Chaos Rules the Day

Dave DeWitt's 1880s battle novel is so well-crafted, it's hard to believe he wasn't actually there

In Avenging Victorio: A Novel of the Apache Insurgency in New Mexico, 1881, first-time novelist Dave DeWitt tells a story of brutal guerilla warfare, a culture near extinction and two men for whom failure isn't an option. Blending a historian's details with a novelist's instinct, DeWitt has crafted an entertaining, enlightening novel that will hopefully not be his last.

Avenging Victorio picks up in 1880 in Santa Fe. New Mexico is not yet part of the United States--not even close, in fact. Beyond the tiny town, the region is a collection of military outposts and the occasional mine and settlement. But the predominant calm is deceptive, as a brutal series of battles is raging between Apache warriors and American and Mexican soldiers.

When we first meet the aging Col. Edward Hatch, a prominent Civil War veteran and head of the Ninth Calvary, he's just received some very good news: The Apache leader, Victorio, has been slain by Mexican forces. Finally, he believes, the surrounding turf is theirs; he and his soldiers have a party to celebrate. One thing Hatch doesn't imagine: that a near-crippled Apache warrior well into his 70s could rally a comeback that would lead to Hatch's demise. Even as the men are celebrating, it turns out, the Apaches are regrouping. Their initial grief--Victorio had a large family and proud legacy--quickly sharpens into vengeance, and they regroup under his second in command, the elderly warrior Nana. His mission is clear: To avenge Victorio, taking out all of the "White Eyes" he can in the process.

DeWitt's novel is just that, a novel, but his research is so extensive and his expertise so pronounced that it's only when you look at his grinning face in the photo on the book's flap that you remember he wasn't there himself. As he tells of the back-and-forth battles, he paints a broad but intricate picture that captures the true scope of war: There are proud fighters and glorious conflicts, yes, but there's also the desperation of both the American soldiers, who resent being in the remote territory and resort to drinking, prostitutes and even theft; and that of the Apache soldiers, who know their very existence as a people is threatened. He perfectly illustrates the pure wildness of the era, when anything imaginable could happen, and nothing could be planned.

DeWitt's account is a balanced one. He does not sympathize openly with either side, and resists the temptation to lionize either Hatch or Nana. This may disappoint those who like a hero with their war stories, but it's the fairest thing DeWitt could have done in writing about two men he never knew, both with dubious moments among their many successes. Nana, at least in this tale, is no stranger to ruthlessness: At times, he mutilates the bodies of those he has killed, and he's qualm-free about slaying women and children. Hatch comes across as a man exhausted by his decades-long military career and fearful of further derision from the press and peers. When an opportunity arises to claim a hoard of gold bars as his own, even though their ownership is in question, he leaps on them, dreaming of retirement and overseas vacations.

Hatch and Nana are the book's centerpieces, but the colorful supporting cast gives it dimension. There are several African-American Buffalo soldiers who bring personal insight to a battle that's essentially about a people's right to freedom. There's Lozen, the brutal female Apache soldier who earns the respect of her male peers. And finally, there's the prime hero candidate, if he had a larger role: Istee, the young son of Victorio, who learns to become a great warrior while avenging his father with Nana's tutelage. Istee is too innocent for the atrocities of his leader; he questions the present horrors and looks hopefully forward to what his own destiny will be as a fighter, husband and, ultimately, shaman. The book's overabundant characters and its occasional jumpiness may frustrate some readers, but well represent an era when chaos was the rule of the day.

DeWitt's spent his impressive career becoming one of the foremost experts on "all things spicy": He's published 31 nonfiction books, mostly having to do with the preparation and enjoyment of spicy foods, including The Spicy Food Lover's Bible, The Hot Sauce Bible and The Habanero Cookbook. But even the most fanatical of chileheads should be glad that he took some time away from the kitchen to write the very fine Avenging Victorio. It's well-known that an attention to detail differentiates a good chef from a great one; DeWitt's skills have clearly carried over into the realm of novel writing.

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