Ghost River: The Fall And Rise Of The Conestoga by Lee Francis IV, Weshoyot Alvitre & Will Fenton

With Native American Heritage Month coming to a close, I’m so glad I could finally get to this graphic novel!

The history and, frankly, present-day reality of America’s indigenous peoples is too often overlooked, particularly in relation to the settlers and policies that continue to drive them to the margins of our nation, if not to outright extermination. So it’s important for books like this one, and especially in the reader-accessible format of graphic novels, to keep telling the stories of Native Americans past and present, to amplify their voices and remind readers, “We are here. We matter. We will not fade away.”

Created as part of the Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives On Colonial America project supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, this volume examines the massacre of the Conestoga in today’s Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from their own perspective, both then and now. An entire settlement was razed by selfish white men trying to justify their own greed, who then went on to murder the survivors held in (a somewhat condescending before becoming entirely failed) protective custody. It’s a harrowing tale that deserves greater publicity, and I’m glad Lee Francis IV and Weshoyot Alvitre collaborated to tell it, and especially that they chose to center the Conestoga as the vital, beating heart of their story.

Unfortunately, if you’re not already familiar with that story, you’re not going to understand much of what goes on in these pages. I read the book the first time through without knowing more than an outline of the tragedy, and ended up not knowing much more than that upon finishing it. Reading the Wikipedia page helped a lot, so I went back to experience the novel with that knowledge in hand. My second reading had another crucial difference: the version available to me was multimedia-enabled, and this time I clicked on every information button as I went. Packed with videos, maps and relevant essays, this was a much richer experience, even as it severely detracted from the flow of mere reading. On the one hand, that’s a shame, because Dr Francis’ writing is beautiful and haunting, and reading it in stops and starts, as the multimedia experience demands, really takes away from the lyricism of his prose. On the other, it’s absolutely crucial to understanding what’s going on, as the book otherwise is just too disjointed to stand on its own.

Having now experienced the entire multimedia package, I better understand why Will Fenton is credited on the cover, an unusual distinction for a book editor. The curation of multimedia information is excellent, and watching the creators’ videos makes a lot more sense of the book’s present-day panels once you realize you’re reading about the creators coming together to tell this story. It’s delightfully self-referential, but seems bewilderingly random unless you know that that’s what’s happening there.

I’m not a huge fan of Ms Alvitre’s art style here, primarily because the way her colors go over her inks, especially in the hatching, feels unnecessarily drab to me. But my appreciation of her craft definitely improved on my second go-round, once I stopped needing it to tell the story that Mr Fenton’s curation was finally filling out. Overall, this is kind of a weird book for me: it doesn’t do what it needs to as a standalone graphic novel, despite the beautiful prose and more than adequate art, but as a multimedia project it is absolutely gangbusters. How on earth do I review that as a book critic?

I suppose one way to do that is to recommend that you check out the online version first before deciding whether or not to purchase a physical copy (which I hear includes much of the multimedia extras at the end, with transcripts instead of video, natch.) It is definitely a worthwhile read online, and I highly recommend going through all the extra multimedia bits as you come across them in the text, as they’ll greatly enrich your understanding of what’s going on while providing greater narrative impact. And then I do recommend ordering your own copy of the book, to perpetuate the mission of hearing and amplifying Native voices.

Ghost River: The Fall And Rise Of The Conestoga by Lee Francis IV, Weshoyot Alvitre & Will Fenton was published November 2019 by the Library Company of Philadelphia in conjunction with Red Planet Books and Comics, and is available to read online HERE and in paperback from both Red Planet Comics (the only Native American comic book store in the world!) and The Library Company of Philadelphia.

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