East of the Sun and West of Fort Smith
by William Sanders (Introduction by Rick Bowes)
Review by Andrew Brooks
Norilana Books Trade Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781934648650
Date: September 2008
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
Sanders, two time winner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, writes a lot of stories featuring American Indians and so the first story in the collection, "Elvis Bearpaw's Luck", is a good look at what you're going to get in a Sanders short. Set in a future where the American Indians have been the ones to survive a plague that has wiped out the majority of other races, "Elvis Bearpaw's Luck" is ultimately about what happens when a man named Elvis Bearpaw tries to cheat at the Game-which turns out to be bingo with very highstakes. But the subtle way Sanders reveals this alternate future is why I really enjoyed this one a lot. There's humor, likeable characters and a well crafted atmosphere that never gets in the way of the story but gently nudges it along. The ending contains a neat little surprise, though not so neat for Elvis Bearpaw.
The third story is one that won Sanders the Sidewise Award and was one of my favorites. "The Undiscovered" is an alternate history in which Shakespeare winds up in Virginia writing Hamlet for a tribe of Cherokees. Brought into the tribe as a slave, Shakespeare, or Spearshaker as they know him, organizes the whole thing in a way the Cherokees will better understand and relate to. At least, that's his intent. It's a great what-if story, and again Sanders works subtly throughout so that the ending is both expected and appreciated.
"Billy Mitchell's Overt Act" posits that Pearl Harbor didn't happen thanks to the foresight of one man, the father of the US Airforce, William Mitchell. In fact, as the story goes, the U.S. striking first actually sets up a very different future for America with regards to foreign policy. Told through a series of real and fictional excerpts, "Billy Mitchell's Overt Act" is thoroughly entertaining and a great piece of alternate history.
In "Jennifer, Just Before Midnight", we get a different kind of short from Sanders. It's not an alternate history and there are no American Indians within, rather "Jennifer" is about an author visiting a convention and meeting his biggest fan. Who his biggest fan turns out to be I won't give away, but I will say this is a bittersweet story that stuck with me afterwards. In the afterword Sanders relates that he wrote this one during a difficult time in his life. The emotion in the story, especially the end, and the afterword really provides a solid punch. I don't know that Sanders put the afterword in there to this end specifically, I rather doubt it in fact, but it reinforces what I think most readers will take away from this entire collection. Sanders is one of those authors who tells the truth in his stories, be that infused with fantasy or not.
"Creatures" was another story that strays from what I think of now as the standard Sanders story. Set in a future where most of the world is now immortal and living in the types of bodies that they choose, "Creatures" revolves around a party that features a creature now almost extinct from society. A real person. Who ages and everything! The party-goers are of course horrified that someone would choose to live this way, and I cringed at their treatment of the woman brought in for their amusement. There's still humor in this one, but in a way it's a horror story and, like the best horror stories do, terrified me. I imagine that if man did find a way to live forever, then the sad fact is that it would probably resemble the world in "Creatures".
In my opinion the best of the bunch is "Dry Bones". The story is primarily about the opening up of one boy's eyes to the world around him, but it just so happens Sanders throws in a cool subplot about some bones that may or may not be from the future. The young boy here, Ray, discovers that the people around him are much more complicated than he'd always believed. Even the discovery of the bones and the truth that is sitting there in front of all of them turns out to be more complicated than he could have imagined. It's a story I think all of us can relate to, the event in everyone's life where, once past it, there's no going back to the way things were before. The story is another example of Sanders's versatility and one I'll be re-reading in the future.
I don't think I can even begin to express how amazing I found this collection to be, and I hope that anyone with the tiniest sliver of interest will rush out and get this book today. It's a shame that I'd only read one of William Sanders's shorts prior to reading this collection, and I'm still trying to figure out why that is. The guy is an extremely gifted story-teller and East of the Sun and West of Fort Smith is all the proof you need. A truly phenomenal writer who doesn't get the credit he deserves, Sanders is one of the greats.