By Gary Robson
The man of many names: Jeremiah Johnson, John Garrison, Liver-Eating Johnston. Rarely has so much been published about one man with so few hard facts. Author Dennis John McLelland has set out to fix that with his new book, The Avenging Fury of the Plains, John "Liver-Eating" Johnston: Exploding the Myths--Discovering the Man.
McLelland's goal is laudable, and he clearly put a great deal of research time into the book. It dispels many of the common myths, primarily the myth of the "Crow killer." Johnston was actually a friend of the Crow, and the vendetta he carried on for so many years was against the Sioux.
Unfortunately, it's very hard to get past some of the other issues with the book. First and foremost, Avenging Fury of the Plains reads more like a vendetta itself than a biography. McLelland clearly has issues with the book, Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, by Raymond W. Thorpe and Robert Bunker. Rather than simply presenting his research and letting the facts speak for themselves, McLelland attacks Thorpe and Bunker personally at every opportunity.
From the preface: "It is obvious that Thorpe and Bunkers' conscious efforts to create their own historical facts about the life of Johnston, were meant simply to entertain the reader."
On page 1: "In Chapter One, I will present a rather thick summary of purposeful mistruths as penned by Thorpe and Bunker."
Page 5: "Reality represents a concept little understood by Thorpe and Bunker ? the truth."
Page 12: "...Thorpe and Bunker took license in blending fiction with the limited facts presented in their book."
Page 42: "By now even Stevie Wonder could see that the Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver Eating Johnson, belongs in its rightful place--snuggled up against other book classics bearing titles such as Bigfoot Stole My Bicycle--And Now I Want It Back!"
And my favorite, from page 52: "The author is confident that the reader can now understand that Thorpe and Bunker were highly skilled in creating historical fiction. They were secure in their finished work because they alone possessed both the purported 'truth' used to create their book. The Avenging Fury of the Plains has changed all that. The reader can feel confident that every word, every sentence, and every paragraph written by the author, is free from deception and illusion."
In McLelland's defense, he gets the majority of the anger out of his system in the first half of the book. Toward the end, especially in the fascinating section about Johnston's life in Red Lodge, he goes dozens of pages at a time without mentioning Thorpe and Bunker.
The Avenging Fury of the Plains was published by a vanity press called Infinity Publishing. For $500, they will take any manuscript and print it as a book, without supplying any editing or proofreading. Although I have nothing against vanity presses, this book badly needs a professional editor, and it would have carried much more credibility had it been produced by a reputable publisher of historical books.
Although McLelland's research on Johnston was thorough, the book has some other statements that should have been verified. An example that leaped out at me occurred on page 66, where McLelland states that "Edison had invented electricity." In reality, William Gilbert studied electricity in 1600, Benjamin Franklin proposed his famous "kite in a lightning storm" experiment in 1750, Allesandro Volta was making batteries in 1800, and Edison wasn't born until 1847. To really stretch the point, Thales of Miletos conducted experiments with static electricity around 600 BC, over two millennia before Edison's time.
A copyeditor would also have cleaned up the sloppy typesetting. Punctuation is spotty. There are phrases with parentheses or quotes at the beginning, but not the end. Many sentences have no periods. McLelland emphasizes points using italics, underlining, bold print, "scare quotes," and even underlined italics, often mixing and matching on the same page. It appears that the book never even received a cursory look from a professional proofreader.
NOTE: I reviewed an advance reading copy (ARC) of the book. As I write this, McLelland is revising the introduction and first couple of chapters, so some of these errors may well be corrected in the final published product. All page numbers in this review are from the ARC, not the final book.
Perhaps these types of errors don't bother most readers, but I find them jarring and distracting.
Once you get past McLelland's issues with Thorpe and Bunker and the lack of proofreading and editing, it really is a fascinating book. McLelland does quite a bit of guessing and hypothesizing, but he makes it clear when he's stating historical fact and when he's making educated extrapolations. This is a common practice.
The writing style is engaging, and I was fascinated by some of the previously-unpublished information that McLelland presented, especially local history.
The book is thoroughly indexed, and has a comprehensive list of citations, but once again McLelland allowed his personal feelings to come through. Citation #85, for example, says "Thorpe and Bunker again display a lack of sufficient research." This just isn't done in the endnotes of a serious history book.
All in all, I'd say this book belongs on the shelves of anyone with a serious interest in John "Liver-Eating" Johnston, and I hope that McLelland will continue his work and produce a second edition with a traditional publishing house--ideally a university press or historical society with an experienced editor.
Avenging Fury of the Plains will be available starting this month at the Mercantile Museum Store (located in the Carbon County HIstorical Society & Museum building) and at Red Lodge Books.
McLelland will be doing a book signing in Red Lodge from noon to 3:00 on May 17 in front of Liver-Eating Johnston's old cabin, which is located on the front lawn of the Red Lodge Visitor Center at the north end of town. For more information about the signing, contact Tressa at the Mercantile: 446-3667.
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