I Will Fight No More

Book Card  -  Volume 3  -  Book Review Number 1  -  Tue, Dec 20, 1988 4:38 PM

TITLE: I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War
AUTHOR: Merrill D. Beal
PUBLISHER: Ballantine Books by arrangement with the University of Washington Press

There are two kinds of Epic, both invented by Homer: the Odyssey Epic and the Iliad Epic. Odyssey Epics are quest stories in which heroes journey through strange lands and confront natural and magical forces. Iliad Epics focus on tragic struggles and slowly reveal a deep nobility in the human spirit. Moby Dick is an Iliad Epic. I like both kinds, but if forced to choose, I will always reach for an Iliad.

I Will Fight No More Forever is the first nonfiction Iliad Epic I have ever encountered. Although Mr. Beal is not a brilliant writer, he is a competent one, and the story he tells cannot fail to move the reader. I was astonished to discover that heroes on a par with Achilles and Hector actually walked the earth in my own back yard and only a century ago.

Like the Iliad, Beal's story is a tragedy, and like Achilles, Chief Joseph is a very human leader caught in a no-win situation. I have often wondered how it was that native Americans succumbed so quickly to the Western Expansion. If they had better understood what was happening could they have prevented it?

This book (and some of the reading I've done since) showed me that Indian leaders like Joseph had an extraordinary grasp of the situation. They foretold their own downfall long before it happened and faced up to the harshest of realities with unusual courage and dignity. In the struggle which ensued, their own individualism worked against them and their most potent enemies were other Indians. Even so, their campaign in the Nez Perce War was so brilliant that it is still studied today in military academies.

I recommend this book even to those not interested in the history of the American West. Like all great tragedies, this story touches us because we can see ourselves on the stage. Each one of us is mortal, after all, and it is within our power to face that harsh reality with the courage and dignity of a Joseph or an Achilles.