Book Review : Historical Fiction

Fresh News Straight from Heaven

Review by Jim Barnes / August 2018


Having grown up with the folklore offerings of Walt Disney, I was a big fan of the frontiersman, pirates and cowboys and Indians depicted on productions on the Mickey Mouse Club and Wonderful World of Color TV shows. Like the author Gregg Sapp, I also have Ohio roots, and this book takes place mostly in Ohio, where folk hero and pioneering environmentalist Johnny Appleseed spent his adult life, planting apple trees and spreading the message of Swedenborgian Christianity through the forests of 1800-1820 Ohio territory.
Capturing the personality of a long-dead historical figure has got to be difficult, especially when much of the available information came from oral traditions. How much eccentricity is too much? Gregg Sapp gets it right, creating a very believable and likeable character in Johnny, along with a full supporting cast of colorful characters in this rollicking journey around the Ohio River territory, where the rivers are the only highways and the Shawnee tribe wants their sacred land to be left alone. In one scene, an ancient burial mound serves as the border of a horse racing track, with the raised ground giving spectators an elevated viewpoint to observe and monitor their bets.
In another scene, the Indian prophet Tenskwatawa, brother of the war chief Tecumseh, uses the 1806 total solar eclipse to build awe of his perceived powers, which leads to the "witch-burning" of Fog Mother, a much-wiser shaman who refuses to acknowledge the false prophet. She is one of many strong female and non-white characters that give the book such dimension.
Having been covered so often in children's literature, here finally is an "adult" version of the Johnny Appleseed folk tale. In fact, this is a somewhat X-rated version, as some of the strong language, sex and violent content should be considered for adults only. Here's an R-rated example: 
"That he felt like a twenty-foot copperhead snake slithered through his intestines, coiling around his bladder, and hissing its forked tongue over his glands? That when he walked, he had to clench his jaws and squeeze his sphincter because he was afraid that with one false step, he would spew bile, blood, jism, and viscera from every orifice?"
Sapp also gives his characters links to the present. Johnny Appleseed utters, "Make love, not war," and the depiction of Tecumseh's predecessor, the war chief Blue Jacket, has him retired from fighting and running a drinking and gambling establishment with a white clientele, foreshadowing the Indian casinos of today.
This book may be a little "rough around the edges," but so were the times and the people it describes. It's an entertaining and insightful look at an important and somewhat overlooked chapter of American history, and a fine contribution to American historical fiction.
Evolved Publishing,
382 pg paperback; Jan 2018; $18.95
ISBN: 978-1-62253-507-1