Review 1592: The Night Watchman

There is always something that keeps my attention in Louise Erdrich’s books, although often they are very sad. In 1953, the United States Congress announced a program of “emancipation” of more than 100 First Nations tribes that was expressed as a program to put indigenous people on an equal footing with other Americans but was actually a way to yet again abrogate treaties and take land. Louise Erdrich’s grandfather helped save the Turtle Mountain Chippewa from this fate all while working full-time as a night watchman. The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s novel about this event.

Thomas Wazhashk, a member of the tribal council, receives a copy of the bill and figures out its intent from its bland, bureaucratic language. He gets the council to collect signatures on a petition and begins collecting information to support the tribe’s stance that its members are too poor to care for themselves so local authorities will have to take on the burden if the federal government doesn’t, this obviously a ploy to get support from state and local authorities to oppose the bill. While he works, he is visited by an owl and the ghost of an old friend who died as a boy after being imprisoned in the basement of a state boarding school.

As usual with Erdrich, aside from the main plot, the novel is full of interesting characters and subplots. Pixie Paranteau takes time off from work to try to find her sister Vera, who has vanished in Minneapolis after leaving to marry her boyfriend. On the train, she encounters Wood Mountain, a young boxer on his way to a fight, but when the fight is cancelled, he decides to make sure Pixie is all right.

Millie Cloud is the woman whom Thomas asks to share the results of the survey on the living conditions of the tribe that she wrote for her doctoral dissertation. She is socially awkward and dresses in geometric patterns.

This novels felt more hopeful than some of Erdrich’s even though it also contained scenes of brutality. My attention was engrossed by it.

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Review 1559: In the Rocky Mountains

Quite a few years ago, I bought an old 19th-century boys’ adventure book, On the Banks of the Amazon by W. H. G. Kingston. In reading it, I was struck by its combination of adventure, interesting information about plants, animals and natives of the area, and engraved illustrations. As a result, I put together a small collection of these books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trying to find ones in the Our Boys’ Select Library edition of the first one.  (In case you’re wondering why there is a ship and a lion on the cover of a book about the Rockies, they all have the same cover.) I intended to read them all but never got to any of the others. Then when we moved to Washington, they got lost.

That was four years ago, and a few months ago my husband finally unearthed them from an unpacked box of his books. He brought In the Rocky Mountains up to show me, and I decided to read it.

Before the action of this book, Ralph and his sister Clarise were on their way west with their parents to start a new life, but both their parents died en route. Their wagon train was rescued by a group of men, and one of them turned out to be their Uncle Jeff, who had gone west years before and not been heard of again. Now, Ralph and Clarice, Clarice’s servant Rachel, and Uncle Jeff and his men live on a commodious ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, and Uncle Jeff and his men help supply settlers coming through the nearby pass.

A friendly native named Winnemak comes to warn them that a large band of “Arapahas” (by which I assume he means Arapahos) and Apaches have banded together (did they ever, I wonder) and plan to attack their compound. At first, Uncle Jeff is unworried, but the ranchers, along with a small group of cavalry, are overcome and must flee into the wilderness.

Most of this action is designed to lead us to Yellowstone, for the pass to the fort is overtaken by the enemy, so Ralph and his companions must go north, where they end up stranded for the winter in Yellowstone Valley. This leads us into descriptions of the wonders of Yellowstone.

This novel was published in 1901, a good 20 years after the other one I read, and I fear it isn’t quite as good. For one thing, although I try not to judge books by their times, there is a good deal more judgmental treatment of the indigenous peoples than in the book about the Amazon even though it is mixed with having some “good” native characters (which is of course defined by their friendliness to the “harmless” whites). It also expresses an uncritical affirmation of Manifest Destiny, containing a statement (sorry, I didn’t mark the passage to be able to quote directly) that the white men were doing nothing more than trying to get themselves some land when viciously attacked by the natives.

Okay, so maybe all that is to be expected, as well as the stereotypical treatment of the African-American servant and the Irish and German soldiers. On the other hand, the friendly natives express themselves in fluent and educated English, which is surprising for this book, with the exception of saying “Ugh!” as a greeting. (Did they really do that, do you think?)

A fairly minor error is made in illustrating and naming various deer Ralph sees. He talks about seeing wapiti, which is another name for elk, but the illustration is more like a standard deer. Then he clearly describes and illustrates a moose but calls it an elk. Oh dear. As far as I know, those names are not interchangeable. (A friend tells me now that this may be a mismatch between American names for these animals and British ones; however, the book is set in the U. S., so I think it should use the American names.)

I think the thing that for me interfered most with this adventure was a strong Christian message that comes through especially at the end. Ralph and Clarice convert Winnemak from his wicked ways, with no acknowledgment that these peoples have their own beliefs and religion that are just as valid, and Winnemak becomes a missionary. Ugh, as they (don’t) say. I can only suspect that as Kingston got older, he felt compelled to add a moral message. I don’t remember anything like that in On the Banks of the Amazon and I hope I don’t see it in the others, which I still intend to read.

I wrote my review a few months ago, and since then I read an old copy of Walter Scott’s The Talisman, also marketed as a boys’ book and published in 1907. I was really interested to notice in the advertising pages at the back of the book a title In the Heart of the Rockies by G. A. Henty, which appears to have at least a partially identical plot to W. H. G. Kingston’s book only calls its hero Tom instead of Ralph. I looked to see if the names were pseudonyms of the same writer, and they were not. The Kingston book was published a few years before the Henty book, so I’m wondering if a little plagiarism wasn’t going on.

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Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

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Review 1353: There There

Cover for There ThereThere There is about the life of urban Native Americans. Set in Oakland, it follows numerous characters who plan to attend a powwow. However, we know from the beginning of the novel that some men are planning to rob the powwow.

The novel begins with a Prologue about depictions of Native Americans in popular culture. Then we meet Tony Loneman, a low-level drug dealer who is being compelled by his contacts to help them rob the powwow. Tony was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, so his thinking processes are not great, but when he puts on his regalia to attend the powwow, he sees a dancer in the mirror.

Dene Oxendene makes a presentation to a grant committee to get funding for a project to record the stories of Oakland Native Americans. The powwow is a good place to find them, and it’s not hard to image that Dene is Orange himself.

Next, we meet Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield as a child in the late sixties, taken by her mother to occupy Alcatraz. With her is her sister Jacquie Red Feather, who is raped by a boy named Harvey. In the present day, Opal doesn’t plan to attend the powwow until she learns that her great nephew, Orvil Red Feather, plans to dance. Ultimately, Opal’s entire family, including Jacquie and Jacquie’s children, ends up at the powwow.

Another important character is Edwin Black, a young man who has spent his time since college trolling the internet and gaining weight. When he finds out that his father, Harvey, is a powwow emcee, he gets a job helping organize the powwow.

Although this novel is an angry one, it at least has a hopeful ending. However, it was marred for me by the promise of violence. Of course, that was the way to lend it suspense, but I had the same reaction to it as I did as soon as I saw the gun in Thelma and Louise. Although these people have a tough life, there isn’t any gun violence in it (although there is domestic violence) except for this plot device. I wish Orange had found a different way to hold his stories together.

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Review 1335: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Cover for Killers of the Flower MoonDavid Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon details a past that was once infamous but now almost forgotten except in Osage country. In the 1920’s, the Osage nation in Oklahoma was the richest population per capita in the United States. This phenomena was a result of wise decisions by the tribal leaders during the 19th century land grab by the whites. They voluntarily moved from their homelands, purchasing land in Oklahoma that they thought white men would deem worthless. Then oil was discovered on their property. Because the nation had purchased the property, it couldn’t be taken back.

However, the federal government, in its infinite wisdom, deemed the Osage unfit to handle their own money. So, they appointed white guardians for them. As you can imagine, there were many eager to cheat these people out of their headrights, as were called their shares of the tribal fortune.

The Osage began dying. Grann centers much of his book on Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Ernest Burkhart. One by one, her family started dying. First, her sister, Annie, was found shot in the head. Then her mother, Lizzie, died of a mysterious illness, believed by many to be poison. When her sister Rita’s husband, Bill Smith, tried to investigate, he and his wife and servant girl were killed one night when their house exploded. Other Osage were dying, too, and investigators either came up with nothing or were themselves murdered.

As the FBI was in its infancy and trying to figure out its own jurisdictional powers, new director J. Edgar Hoover decided that the Osage murders, which were becoming infamous as indicators of failure and corruption, would be good ones to solve. So, he sent out a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate.

Grann follows their investigation, and it is a fascinating one. This is a shameful period in our history that should not be forgotten. Grann goes further than the FBI, though, by looking into other deaths that were not investigated.

This book tells a mesmerizing story about a shocking time not so far in the past.

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Day 1211: Days Without End

Cover for Days Without EndI so much enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side when I read it for my Walter Scott Prize project that I was excited to see his Days Without End on the shortlist, too. Again, his protagonist is an Irish immigrant to the U. S., but this time a man, Tom McNulty.

Tom and his best friend, John Cole, enlist in the army sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Their job in Daggsville has disappeared with the miners. That job, which they have had since they were boys, was to dress up like women and dance with the miners.

Tom and John enjoy the army but have some difficult experiences when their unit is sent west to deal with Native Americans. After some brutal experiences, they leave the army, taking with them a little Native American girl they call Winona. Although she is purportedly their servant, they treat her as a daughter.

Tom and John are lovers, and they have adventures that have raised some skepticism among other bloggers, particularly when Tom goes back to cross dressing to entertain miners in Grand Rapids. Some commenters did not believe this act would be accepted so easily during that time. I’m not sure what I think about that, except that Barry presented it in a convincing way.

In Tom, Barry creates an engaging character, and his descriptions of events, many of them horrific, as Tom and John go from serving in the Indian Wars to the Civil War, is masterful. However, none of the other characters in the novel were fully developed, including John.

This lack, and my doubts about the probabilities of some of the situations in which the pair find themselves lessened my enjoyment in this novel. It is certainly worth reading, but I didn’t like it as much as On Canaan’s Side.

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Day 1190: LaRose

Cover for LaRoseSet in 1999 on a North Dakota reservation, LaRose is about how a community, but in particular two families, are affected by a horrible accident. Out hunting a deer on his property, Landreaux Iron kills Dusty, the young son of his best friend, Peter Ravich, when Dusty falls out of a tree as Landreaux takes his shot.

To try to make amends, Landreaux, who has turned to the old ways to throw off addiction and straighten out his life, offers the Ravich family his own young son, LaRose, to raise. Nola Ravich, Dusty’s mother, is eaten up with hatred against the Irons, even Emmaline, who is her half sister. But having LaRose helps. Emmaline, however, can’t be expected to give up her son forever.

LaRose is the latest in a long line of LaRoses, all of whom had a special connection with the spirit world. LaRose finds himself able to help Nola and her neglected daughter, Maggie, even though he is only a small boy.

Another significant character is Romeo, who long ago was Landreaux’s best friend. He bears Landreaux a grudge because of an incident years before. Slowly, he works at his resentment despite the Irons having taken in his son Julius to raise.

Although I occasionally got distracted by how diffuse the plot is and how many directions it goes, in the main I enjoyed this novel. It isn’t nearly as depressing as a lot of Erdrich’s work, and it paints a powerful portrait of these two families. Dealing with forgiveness, of oneself and others, grief, guilt, and other human complexities, it is a strong novel.

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Day 1020: One Thousand White Women

Cover for One Thousand White WomenWhen I first began reading One Thousand White Women, I didn’t think I was going to like it. I was unconvinced, under the circumstances, by its narrator’s facetious tone, and I felt that the way some characters told her their deepest secrets on first meeting was unrealistic. I was also afraid that most of the characters would turn out to be caricatures of real women. However, I eventually changed my mind from my first impressions.

This novel is a completely fictional imagining of what would have happened if an actual event had taken place. During an 1854 peace conference, a Cheyenne chief suggested that the United States trade 1000 white women for horses, reasoning that this assimilation of cultures would ultimately result in understanding between the two. This suggestion was indignantly received, but Fergus’s novel imagines what would have happened if the experiment were tried.

In 1874, May Dodd is one of those women. She has decided to participate to escape from a mental institution to which her family committed her after she had children outside of marriage with a man they found socially inferior. With her on the train west is a colorful group of women, some of them fleeing ruined lives and others hoping for a family.

On the way out, May falls in love with Captain John Bourke, in charge of their escort from Fort Laramie. Unfortunately, Captain Bourke is engaged to be married, and May feels herself pledged to the mission, which has been presented to the women as a patriotic one.

May is chosen as the bride for Little Wolf, a respected chief of the Northern Cheyenne. He is an older man with two current wives, but he is a man May can respect.

Fergus is strongest in his descriptions of the western landscape and life among the Cheyenne. As I mentioned, at first all the women seem like types, but eventually I came to care for most of the major characters, from the timid Martha to the African-American Amazon, Phemie. And the major Cheyenne characters are sympathetically depicted.

Of course, we know what kinds of things were going on in the West at this time (and if you don’t, I recommend Dee Brown’s excellent and affecting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). This novel is a sensitive and powerful depiction of the native American life and struggles of the time.

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Day 965: Strange Company

Cover for Strange CompanyI read about half of Strange Company but decided not to finish it. It just wasn’t the book for me. I thought it might be interesting because it is about Native Americans during the Civil War.

Roderick “Dhu” Walker is a member of a group of the Cherokee Nation called the Pins, for pins they wear under their lapels. They are traditional Cherokees on the side of the Union who begged the government to protect them from the Confederates under the terms of their treaty. The government did nothing, though, and the Confederacy has forced the Pins to fight on its side.

Before a battle in Missouri, some of the Pins decide not to fight but instead to kill Confederate soldiers during the battle. Dhu kills a couple men but mostly because they get in his way while he’s trying to escape. Later, though, he is captured by the Confederates as a deserter.

As a prisoner, Dhu is teamed up with a Union soldier and forced to fight him at the instigation of Captain Gordon Early. This amusement is only stopped by the intervention of the Colonel. When the Union soldier, Ben Lacey, tells Dhu that Early is off to escort a load of gold from Mexico, Dhu talks Ben into escaping with the idea that, along with some other Cherokees, they’ll intercept the shipment.

The novel moves along fast enough but does little else. There seems to be no idea of characterization. Sentences are short and choppy. Although the writing is grammatical, it is not polished by any means. Any metaphors are clichés. In short, the novel is not very good. If you are interested in reading a Western, you’ll be much better off with one of the “Related Posts” at the bottom of this post.

Disclosure: This eBook was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 810: The Round House

Cover for The Round HouseThe Round House looks back to 1988, to traumatic events in the life of 13-year-old Joe Coutts and his family. Joe has had a comfortable life for a kid living on the reservation. His father is a tribal judge, and his mother is a social worker. They live in a homey, not fancy house, and his mother keeps a beautiful flower and vegetable garden.

Joe is enjoying the summer as any 13-year-old might, sometimes running around with his friends, sometimes helping out at home. One Sunday he is digging out saplings that have worked their way into the foundation of their house. His mother has run out to the office to pick up a file. She is usually very punctual, but he and his father realize she has not returned at her usual time. The two decide to go get her.

They pass her coming home, but it is not until they arrive home that they discover something horrible has happened. Joe’s mother has been raped and brutally beaten. They rush her to the hospital.

When the police come, she will not talk about what happened except for the broadest outlines. She was kidnapped from the old ceremonial Round House and taken somewhere else to be assaulted. She escaped after her attacker doused her with gasoline and went for matches. After she returns from the hospital, she retreats to her room.

Because of complicated laws related to who has jurisdiction over what type of crimes and where they are committed, Joe’s father begins trying to sort out how a prosecution could be pursued when they find the rapist. This task is made more difficult by the insistence of Joe’s mother that she doesn’t know where she was when she was raped. Joe himself starts looking for evidence of who could have committed the crime.

Like most of Erdrich’s novels set on the reservation, this novel is as much about heartbreaking experiences as anything else. Erdrich points out in the Afterword that up to 1/3 of Native American women are raped on the reservation, mostly by men who are not Native American. She says that this number is almost certainly an understatement, because Native American women don’t want to report rape. Many of these incidents cannot be prosecuted because of jurisdictional problems.

There were a few things that bothered me about this story, particularly that Joe doesn’t connect some money he finds near the scene of the crime with the crime or that he and his friends drink some beer they find even though they think it is connected with the crime and could be a clue. Even at 13 and in 1988, they had to have watched more crime shows than that.

In general, though, this is compelling reading, about the change in Joe’s family, about how fast he is forced to grow up, about the limitations of justice on the reservation.

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