About twelve years ago, I was sitting in an undergrad communications course listening to a roundtable discussion on race. I was mostly silent, waiting for the class session to pass, as students spouted their opinions (and misconceptions) about race/racism. I will never forget the Black student who sat opposite of me because she proclaimed that she was not African American. She was of mixed race, Cherokee heritage. I rolled my eyes, insulted that her Blackness was not enough, also annoyed by once again hearing a Black girl tout Cherokee roots she could not trace. I will also never forget her because she died a few years later.
The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens & Ghosts, written by Tiya Miles, conjured those memories, which sat dormant for many years, as well as mentions of Indian roots from my relatives through the years. Why do we, a poor family from the rural South with sharecropping roots, have an affinity for Indian foremothers and forefathers we cannot name, but little pride for the ancestors who survived the middle passage and were stripped from their native lands?
I don’t ride the fence with my racial identity, and neither do many of the main characters in this novel. Regardless of whether my roots sprung from one or multiple continents, I’m okay with the unknown, okay with simply honoring the links that led to my birth. But for others, those unknown branches create holes and haunting questions that influence their paths in this world.
The paths of protagonists Jennifer “Jinx” Micco, Cheyenne Cotterell, and Ruth Mayes intertwined during their searches for truth, riches, and adventure, leading them to the Chief James Hold plantation in North Georgia’s Blue Ridge territory, once the heart of the Cherokee nation.
Part I of the novel (Our Mothers’ Gardens) opens in 2008 with Jinx, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation historian, columnist, and part-time librarian. Jinx penned a story in her local tribal newspaper about Mary Ann Battis, a mixed-race Creek educated by Christian missionaries.
Jinx takes pride in her research skills. As noted in the story, “she [doesn’t] deal in sanitized history.” Her friend Deb, however, feels that Jinx’s article was shortsighted in her interpretation of Mary Ann’s motivations and loyalties. Deb asks Jinx to travel to Georgia to kill two birds with one stone: to find out more about Mary Ann Battis— a member of their tribe— and to possibly retrieve historical tribal documents from the Hold House.
This is when Jinx meets Cheyenne, a proud debutante from Atlanta who is determined to win the historic Hold House (the plantation manor and a former museum) at auction. Cheyenne is shallow and self-absorbed in many regards, yet astute in her dealing and aspiration for the property.
Ruth, a magazine writer, is sorely unaware of what lies ahead when she jumps into her car and travels to Georgia to kill time and write an article about the Hold House. Once these women are brought together under one roof, mysteries, revelations, and romance unfold in both practical and supernatural ways—which leads to Part II of the story (Talking Leaves).
Here, Miles uses historical figures to weave fact with fiction and infuse readers with the beauties and horrors of the Hold Plantation and the cross-cultural bonds of women living in early 19th century Cherokee country. This part of the story is told through the diary of Anna Gamble, a Moravian missionary sent to the plantation to lead multi-race and Indian heathens to Christ.
Anna reveals that James Hold, the richest and most influential Cherokee chief, was a cruel man who committed atrocities that provoked revenge and murder— a man whose evils against his slaves and wives created a plantation that “was obsessed with emotions of the past.”
By Part III (The Three Sisters), readers will appreciate the multiple layers that illustrate the relationships between Cherokees, free Blacks, missionaries, and slaves— and the influences of Cherokee slaveholding, religion, racism, U.S. and tribal governments, colonization, and capitalism. And when all of this is mixed together, we are reminded that the present can never be unraveled from the past, no matter how much falsification has taken place.
There are a lot of characters to keep up with throughout the novel. (I haven’t mentioned the supporting characters; some help drive the plot). And, a large portion of Part III felt romanticized to me because the characters’ lives (both past and present) wrapped up nicely—as if the writing recipe couldn’t be muddied a bit. Here, I have to note that the author is a historian. But, to me, the facts drove the fiction, which makes chunks of the fiction feel excessive.
Also, Miles could have used Part III to complete initial aspects of the story. For example:
- Deb and the tribal community’s reaction upon learning the full history of Mary Ann Battis.
- Cheyenne—the character who experienced the greatest transformation—could have had more weight beyond being a vessel for the past, and her transformation could have been mirrored in her personal life (i.e., her family and friends).
- Address the multiple acts of vandalism that occurred at the manor.
The African diaspora and Native Americans share a long and painful past, and Miles uses the convergence of Jinx, Cheyenne, and Ruth to convey one thread of 19th century American history. The Cherokee Rose pays homage to the spirituality, resiliency, and legacy of both African and aboriginal women— a legacy that Black women should not abuse today to lay claims to their “baby hair” or colorful genealogies.
Overall, The Cherokee Rose is a hard-hitting cultural lesson that will linger in my character repository and digital bookshelf for years to come.
Reviewed by: Lauren Cherelle
Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, The Dawn of Nia (Resolute Publishing, 2016). Outside of reading and writing, she enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.