Writers of books about the history of Indians face many obstacles in making their work readable. To do the job properly, you have to mention the Laurentide ice sheet, radiocarbon dating, mitochondrial DNA, Spider Grandmother, and Star Woman, as well as scores of indigenous words like sipapuni —and that’s just in the first chapter. This is the challenge that Jake Page bravely takes on with In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians (Free Press, $30, 480 pages). Don’t let the title fool you; Page’s book is clear-eyed and refreshingly nonpreachy, and he does not assume that his readers have acquired their views about Indians from 1950s Westerns. This lack of handwringing makes his book all the more affecting when he reaches the post-Columbian era and coolly describes the European settlers’ many cruelties.
In 1842 Capt. Alexander Slidell Mackenzie of the U.S. Navy brig Somers uncovered plans for a mutiny, and when locking the ringleaders in irons did not seem to extinguish the plot, he ordered three of them hanged without trial. What made the episode particularly lurid was that the senior member of the hanged trio, Midshipman Philip Spencer, was the son of the Secretary of War. The ensuing court-martial stirred bitter controversy and led to the establishment of the Naval Academy. Buckner F. Melton, Jr., a historian and law professor, examines the case in great detail in A Hanging Offense: The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers (Free Press, 320 pages, $25). His intricately researched descriptions of shipboard life in the 1840s paint an engrossing picture of the men involved in the abortive mutiny and the terrible consequences that ensued for all concerned.