 147 when they are still married to their first partners, then reenters the scene as his second wife on Page 225.
Though involving considerable historical research, "Gateway" appears to have a padded and poorly proofread bibliography, and shows evidence of being carelessly or too hastily thrown together. To cite just one example, a major character, ex-Indian captive William Wells, is described as being a captive for two years in a September 1786 episode, but in an April 1787 incident is given credit for 13 years of captivity. And Wells is one of the better-drawn historical figures in the book.
Readers of Eckert's historical novels always ask if it's "really true." His history is often inspired, but not uniformly dependable. Several historical errors need correction because they appear not only in the text of "Gateway" but are reemphasized in the author's "Amplification Notes" or are carried over from previous novels. Eckert persists in presenting one of his favorite characters, the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket, as a white captive taken from Kentucky in the Revolutionary War era, an erroneous notion based only on a legend originating in Kansas in the late 19th century.
Even though he wants to link Little Turtle and his Miami tribesmen to his focal point, Chicago, he takes unwarranted liberty in placing them at the sites of present cities around the southern rim of Lake Michigan. As a consequence, in a 1769 episode he must suddenly move all seven of his fictional Miami villages to the Wabash River country of Indiana, where they actually had been for more than a half century.
By now, Eckert should have corrected his records of forts captured during Pontiac's uprising. The Fort Miami seized by Indians in 1763 was located at the present Fort Wayne, Ind. Eckert inaccurately identifies this action as occurring at another Fort Miami located on the outskirts of Toledo, Ohio, a minor post in existence only from 1794 to 1796. And since epidemics form an important part of the historical record, Eckert should not report a cholera epidemic for 1794 when the malady did not hit North America until 1832.
The author clearly was carried away by the "Chicago Massacre," two hours of carnage on Aug. 15, 1812, that take up the climactic chapter. A substantial number of episodes give biographical background of families who were killed during the evacuation of the fort. The Kinzies were guided to safety by Indian friends, and consequently were able to return to Chicago in 1816, landing on the shore at the end of the epilogue.
The historical novel as a form of literature demands careful execution. "Gateway" is bogged down in unwieldy and extraneous history; judicious restraint in writing or selective cutting would have created a better novel.