1. "River of Sorrows takes readers into the lives of an Indian family prior to the 1830s, when white men invaded their territory. Burrill said he combines anthropological scholarship with fiction techniques to create a 'window' into the Indian's culture, revealing their experience 'though Indian eyes,' as it were. In one of his themes, Burrill tells how the Indians developed their consciousness of the unity of all life. From the viewpoint of Tokiwa, a medicine doctor, readers witness the tragedy of his people, in their transition from peace and prosperity to death and destruction.
"Although Burrill's book is based on detailed anthropological studies, he wrote it so it reads like a novel. Burrill has long had an impassioned interest in American Indians. He began researching and writing this book in 1970. Each summer he visited various localities to interview Maidu-Nisenan Indians, and to authenticate every event he wrote about. He also studied countless anthropological papers. Burrill received his BA from UC-Berkeley and his MA in government from California State University, Sacramento. Since then he has taught social studies at Cordova Senior High School, Rancho Cordova, and done graduate work in anthropology. He is also the author of The Human Almanac: People Through Time, published six years ago." (Sacramento County Historical Society Golden Nuggets, February 1989)
2. "In spite of its faults, Sacramentans can be grateful to Cordova High School social studies teacher Richard Burrill for the labor he has poured into River of Sorrows. The story from 1791 to 1984 of the native Americans who lived along the American River before us--the Nisenans, or Southern Maidu--Burrill's work cannot justly be described as a historical novel. Though it suffers from discontinuity of treatment and lack of characterization, it is nonetheless an informative tale. In fictional form, Burrill weaves a great deal of what is known about the Nisenan into a story about Tokiwa, whom we first meet as a boy.
"The story begins inside a dance house at Kadema, a small village along the American River west of where the Watt Avenue bridge now stands. A street there retains the name Kadema. Tokiwa has been invited with a handful of other boys to hear elders tell the tribe's creation story. This beginning is appealing, if stilted, more in the nature of campfire storytelling than literary fiction. The pace picks up slightly in chapter two when Tokiwa dreams in recognizably adolescent fashion about a girl, Nesuya, and when a villain-rival is introduced.
"Tokiwa's life becomes the vehicle for information about circumstances and customs a male Nisenan would experience, such as making arrows, learning to shoot, and hunting. We creep along the ground with Tokiwa, who is disguised in deerskin and head, as he watches Big Meadows attract a group of deer to within yards by whimpering like a fawn and nibbling on shrubs. But Big Meadows, the experienced hunter, dies--or is he murdered?--and during the second burning or 'cry' a year later, a message is received from the spirit world that leads Tokiwa to believe he will become a medicine doctor. He makes a lengthy visit to Spirit Mountain--Sutter Buttes--where Creator rested after creation and made camp. Older doctors train him before taking him to the mountain, where he experiences a trance.
On his return he seeks out the instruction of Old-Grouse woman, village doctor, who is one of the more believable persons in the story: she is suspicious, crotchety, and slightly strange--in short, a character. She has the power of poisons to control enemies. But she discourages Tokiwa, saying he could not marry because he would become poisonous and would kill anyone he touched. 'Right now, you are not an exceptional person. You have good in your heart and will become poisonous only when the time is right.'
So Tokiwa marries Nesuya. The ceremony is simple. Tokiwa is allowed to move into Nesuya's family home, but her parents instruct them to sleep on opposite sides of the firehearth.Because Nesuya shows no resistance to his presence, Tokiwa is gradually allowed to move his bed closer, finally within touching distance. And so they are married.
"Unfortunately, even Tokiwa's entrance into marriage does not afford the reader much of a glimpse into women's existence. Certain female rites are described, such as puberty, but no information is given concerning the birth of their baby girl. Two paragraphs describe the custom of confining babies in a basket tied to a forked branch stuck in the ground, thus keeping them from crawling into rivers or being endangered by wild animals. But Burrill intrudes with social science commentary: 'The restrictions of movements during these months greatly influenced Maidu-Nisenan temperament and personality.' Such material belongs in notes, of which there are many in this book, although no indication in the text signals the existence of a note in the back.
"Perhaps the most interesting episode, unfortunately, is an intertribal war with the Miwoks to the south. The highly ceremonial nature of the event makes good sense. As among the ancient Greeks, each side sends out a single hero to be tested for valor, thus preventing great loss of life. One of the criticisms Tokiwa utters years later as a revered elder is that whites 'don't fight war as ceremony.' But even ceremonial war aroused a prolonged protest from the women, which the men halted by insisting it is more important to save face.
"A major shift occurs in the book when whites appear, first the Spaniard Gabriel Moraga in 1808, and later John Sutter. Historical documents and quotes from the whites begin to take over the story, an unfortunate shift in focus and texture. Because of the availability of written records, Sutter is more three-dimensional than the hero of the book. This unfortunate circumstance only underscores the difficulty of bringing to life a people with no written record, which Burrill has neither the literary skill nor the lifelong, intimate knowledge of native Americans to achieve. Even the tone of the Nisenans' speech alters, from the stiff formality of Burrill's creation to the actual, colloquial language recorded by anthropologists. It is as if Burrill has written two separate pieces, a story and a history, and tried to paste them together. In spite of these literary difficulties, a read through this book may alter what you experience next time you take a stroll along the Watt-Howe section of the American River Parkway." (Sue Mote, The Sacramento Union, May 14, 1989)