Dale Neal’s fifth novel, The Woman with the Stone Knife, imagines the life of a Cherokee woman exiled for 20 years in Georgian England, torn between two worlds and two choices. Remain in London to avenge her husband’s death or reunite with the son she left behind in the Cherokee mountains. Helena Ostenaco Timberlake steps into history in 1786 when she petitions the British crown to return to a newly independent America. Was she really the wife of a white soldier, Lt. Henry Timberlake, who had visited the Cherokee in 1762? Was she the daughter of Ostenaco, the Cherokee chief who had returned with Timberlake to visit King George III? Widely researched and deeply imagined, The Woman with the Stone Knife follows the life of this mysterious woman. She was born Skitty in the Overhills towns of the Cherokee. Following Timberlake, Skitty leaves behind her infant son and makes the arduous Atlantic crossing, only to find herself abandoned in England after Timberlake’s death in debtor’s prison in 1765. She is rescued by a Quaker accountant, Squire Wolfe and his black manservant Frank, who save her from a sideshow in a London tavern. Baptized as Helena Ostenaco Timberlake, she brushes elbows with luminaries such as Samuel Johnson and James Boswell and has her portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She earns money importing sassafras and porcelain clay from her native Cherokee mountains, hoping to buy her passage back to her homeland. But the American Revolution intervenes, upsetting her fortunes. Tribal tradition demands that she seek blood revenge for her husband’s death, but if she kills the responsible officer, she will likely never see her son and her people again. Skitty/Helena faces a terrible choice between murder and memory, guilt and forgiveness.
What early readers are saying:
"The Woman with the Stone Knife is the surprising, compelling story of young Cherokee woman who follows her lover, the dashing English officer Henry Timberlake, to London and becomes marooned there during the reign of King George III. Starting with vivid memories of childhood in the American wilderness, Skitti’s tale soon turns to the English world of eighteenth-century wars, treaties, alliances, and social systems, seen through the bright lens of her home loyalties. Dale Neal’s intrepid heroine richly observes the worst and best of London society of the 1760s to ‘80s, from a freak show in Cheapside to the drawing rooms of scholars, from debtors’ prison to the kindness of Quakers, from the cruelties of impressment to the fascinating English trade in American clay and sassafras. Based partly on Timberlake’s published journals, and reminiscent of the great sweeping moral tales in literature, this novel is a bold imagining, masterfully told, in which the teller herself is transformed from a besotted teenage girl to a dignified Englishwoman - one whose Cherokee heart still burns, like a hidden coal in a cold London grate."
- Marjorie Hudson, author of Indigo Field, winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for Fiction
“We turn to historical novels to find the past, to see lost worlds animated again, the color and costume, the custom and civilization. But only in the best historical novels do we touch the real seething lives of the individuals who lived in those worlds. The Woman with the Stone Knife is one of these. Eighteenth century Carolinas and London spring to life in all their detail and vibrancy, but it’s Skitty’s journey, that of a woman torn between two worlds, that consumes us, the deep striving to claim her life and identity, to make the world her own at last."
– Lewis Buzbee, author of The Haunting of Charles Dickens and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
"Nothing is sharper than a stone knife, and this book is a blade cutting through centuries of stereotypes, a powerful story anchored in Colonial history and suffused with longing. The story of the Cherokee woman who loved Lt. Henry Timberlake might remind readers of the better-known Pocahontas, but Skitty is no romantic victim. Having loved a white man, she bears his child—this relationship will draw her to London, where she rubs elbows with the good and not so good, from the king himself to Samuel Johnson and Boswell to the pimps of Gin Lane. “So many names I have been called by various men who loved me for my heart and hated me for my skin,” she says, caught between the world she left behind in the Cherokee Overhills and the British world where she experiences great success and bitter loss. Skitty Helena Ostenaco Timberlake—mother, wife, widow, diplomat, businesswoman, carrier of fire—will live in your thoughts long after you’ve turned the last page. Dale Neal has written another gorgeous novel drawn from the mists of the Great Smoky Mountains." - Valerie Nieman, author of In the Lonely Backwater and The MacBeths
“With authentic and precise historical detail, Dale Neal has brought to life Mrs. Helena Ostenaco Timberlake, a Cherokee woman who is exiled in England after following her British husband back to London. Neal captures both the Cherokee and British elements in this fascinating woman, who is caught between two languages, two cultures, and two desires. Although it is set during the time of the Revolutionary War, this is in so many ways a modern story. No one who meets Mrs. Ostenaco Timberlake will ever forget her.” - Terry Roberts, author of The Sky Club and This Bright Land