________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 33. . . .April 27, 2012


Victorio’s War. (The Desert Legends Trilogy; v 3).

John Wilson.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2012.
157 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-55469-882-0.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Kris Rothstein.

*** /4



“Your Lieutenant Fowler is an intelligent man. He has saved many lives today.” I’m standing beside the Apache wickiups talking with Wellington. I have just finished informing Victorio and Lozen that we shall be leaving within the hour to head east in search of the horse thieves. They received the news without comment.

“But how many other lives will be lost when Victorio leaves the reservation and begins raiding?” I ask. “We cannot control the future,” Wellington says. “And if you all stayed, then you would only be the first to die. Victorio would still lead his people to Warm Springs.”

“I suppose so. Will you go with him?”

Wellington nods. “It is my destiny.”

“Even if it means that we might become enemies?”

“We will never be enemies, Busca. Even if we fight in battles on opposite sides, we shall always be brothers. Our stories are one. It is not our destiny to meet in battle.”

“You’ve dreamed this?”

Wellington smiles. “No. I just know it.”


James (Jim) Doolen, sometimes know as Busca, appears in this final book of “The Desert Legends” trilogy. After leaving his Canadian home to find his father and becoming a hired gun and adventurer, he is now a scout for the 10th Cavalry in New Mexico Territory in 1879. Jim’s task is to keep the peace with the Apache people who have left a hated desert reservation and are demanding to return to their ancestral lands. But soon Jim and the army are at war with Victorio (leader of the Apaches), who moves his base of operations to Mexico. Jim is taken prisoner in combat, but his previous relationships with many in the Apache camp allow him to join their group. Finally, Jim and the Apaches are attacked by Mexican soldiers. Most are slaughtered or taken prisoner, but Jim finds freedom in Chihuahua City because of a good deed done for a Mexican orphan. In Mexico, Jim also finds Santiago, one of his very first friends. Santiago helps Jim in exchange for his stories, and through this literary device Jim tells his tale. When Santiago dies, Jim uses the money he leaves behind to buy the freedom of one Apache girl.

      Jim is the typical strong silent type of the Western genre, becoming a man in a dramatic time and place. He has a lot of lessons to learn along the way, lessons about comradeship, trust, politics and courage. He is also an observer and absorbs information by watching those around him. Strangely, he is both very active and very passive, and this passivity is frustrating at times. Jim is not always compelling enough as a character to warrant being at the centre of a trilogy of books.

      Victorio’s War covers a lot of ground and takes place over a time period of more than a year. It skips back and forth between a number of different events, and this makes it somewhat disjointed and muddled at times. There is an almost constant succession of skirmishes, battles and gunfights, mixed with strategy talks around campfires. I do admire the complexity of the structure which does add interest to the story, but perhaps Wilson tries too hard to incorporate the many strands in this story. I also admire the ambitious nature of this book which delves into complex historical events from a lot of different angles. But again, Wilson’s reach exceeds his grasp, and the various parts never fully coalesce into a complete and satisfying narrative.

      Ghost Town, the previous instalment, was full of pointless bloody murders, but the violence is even more widespread and disturbing in this novel, mostly because the story has turned to actual wars, rather than just local shoot ‘em ups. Jim naively believes in the possibility of peace, but the career soldiers open his eyes to the fact that war is good for business, both for the army and for the many civilian contractors who supply them. At first, Jim can’t believe that profit will be the cause of so much human suffering, but he is still young and not as jaded as the veterans of the Wild West. The book implies that violence is at best futile and, at worst, evil but most of the characters are cynical about the possibility of doing anything about political machinations. The only constructive response to this darkness lies in is the possibility of helping people on an individual basis. Victorio’s sister leaves the band to return one child to safety, and at the end of the book, Jim makes the same choice. It is a powerful message that one small act one person may perform is not only worthwhile, but heroic. As well as bringing up the question of the origins of war and who profits from them, Victorio’s War is specifically about the bloody battle to eliminate the Aboriginal people of America, a topic not often considered in popular culture or in children’s books.

      Victorio’s War is very much a story about male freedom and male bonding, and this aspect of the story will probably appeal most to readers. Even though Jim is in some ways a loner, following his own calling and his own instincts, he is rarely outside the company of men. It’s not an aspect of life in the Wild West or the military that is ever overtly discussed, but it is worth remarking on. It does make this trilogy a world without many women and, while it might seem inevitable, these less-than-convincing female characters are a bit of a weakness.

      Wilson is a self-confessed history addict, and his enthusiasm for creating believable stories about the past, as well as his attention to detail, has been obvious throughout the series. Victorio’s War seems more realistic and authentic than many other novels about this time period, and it keeps the setting lively and entertaining for the (mostly) boys who will fall in love with the idea of a teenager on a momentous adventure.


Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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