Book Review: Tales of My Ancestors (Bruce Edward Golden)

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Tales of My Ancestors
by Bruce Edward Golden
Shaman Press (November 27, 2015)

 

From 11th century France to 20th century America to 17th century Ireland. From the Salem Witch Trials to the signing of the Magna Carta to the Civil War, the new fantasy/science fiction book Tales of My Ancestors takes you not only on a trip through time, but to various lands and cultures. This is Bruce Golden’s sixth book, and once again he’s managed to do something completely different than he’s done before. This book is so unusual, I can’t think of another like it. He not only combines historical fiction with science fiction and fantasy, he adds his own ancestral line to the mix. Each of the 18 tales which make up this book features at least one of his great grandfathers or grandmothers. Sometimes they provide the viewpoint character, other times they’re just supporting characters.

Three of the stories follow one family, whose patriarch is determined to make his fortune in the New World. From Newfoundland to Jamestown to the first settlement in Maryland, we learn George Calvert, who’s had to hide his Catholic faith for most of his life, is resolved to not only colonize this new world, but to establish a place where religious freedom is the law of the land.

Another tale is about a 16-year-old who, in conflict with his slave-owning parents, lies about his age to join the Union Army, and one about a young girl, descended from English kings but forced to live in exile in Hungary. Later she becomes not only the queen of Scotland, but a Catholic saint.

However, not all of Golden’s ancestors, as presented here, are heroic . . . or even admirable figures. There are barbarians aplenty, including a marauding Viking, a philandering duke, a pedophile king, and a queen who’s known as “the She-Wolf of France.”

I think the best story of the lot is “Salem’s Fall,” told from the viewpoint of Golden’s great (x7) grandfather, who lives in a small town near Salem. Benjamin Willard isn’t directly affected by the trials, but it’s through his family connections (including a cousin accused of witchcraft) and his observations of this phenomenon that we get a sense of what it must have been like at that time.

Unlike most speculative stories about Salem, this one, in keeping with historical accuracy, has no actual witches. What we see instead, is humanity’s dark side, the rule of the mob, the fanaticism that often coincides with religious belief. The fantasy element here, is that Satan himself appears to Willard. He says he’s done nothing to create the turmoil in Salem, but that he is enjoying himself watching it, feeding off it. This story drew me in, made me believe I was in Salem of 1692, and shed some light on one of mankind’s darker moments.

Another story I particularly liked was “Micagor’s Gold,” a good old-fashioned science fiction adventure, featuring Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Cochise, and other notable figures from the Old West. A trek into Arizona’s Superstition Mountains to look for gold leads to a fantastic discovery and a shootout with . . . (I won’t spoil it). My favorite part was the explanation of the historical fact that, despite dozens of gunfights in his life, Earp was never such much as nicked by a bullet.

Golden reports in his intro that he conducted extensive research for each tale, and that, despite the speculative elements, he never contradicts recorded history. He says that all of his stories could have happened, and that there’s nothing contrary to what is actually known. I’m no historical expert, so I can’t speak to that. But I do know the extensive historical details in these accounts make them feel real.

Is every story great literary fiction? Of course not. No collection of fiction is ever full of total winners, and Golden’s work is usually far south of the type of writing known as “literary.” But he is a great storyteller, whose characters come alive, and whose style keeps the narrative moving. He never gets bogged down by his prose, and his stories are worth reading just for the dialogue.

Some of the tales are dark, and a few are humorous—like Golden’s sexy take on the Robin Hood legend, where the Prince of Thieves encounters a willing wood nymph. Also brimming with laughs is the Three Musketeers—like romp that features not only a great grandfather, but Golden’s grandchildren in a time travel adventure.

Through the pages of Tales of My Ancestors you’ll find out how one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays might have been influenced by Queen Elizabeth’s encounter with the fantastic, and how an alien incursion might have led to a dynasty of English kings. You’ll learn how Native Americans came to be called “red men,” how sheer chance led to the birth of William the Conqueror, and witness the freak accident that led to his death.

Will Golden find more ancestors with great stories lurking in history for his next book, or will he forego, as he has in the past, any thought of a sequel? Based on this effort, I can’t wait to see.

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