Oklahoma Odyssey (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 332 pp. $24.95, paper), by Vietnam War veteran John Mort is a work of historical fiction bringing to vivid life the place and times of the largest land run in U.S. history. The so-called Cherokee Outlet, more commonly known as the Cherokee Strip, consisted of lands bought from the tribe that would later make up much of northern Oklahoma.
John Mort, who served with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Vietnam from 1968-70, has written 11 books. That includes the Vietnam War-heavy novel, Soldier in Paradise (2013), and Don’t Mean Nothin’, a collection of a dozen Vietnam War short stories (2012).
Oklahoma Odyssey, which is set in 1892, centers on three characters, two of whom are “sort-of brothers” and one a “maybe-sister.” Eddie Mole, an outlaw bad-guy, murders the father of Ulysses (“Euly”) Kreider, one of the “brothers,” in the main street of Jericho, Kansas. Twenty-year-old Euly, a Mennonite, struggles with whether or not it’s appropriate to use violence and seek revenge.
There’s a lot going on in Euly’s life. His father is killed; he’s planning to get married; and his best friend, a member of the Osage tribe, keeps telling Euly that they should track down and bring Mole to justice one way or another. The two young men share a love of Homer’s The Odyssey, which they see as “akin to certain Osage stories with its fantastic adventures.”
The federal government is preparing to open former Cherokee Nation land bordering central Kansas for settlement. Euly plans to make his fortune by moving closer to that area and establishing a hardware store. It’s a time, he declares, when “the three items with the highest markup, the things men couldn’t do without, were horses, liquor, and rifles.” Though Euly keeps trying to push Eddie Mole into the back of his brain, destiny has the two of them racing toward a confrontation that will rival the Oklahoma land rush.
Oklahoma Odyssey includes a lot of interesting details based on a significant amount of research Mort undertook. It’s what I consider “quiet research” because the facts never slow down or interfere with Mort’s great storytelling.
At its heart, this is a story about family and how even the strongest of bonds can be tested in stressful times.