Drums Along the Mohawk

by Walter D. Edmonds

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032

During the 1930’s, the historical novel became extremely popular. Most of them followed the same pattern: They were long, had many characters, were full of action and realistic detail, and usually ended happily. Drums Along the Mohawk has all of these qualities, and it is one of the best of the genre. In 1936, it was on the best-seller list. In his author’s note, Walter D. Edmonds defends the genre, noting that the life presented is not a bygone picture, for the parallel is too close to the reader’s own. The valley people faced repercussions of poverty and starvation and were plagued by unfulfilled promises and a central government that could not understand local problems. Thus, the valley farmers, in the typically American tradition, learned to fight for themselves and for the land they had worked so hard to wrench from the wilderness.

Contrary to the patriotic myth, the war was not a glorious fight for freedom for all American soldiers. Many fought only because it was necessary to protect their families. They never thought of the American troops in the South and East; that was too remote, while the ever-present threat of immediate disaster was too near. When Captain Demooth says to Gil, “Who gives a damn for the Stamp Tax?” Gil admits that it has not bothered him and asks the key question of most of the farmers: “Why do we have to go and fight the British at all?” The attitude of many of the men conscripted for the militia is “Damn the militia! I need to roof my barn.” Yet, as the attacks upon the small settlements begin, they realize that they must band together and fight.

At times, the western settlers wonder which side is the enemy. Denied food, munitions, and the protection of regular troops by the government at Albany, their seed grain commandeered and their fences burned for firewood, the settlers of German Flats become extremely bitter at the indifferent treatment they receive. When the widowed Mrs. Reall, with her many children, tries to collect her husband’s back pay, she is denied because he is not marked dead on the paymaster’s list. Even though Colonel Bellinger swears that he saw Reall killed and scalped, the money is withheld. The only alternative she is given is to file a claim before the auditor-general, which must then be passed by an act of Congress. In the meantime, the family must either starve or rely on the charity of others who cannot really afford to help. They find that the Continental currency is practically worthless, but the climax of the colonists’ disillusionment with the Congress comes when the residents receive huge tax bills for land that has been abandoned, buildings that have burned, and stock that has been killed. The incredulous settlers realize that the tax list is the one formerly used by the king.

The bestiality of what war does to people dominates the book. As the Indian raids become more ghastly, the Continentals grow more brutal. Scalps are taken by both Indian and white, and the atrocities and mutilations committed by both sides become increasingly barbarous. Yet, in spite of the ever-present atmosphere of horror, fear, and death, Edmonds also presents the forces of life. There is fierce energy in the characters in spite of their hardships. This is seen most clearly in the character of Lana, who, though weakened by starvation, work, and fear, manages to bear and care for her two boys. There is a mystery about her as she nurses and cares for her babies. Although she deeply loves Gil, with the birth of the first child, her role as a mother becomes the most important. Even the rough scout Joe Boleo senses the maternal mystery she exudes. There is also beauty in life itself as seen in the human body and in reproduction. The pregnant Nancy becomes more beautiful as she carries her illegitimate child, and the marriage of young John Weaver to Mary Reall begins another generation when Mary becomes pregnant.

Edmonds’s style is free flowing, and he has an excellent ear for natural speech. As omniscient narrator, he goes deeply into the minds of the main characters and captures their reactions to the many events going on about them. All of the main characters have individuality and the gift of life.

The praise that is often given the novel is for the realism that Edmonds achieves by minute detail; however, this is also a weakness. His accounts of the many battles and raids become repetitious, for in the interest of historical truth, he does not want to eliminate anything. Thus, the action becomes blurred because there are so many similar accounts.

Structurally, the book is well handled with the exception of the last chapter, “Lana,” which occurs three years after the preceding one. It appears to have been tacked on simply to tie up a few loose ends and to give the story a happy ending. In a book that has proceeded slowly season by season for five years, the three-year interval startles the reader.

The theme of the novel is the strength of those who will endure anything to achieve the American Dream. Through their own efforts, they hope to earn their land, houses, animals, and the material things necessary to make life easier and more beautiful for themselves and particularly for their children. Lana and Gil begin their marriage with a cow, a few pieces of furniture, and Lana’s most valued possession—a peacock feather that, with its mysterious beauty, symbolizes the beauty of the dream. All of this is lost in the war; but in the last chapter, Gil realizes his ambitions. He is farming his own land, he has built a new house, and he owns a yoke of oxen. Lana has her two boys, a baby daughter, security, and even the now battered but still gorgeous peacock feather which the Indian Blue Back returns to her. She is supremely content and secure as she tells herself, “We’ve got this place. . . . We’ve got the children. We’ve got each other. Nobody can take those things away. Not any more.”

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