Cacique: A Novel of Florida’s Heroic Mission HIstory

By Bishop Robert J. Baker with Tony Sands

St. Catherine of Sienna Press, 2006

ISBN-13:  978-0-9762284-4-8

ISBN-10:  0-9762284-4-0


I sent this book to my dad for Christmas, thinking it was more his genre than mine.   The plan was for him to read it, and then if he thought I’d like it, I’d read it over vacation.   First part of the plan didn’t work out — Dad has been short on reading time lately — so we skipped directly to step 2.  I read it, it was good.


Bishop Baker’s novel (pronounced ca-SEE-kay) is a fictional account of a franciscan mission to the Potano tribe in northern Florida.  The genre is Hardy Boys meets Butler’s Lives.   The writing is clear and concise, not artsy — the prose serves as a vehicle for the story, not the end in itself. 


Unlike the Hardy brothers, the heroes in this story do actually grow old and even die, such that in order to cover the entire life of the mission, Bishop Baker uses a sucession of main characters.  We begin with Fr. Tomas, the young and determined priest who founded the mission which is the subject of the book.  We end with the perspective of Felipe-Toloca, the cacique of the Potano village at the time the mission is disbanded by the Spanish.    The transition from one principal character to the next flows smoothly, and helps build the overall study of the life of the mission, which lasted over 100 years.  In moving from generation to generation we gain a sense of the history of the community, as well as a meditation on the communion of saints.


Also unlike the Hardy boys, our heroes are concerned with more than just fighting crime in Bayport.  The overarching theme of the many adventures is nothing short of evangelization and the bringing about of the kingdom of God.  Here Bishop Baker does a great service for catholic characters everywhere, for once rendering a series of faithful catholic heroes — first and foremost a priest — whose interior life is solid and sound.   Their struggles are not with the holy faith, but with how to live out that faith in the particular time and place given to them.


The novel succeeds where history books sometimes fail, in keeping the people real.  Neither the Spanish nor the Indians are made out to be a homogeneous pool of Good Guys or Bad Guys; we get individuals of all stripes, none perfect, and none are beyond the hope of forgiveness, mercy and redemption. 


One of the risks of historical fiction is that we learn more about the author than about history.  Those looking for clues into Bishop Baker’s secret thoughts will discover the same messages that he has proclaimed throughout the diocese in his public life.   None of this was heavy-handed in my opinion;  even if our heroes are extraordinary for their own time — or our time — they are nonetheless consistent in action and attitude with other missionary saints of the 1600’s.


If you like an action-packed adventure story, this one is fun.  There are martial arts, traps, disguises, battles, shipwrecks, the whole nine yards.  If you are looking for a peek inside the mind of a missionary priest, that’s there too.  And at the end of the book there is brief note about the history that inspired the novel, as well as a bibliography for those who want to do further research.   


Good book, very readable, very enjoyable.




And a bonus feature This book  deserves an award for making a major advance in the world of southern literature: It treats the landscape of northern Florida as if it were, well, a perfectly normal place to live.  No long odes to Spanish Moss or treatises on the humidity — mosquitoes are mentioned so infrequently you might temporarily forget where this story is set.  The land is simply there.  Alligators, springs, quicksand, palmettos — they are all present, but mentioned only when they are relevant to action at hand. There is a time and place, of course, for seeing a well-known landscape with the eyes of an outsider; but frankly it is a relief to see a novel that is not only set in the south, but told through southern eyes.