January 21, 2015
by Holly Sullivan McClure
Mercer University Press, 2015
by Jacqueline Kharouf
Conjuror is the story of four Cherokee boys, their grandfathers, and one outsider who are each integral to the continuation of the legends, beliefs, and traditions that have kept the Cherokee community of Graham County, North Carolina together for nearly 300 years. The novel focuses on the Cherokee legend of the great conjuror Kanegwa’ti, who died three centuries ago after establishing the Snake Dancers, a secret society of elders that guards the vestiges of his power. Kanegwa’ti was called Suye’ta (or “Conjuror”) and wielded four artifacts that assist him in his most difficult and dangerous task: controlling the Uktena, a large, snake-like monster that feeds on the blood of warriors via a crystal orb called the Ulunsu’ti.
The story takes place over four days and alternates between two storylines. In the first storyline, the Cherokee elder Grady Smoker collects each of the artifacts with the help of a white man who calls himself Eagle Feather and another silent, unnamed character. In the second storyline, Johnny McLeymore (a white man) struggles with his place in his wife Faron’s Cherokee family, the Copperheads. Faron’s grandfather, Walker Copperhead, is an elder and, like Grady Smoker, a member of the Snake Dancers.
While investigating some foliage discoloration, Johnny McLeymore and his fellow park ranger Eli Smoker discover Kanegwa’ti’s exhumed body and grave goods. They call Walker Copperhead, who realizes someone is attempting to collect all of the conjuror’s artifacts in order to prepare for the return of the Suye’ta and, potentially, begin the end of the world. Before Walker can formulate a plan to return the stolen artifacts to their rightful places, he brings his family and Johnny to David Wayanettah, another Snake Dancer who relays the story of the Suye’ta and the incredible destructive power of Uktena. Meanwhile, in the second story line, Grady Smoker begins to have doubts that Eagle Feather is the new chosen Suye’ta. He realizes his mistake too late and, before he can return all the artifacts, becomes possessed by Uktena. The two story lines finally converge when Grady, possessed by Uktena, confronts Walker, the Copperheads, and Johnny, the true Suye’ta, at a place called Lightning Creek.
Conjuror is a complex story with two simultaneously occurring storylines and numerous duplicated characters, who work as foils and antagonists in the larger context of the Cherokee legend of Kanegwa’ti. McClure brings that legend to life through the relationship between Grady Smoker and Eagle Feather, in one storyline, and the connection between Walker Copperhead and Johnny McLeymore, in another storyline. Although Eagle Feather (a white man attempting to become an accepted member of the Cherokee community) and Johnny (a white man who has married into a respected Cherokee family) are potential candidates for the next Suye’ta, they are also foils—mirrored characters—that differ in their desires to become the next conjuror. Eagle Feather has developed a pseudo-cult following of white people who want to experience Cherokee spirituality, while Johnny has only recently started to have bad dreams about a water moccasin (the animal embodiment of Kanegwa’ti). These characters never meet in the narrative, but their similarities and important differences also foreground the greater struggle between the Snake Dancers’ reverence for maintaining the traditions of the past against the stereotypes, prejudice, and fairly racist reductions of Native American culture that appear as methods for tourism and marketing in North Carolina.
And yet, many of the characters, even the elder Snake Dancers, struggle to balance the “magical-ness” of the legend of the great conjuror Kanegwa’ti with the knowledge that has passed down to them over nearly 300 years. With more than twenty named characters, the novel offers a juggernaut of views concerning the discovery of the four artifacts and their secret locations, the unravelling of the legend of the Suye’ta and which of the white outsiders he could be, and the intrepid movements of all the characters as limited by the time frame of the story. McClure gives her reader so many moving parts, opinions, themes, and characters that it is (at times) difficult to uncover the root of the story, the main heartbeat which links all those parts to an emotional connection that sustains the reader through this richly imagined legend come to life.
Conjuror is a glimpse into a world in which the past has incredible meaning and power. Such a world is populated by people who have learned that ignoring the warning signs, as foretold in the past, can lead to an apocalyptic future. For McClure and her characters, fearing the end of tradition (or the end of their oral-based culture) is on par with facing the end of the world. And so, instead of focusing her narrative on one main character (although the character who initiates the conflict could be considered the main character), McClure marks the legend itself as that main heartbeat. Kanegwa’ti’s story links the past of a quickly disappearing way of life to the present misconceptions, prejudice, and racism that have stereotyped Native American culture. That struggle against prejudice and ignorance is most beautifully and tragically represented by the actions of Grady Smoker, who starts collecting all of Kanegwa’ti’s artifacts because he believes his culture is ending. He betrays his closest friends, his family, and his own firmly held beliefs so that he can bring about real change in his world.