Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Native Americans”

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #14 Indian Killer


A few days ago I wrote about how comic books fixate on spectacle, and how you might simply assume that your average grown up novel will fixate on subtlety. However, there are plenty of gritty crime novels (particularly those related to gruesome serial killers who go the other way. Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer eschews the straight-up spectacle of a racially motivated serial killer mystery (with its potential for red herrings and dramatic climaxes) and instead savors the subtlety of innumerable racially conflicted characters who seem equally capable of murder–and leaves the whodunnit unanswered.

I have an undeniable fondness for Alexie (I’m already planning how to teach his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian at the beginning of the next school year). One of the things I appreciate about his work is the raw but uncertain emotionality that comes with reflecting on race and identity. Throughout Indian Killer, there’s a mixture of zeal and shame that pushes Native American characters to demonstrate their culture and yet assimilate to white society. Meanwhile a hodgepodge of lust and defensiveness leads many white characters to couple their interest in the other races around them with an attempt to maintain the privilege offered by whiteness. Alexie’s world is not black and white (or red and white), but a complex amalgam of shades and senses that seems just right in our “Melting Pot” society.

I can certainly see how Indian Killer might cause discomfort in readers, the more the violence and animosity between cultures escalates, the easier it becomes for readers to say: “well, that’s not me,” or “can’t we all just get along”. But when Alexie refuses to provide the spectacle of racists receiving the comeuppance, or of children of every creed joining hands to sing, the subtle truth shines through: race matters, and as long as it does, excuses, scape goats and utopias will simply distract from actual reflection on and analysis of race.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#06: The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

“Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.”

The Plague of Doves is the story of several generations of Native Americans and European Americans living in a small town called Pluto, North Dakota. The story opens at the beginning of the 20th century with someone slaughtering a white family on their farm. A group of four Native men were lynched for it. The narrative then shifts to 1960s and ’70s, where the descendants of those involved tell of their lives and their family histories. For the most part, they still live on the reservation or in Pluto, and their relationships with each other are much more complicated than would appear on the surface.

Like many great novels (including War and Peace, another great read!), this story contains some very soap-opera-like elements: tragic love affairs, unrequited love, betrayals, a cult, drug and alcohol abuse, squabbles over inheritances. Erdrich populates Pluto, past and present, with many interesting and well drawn characters. Those who seem like “good guys” often have blood on their hands (literally), and members of one’s own family can be by turns a rock to rely on and unstable/inconstant.

Several characters narrate this book and in doing so, reveal important pieces of the puzzle of what really happened on the farm. Evelina and Judge Coutts narrate most of the story. Evelina is a Native girl who learns her local and family history from the stories that her grandfather, Seraph Milk, aka Mooshum, tells her. He is a masterful storyteller and injects humor and fantasy into his stories, but as we learn, what a storyteller leaves out can be as important as what he puts into his story. Judge Coutts is a Native who eventually found his way to studying law and found his true love later in life. His tragic early love is alluded to in the story but its importance is revealed at the end. A couple of minor characters take turns as well, although “minor” is not a fair description, as every character has some importance to the tale. Erdrich’s characters are flawed, but the reader still feels an affection or at least a pity for them. They are human, not caricatures, and their struggles and passions are very real.

While the inhabitants of Pluto have complicated webs of interconnection, Erdrich does a great job of clearly revealing those connections and keeping the plot line clean. She also injects some wonderful humor into a story that involves so much tragedy. A funeral provides the setting for the funniest scene in the book (one of the funniest I’ve read in any book), and yet the story of the deceased is full of sorrow and loneliness.

Erdrich comes by her knowledge of Native ways and life in North Dakota through her own life experience. She is from Minnesota and has Native American and Euro roots. Her personal life has also had its share of tragedy — the death of a child, accusations of child abuse by one of her adopted sons against her and her spouse, divorce and then her ex’s suicide. Her other writings have also focused on Native Americans and North Dakota and have been nominated for several honors. The Plague of Doves was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2010 but lost to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. While I enjoyed Egan’s book very much, if I had been on the Pulitzer committee, I’d have given the prize to Erdrich. It’s an excellent novel.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#04: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Full title as purchased via Kindle is (The Original) Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Back in high school, some 30 years ago, I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. While few details stick out besides the tragic ending, I do recall that Cather’s literary environment was the west/frontier in the mid-late 19th century and the immigrant experience. In trying to find something interesting to read for CBR4, I came upon a reference to Death Comes for the Archbishop and saw that it made the Time Magazine top 100 novels since 1923 and the Modern Library’s 1998 list of the top 100 English Language novels. Based on this and vague but positive recollections of My Antonia, I chose Death for this week’s review.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is set in New Mexico in the second half of the nineteenth century and follows fictional French Catholic Bishop Jean LeTour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant in their missionary work amongst Native Americans and Mexicans. I expected the novel to follow a plot line that would involve some sort of conflict, leading to a crescendo and then the expected denouement. This novel, however, did not follow that sort of traditional story line. Instead, it is a series of smaller, more personal than historical conflicts over the span of about 40 years as Bishop LeTour expands his diocese, builds relationships with his flock, endures illness, separations and successes, and builds the Cathedral at Santa Fe. It is a story of his lifelong friendship with Joseph and his growing love for the peoples and landscape of the West. The writing is simply beautiful. Cather paints the landscape of the West with her words. She also shows an understanding and respect for both organized religion and native beliefs.

The problem I have with this story is that it lacks historical context. At the very end, as the archbishop’s health is slipping away, he reflects with happiness upon the fact that he saw the end of slavery and the Indian wars, yet the topic of slavery never comes up as part of the story, and the native wars are mentioned only in a cursory way. Kit Carson is a character in this book and is presented quite favorably as an honorable man. Yet he participated in the brutal displacement of the Navajo from their native lands, a fact which is also recognized in the story. At the end, La Tour is pleased to see that the Navajo have been allowed to return but the fact of their displacement doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on him, even though he knew some of the natives who had to leave and saw their families ripped apart.

The story of LaTour and Vaillant’s friendship is often moving, and the character sketches of some of the locals (especially corrupt priests) are fascinating and sometimes entertaining, but in the end, Death Comes for the Archbishop left me a bit disappointed. Perhaps part of my problem is that I read this after reading Caleb’s Crossing, which is overflowing with historical context and genuine conflict. And perhaps I am unfairly imposing modern understanding and sensibility upon Cather. Maybe none of us is aware of our own context — we know vaguely of wars going on, economic and social issues only as they directly impact us. We go on about our daily lives without much thought for the bigger issues. So why should 19th century missionaries be any different?

ElCicco#CBR4Review#03: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

I have read three of Geraldine Brooks’ four novels and they have each been absolutely outstanding. Brooks is a journalist by trade, but she is an historian at heart. I am so blown away by her imagination, creative story lines and her dedication to getting her history right. [March is Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel imagining what happened to the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in the Civil War; People of the Book is a novel that traces the history of a religious tome back through various periods of history.]

Caleb’s Crossing made a number of 2011 “best book” lists and deserves its place there. Brooks’ inspiration for this novel came from a small scrap of information she discovered while visiting Nantucket — that a couple of Wampanoag youths from Nantucket actually graduated from Harvard in 1665. Caleb was one of those young men and is one of the main characters of this novel. The other main character and our narrator, Bethia, is fictional. Brooks did extensive research to be sure that her treatment of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (a rather oppressive place) and that her depiction of lives for women and Native Americans there are accurate. In her Afterward, she lays out what parts of her novel are fact (a few names, dates and places) and how much is fictionalized (the bulk). Just because it is fiction, however, does not make it implausible and Brooks does a fine job of arguing in her Afterward why some the situations she imagines might be closer to the truth than what historians have concluded.

Caleb’s Crossing is about the secret friendship between Bethia, an English colonist on Nantucket and daughter of a minister, and Cheeshahteaumauk (later known as Caleb), the son of the Wampanoag sonquem (public or social leader) and nephew of the pawaaw (spiritual leader). Their friendship is illicit, as neither culture would sanction a friendship between the two worlds, much less between a male and female. Initially, Caleb teaches Bethia about the natural world and the secrets of the island where they live. Bethia teaches Caleb the alphabet, English and how to read. Each character crosses into the world of the other to some extent. As they grow older, events unfold to tear them from one another and then reunite. Bethia’s father, whose ministry is devoted to the conversion of the “salvages,” takes on Caleb and another native youth, Joel, as students. He strives to prepare them alongside his son Makepeace for matriculation at Harvard. Bethia, who is much smarter and intellectual than Makepeace and has a great desire to learn, listens to the lessons as she does her chores and learns as much as the boys. Due to a series of tragic events, Bethia ends up an indentured servant in Cambridge while Caleb, Joel and Makepeace are studying there. As a result, our narrator can continue to tell us the story of the first Native American Harvard graduates, along with her own personal story as a woman of intelligence in an oppressive and restrictive society.

“Crossing” has several meanings in this novel. It can refer to the journey between the island and the mainland, a sometimes treacherous and deadly affair. It also refers to natives giving up their traditional ways for Christianity and the ways of the English. Crossing can also refer to death, and there is quite a bit of death in this story. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 and as anyone who remembers their history knows, the early years of the settlement were a time of struggle, privation, sickness and battles between colonists and natives. Another meaning for “crossing” is betrayal, and the English often took advantage of Natives’ misunderstanding of their ways to cheat them out of land and renege on promises. Caleb experiences several types of “crossing” in this novel, as do other characters. This really is an excellent novel and a pretty quick read. You will learn a lot while being drawn into a brilliantly crafted story.

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