“The Last of the Bird People” by John Hanson Mitchell

last of the bird people

I received this book as part of the Member Giveaway/Early Review program on Librarything.com.

Though initially skeptical because of the cover (which bears an uncanny resemblance to National Geographic), I found this book to be a wonderful and unusual surprise. As a student of Anthropology, I greatly appreciated the way in which Hanson Mitchell imbibes the text with the core tenants of anthropological studies (tolerance of difference, appreciation of others’ culture, immersive research and study of alternative lifestyles) through a historical fiction lens. He manages to relay much about the discipline of anthropology without ever becoming didactic or moralizing.

The novel takes shape as a legal deposition which has been “discovered” by a Columbia University anthropology professor. The introduction, translator’s notes, and glossary provided at the beginning of the book caused some initial confusion – they were so well-written that I thought perhaps the book was true! Though fictional, the novel is clearly based on Mitchell’s years of experience, who has obviously performed research in these and other areas.

But to the point – the novel (relayed via the deposition of an elderly Indian man, Jon Barking Fox) tells the story of a young anthropology protégée “gone rogue” in his attempt to study a secluded group of Indians in the Swift River Valley of Massachusetts. Threatened by the presence of Wasichus (white men), the Indian band, led by the anthropologist, travels along the Appalachian Trail in search of a new home.  Throughout the course of their travels, the anthropologist and the Indians slowly adapt to each other and form a sort of hybrid society wherein the anthropologist is no longer completely white, but not exactly Indian, either. The transformation of both is fascinating and disturbing, as is the ending of the book.

Overall, a lovely and unusual read that contains an interesting look at human nature and adaptability. My one suggestion? Change the cover!


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