The Reluctant Pilgrim

The Reluctant Pilgrim: A Skeptic’s Journey into Native Mysteries by Roger Welsch
(University of Nebraska Press, 2014)

“What is going on with genial, folksy Roger Welsch?” readers may ask about his most recent publication, The Reluctant Pilgrim: A Skeptic’s Journey into Native Mysteries.  Nationally known for his “Postcards from Nebraska” segments that aired for thirteen years on the CBS Good Morning show, the overall clad writer seems to have departed from his typical, humorous take on rural life, both past and present. That is what readers have come to expect from one of Nebraska’s most prolific writers. Welsch’s earliest publications were collections of often humorous folktales:  A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore (1984), Shingling the Fog and Other Plains Lies (1986), Catfish at the Pump: Humor and the Frontier (1986), and Mister, You Got Yourself a Horse: Tales of Old-Time Horse Trading (1987). Lately, he has turned to more personal stories, such as It’s Not the End of the World, But You Can See It From Here (1990) Love, Sex, and Tractors (2000), Everything I Know About Women, I Learned From My Tractor (2002); Ode to the Outhouse (2013),  A Life with Dogs (2004), Weed’em and Reap (2006),  and Golden Years My Ass:, Adventures in Geriatric Indignity (2010) . During his career, Welsch, an anthropologist and folklorist, has published “forty-some-odd books” (a pun the author must have enjoyed).

 The Reluctant Pilgrim may be a giant leap for some of his fans, many of whom consider Welsch a cross between Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Devotees, however, will not be surprised, for he has long had strong ties with the Omaha, Pawnee, and Lakota. An adopted member of the Omaha and Lakota tribes, he has published numerous works dealing with Native subjects, like Omaha Tribal Myths and Trickster Tales (1991); Touching the Fire: Buffalo Dancers, the Sky Bundle, and Other Tales (1992); Uncle Smoke Stories: Nehawka Tale of Coyote the Trickster  (1994); and Embracing Frybread: Confession of a Wannabee (2012). In addition, Welsch and his wife Linda have not only adopted an Omaha child, but after a lengthy battle, Welsch helped the Pawnee reclaim hundreds of human remains from the Nebraska State Historical Society and allowed the tribe to bury them on his land. Moreover, they have also returned their home and real estate holdings, once Pawnee lands, to the Pawnee nation.

So, when Welsch shares his spiritual journey into the Great Mysterious, the Lakota phrase for God, he does so from personal experience. He explains, “my associations with Native American communities have given me the permission, means, and access to things not available to those who have not had such associations”(xi). The narratives in this book describe mystical experiences that have occurred in his life, experiences that he explains could happen to anyone if he or she is open to “a world of wonder and awe” (xii). He explained in a 1998 promo for CBS, “I like my six minutes to say something about the extraordinary nature of ordinary people, who I believe are the backbone of this country.” The Reluctant Pilgrim, in fact, expands on the extraordinary in ordinary people, but this time in a spiritual sense.

“Something Is Going on,” Welsch reiterates throughout this book as he describes the mysteries that he has encountered throughout his life, such as the accumulation of round stones given to him by far-flung acquaintances, the unsuccessful search for a bison skull only to stumble upon an ancient one while skinny-dipping in his own river, and the gift of the sacred bald eagle feather where he learns that you receive by giving. A storyteller in the best Native tradition, Welsch leads us through the many mystic events in his life with honesty and candor.

Photo by Eric Gregory

Raised in the German Lutheran church, Welsch has come to challenge zealots who “see nothing at odds with what the panel of old men ruling their church tell its flock to see” and “accept sacred texts without wonder or question” (126). Welsch believes that instead of dogma and rigidity, we should embrace questions. “The excitement of life and the truth of what is beyond lie in questions, not in answers” (249). As his Native friends have explained to him, “the white man is sadly educated out of seeing and appreciating the mysteries of life flowing constantly around him” (251). He believes that people have be experiencing the Great Mysterious throughout history and that “almost anyone can have a woableza, an awakening or realization, if they only listen” (169).

From a writer’s point of view, what impresses me most about The Reluctant Pilgrim is Welsch’s courage in revealing his very personal experiences and strong beliefs, some with which his readers may not agree. “You are really going to think I am crazy when I tell you this one,” he admits in “The Lesson of the Dolman” (63). Later, in “Lessons from Real Shock and Awe,” he concedes, ” I am already telling more about my spiritual experiences than I ever thought I would reveal to people outside my family and direct circle of friends” (133). This is not simply a tell-all airing of laundry like many recent bestselling works of nonfiction but lessons we can learn if we are receptive to mystic experience, to the belief that Something Is Going On. Welsch’s vulnerability makes this one of the bravest books I have ever read. From now on, whenever I find myself  censuring my own writing for fear of revealing too much of myself, I will remember Roger.

P.S. For a thorough and entertaining article on Roger Welch, check out “Author, Humorist, Folklorist Roger Welsch Tells the Stories of the American Soul and Soil.”

Orphan Train: A Novel

Orphan Train: A Novel
by Christina Baker Kline
(HarperCollins, 2013)

As a Great Plains scholar, I have always been intrigued by the cultural phenomena of orphan trains, the altruistic (but naive) system created to provide western homes for eastern orphans. My current research into the history of Kearney County, Nebraska, piqued my interest even further when I came across an article in the July 11, 1907, edition of the Minden Courier announcing that the Children’s Aid Society of New York would be in town the following month with orphans between the ages of two and fourteen who would be needing homes. The orphans arrived on August 29, but there were only eight children and thirty-six applicants! All of the children were “placed out,” with one family taking two brothers, ages nine and eleven, but, sadly, another eleven year old brother, probably a twin, was chosen by another family, separating the siblings. Surprisingly, the names of the orphan children as well as the Minden and Axtell families who took the children were listed in the paper. History becomes more real and more compelling when it happens in one’s home town.

My next step was to do more research, so I read The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America, a scholarly, nonfiction work by Marilyn Irvin Holt and published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1992. I discovered that  the overpopulation of poor men, women, and, especially, children in urban centers, was overwhelming the state institutions, city and county poor farms, pauper jails, and orphanages. Even the private and charitable organizations could do little to alleviate the crisis. On the other hand, the rural western states were suffering from a labor shortage. Charles Loring Brace of New York City came up with a solution; sending poor children to the West would solve both problems. The reason children were selected for labor rather than adults was that reformers believed young children could be saved from their immoral environmental influences if removed before they were completely corrupted. As a result, Holt states that the Children’s Aid Society relocated over 200,000 children to homes in the West while many other charitable organizations followed Brace’s lead (3).

Indenturing or apprenticing young boys and girls had been long practiced in the United States. Even before Kansas became a state, the territorial legislature passed a law that allowed orphans and the “destitute” to be bound over as indentured servants. Although children were to be given the right to a basic education, if a girl or boy was killed in the process of “correcting” the child, as with slaveholding laws, the adults had the right to be acquitted (33).

Because of my interest in the subject, when Christina Baker Kline published Orphan Train: A Novel, I purchased it immediately. However, it perched on the top of on my pile of “to read” books until several neighbors decided to organize a book club, and I said, “I know exactly the book we should begin with!” Then, I worried, “What if no one likes it?” When one of my friends said that she had started it and could not put it down, I was relieved. When I began it, I could not put it down either and finished it in one day. The women in our book club also enjoyed it, and we had a long, lively, and interesting discussion about the novel.

Orphan Train is story of Molly Ayer, a seventeen-year-old girl with a Penobscot Indian father and a white mother, who is shuttled from one foster family to the next after her father is killed in a car wreck and her mother is incarcerated. Rebellious and unmoored, Molly isolates herself because she “knows from experience that tough and weird is preferable to pathetic and vulnerable, and she wears her Goth persona like armor” (4). When the librarian catches her stealing a ragged copy of Jane Eyre, she has to either spend time in “Juvie” or do community service. Her boyfriend, Jack, convinces her that she does not want a criminal record and finagles a job for her to help Vivian Daly, a rich, ninety-one-year-old woman, clean out her attic. The novel flashes back and forth between 2011, which focuses on Molly’s and Vivian’s present life, and 1929-1943, which flashes back to recount Vivian’s story.

Many connections begin to unite the young girl and the old lady. Both have necklaces that connect them to their lost families, both are orphaned at about the same age, both have dead fathers and mothers in public institutions, both are reluctant to reveal their pasts, and both experience heartache and rejection as they are reassigned from home to home, only wanted for what they can add to each family’s economics. They feel unloved and unwanted. Molly describes how both women emotionally shield themselves: “She has learned that she can control her emotions by thinking of her chest cavity as an enormous box with a chain lock. She opens the box and puts any stray, unmanageable feelings, any wayward sadness or regret, and clamps it shut” (8).

Vivian, born Niamh Power in Ireland, immigrates to the United States with her family in 1927 because of poverty and family disagreements, but they fare little better in New York City because of her father’s drinking. When a tenement fire kills her family, she is taken in by the Children’s Aid Society, who put her on the next train headed west. Because of her older age, nine, her red hair, and her Irish heritage, Niamh’s prospects do not look promising, but the matron tells her and the rest of the orphans, “They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life” (29). This reassurance is an ironic foreshadowing of what will await most of the children, especially Niamh and her new friend Hans, when they are placed out. Vivian’s story realistically parallels that of many orphans who are placed out in the West as she moves from one unhappy experience to another, her life much like the foster families that Molly has encountered.

Author photo by Karin Diana

Again, as with All the Light We Cannot See, what interested me most as a writer was the point of view and structure. Like Doerr, Kline chooses to narrate both stories simultaneously; however, she uses the third person in telling Molly’s story and the contemporary events, but she switches to first person in flashing back to Vivian’s childhood. Because both plot lines are occurring simultaneously in Doerr’s novel, he chooses to stick with third person for both protagonists. Perhaps the reason for this is that Doerr has two main characters while Kline focuses mostly on Vivian, using Molly as a vehicle to reveal the old lady’s past and connect her to the present. The book is ABOUT orphan train participants and their histories, not about the problems in today’s foster care system, although clearly Kline would like us to find parallels.

To keep the reader on track, Kline wisely dates each of the chapters as well as changing the points of view. She discusses this in an interview with Roxana Robinson in the “P.S.” afterward in my edition of the book. “The present day story in Orphan Train unfolds over several months and the historical section spans twenty-three years, from 1929-1943. It took some time to figure out how to balance the sections so that they complemented each other. . . It was complicated!” (7). As an author, I can appreciate the literary logistics required to weave the various plot threads together to make a coherent whole. It is complicated!

Orphan Train is a compelling read, well written, and historically accurate. The characters are well-drawn and empathetic, and readers will be content with the ending, which is much like Kent Haruf’s in Plainsong. In both novels, a new type of family prepares to join together over a home-cooked meal with the young female protagonist’s future still in question. As much as I enjoyed the book, however, I feel that Kline waited too long in the book to bring in the element of the oral history Molly collects from Vivian for her American History assignment. All along, I am wondering when Kline is going to connect the two narratives, to give the reader a reason for revealing Vivian’s story, but she only introduces this plot device about midpoint in the book. Although Molly is beginning to have a connection with the lady, “I like her. She’s kind of cool,” (128), she still doesn’t understand the importance of the memorabilia in the old lady’s attic while the reader already knows much of Vivian’s story. Perhaps Kline is keeping the story from Molly to show how Vivian has locked her feelings away, too, only hers are in boxes in the attic. Moreover, Molly only chooses Vivian as the subject of her report because she knows no one else and because “”she’s really, really old. . . . Maybe it will be a stretch to find drama in Vivian’s portage–a happy, stable life does not an interesting story make, right?” (132).  Irony again.

In the novel’s “Acknowledgements,” Kline credits a college assignment on portaging given by her own mother for a women’s studies class as “the missing strand needed to weave my book together” (277).  The interview questions are very appropriate for both Vivian’s and Molly’s lives: “What did you choose to bring with you to the next place? What did you leave behind? What insights did you gain about what’s important?” (130).  Although Kline does successfully integrate this theme into the details of the novel, it is just too contrived for me at this late point, too deus ex machina. I wish she would had worked it in more smoothly.

I think this novel would be very teachable for high school students and might be an excellent companion to an American History unit on immigration in America.

Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

 I am one of those readers who, when I discover an author I admire, reads every book that person has ever written. That is what I have done with Haruf. I have been teaching Plainsong, the first in his Holt, Colorado, series of books since it came out in 2000, and every semester when I re-read it and share it with my students, I find something more to admire. I enjoyed the second book, Eventide (2005) because it continued the story of the McPheron brothers and their relationship with the young, single mother, Victoria Roubideau, but I was disappointed at first with Benediction (2014). It did not continue the stories of my favorite Haruf characters, and it was about a man dying of cancer as well as the individual sufferings of many of the other characters. There was very little of Haruf’s subtle humor that I enjoyed in his other works, and I thought to myself, “This book is really depressing.”  The hardest parts to read were the specific details of Dad Lewis’s dying, and Mary’s crying and rocking herself afterward, saying, “I am not ready! I thought I was. But I am not ready! Not yet!” (244). However, when I discovered that Haruf, too, was dying of lung cancer, I reread the book and felt a stronger empathy with Dad Lewis and his wife Mary. In Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Scott Walker explains that “life comes down to some simple things,” and it is “comforting to have such stories told to us with style, the way a writer has found to an individual expression of a personal truth”(127). Writing not only helps an author face reality and come to terms with it, but it also guides readers in understanding their own struggles. Dying is one of those personal truths we all must deal with some day, and Haruf’s story is comforting. A couple of days before his death, Dad tells Mary, “I’m tired. I want to go on. I need to let you be. So you can have some peace and rest” (225). That night, he wakes and see his mother, father, and others who have already died sitting in his bedroom. They have come to see him before he dies and reassure him, “We’ll be waiting for you” (226). However, Haruf does not become maudlin here, for when Dad asks, “Where is it you’re waiting for me?” his mother replies, “Oh, you know . . . Don’t be worried” (227).

When I heard that Kent Haruf had written one final book as he was dying, I purchased it as soon as it became available. Having read several articles about Our Souls at Night, I knew what to expect and what not to expect. Neither my beloved McPheron brothers nor Victoria, Maggie, or Guthrie would be in this novel, and the plot would center around two new characters, a widow and a widower, both seventy years old and lonely. Addie Moore decides to disregard what the people in the small, rural town of Holt will say and approaches Louis Waters with a proposition. “We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk” (5). Although the novel is not a literal account of the Haruf marriage, Jennifer Maloney explains in her Wall Street Journal article “Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter” (15 May 2015) that the novel is Haruf and his wife’s love story, for their favorite times were lying together in bed at night and talking. Cathy Haruf told Maloney, “We would lie there and hold hands and talk. There wasn’t anything we never discussed.”

So Addie and Louis decide to spend their nights together. Of course, nothing can ever be that easy, and the couple faces censure not only from many of the townspeople but also from their grown children. For all of the book’s simplicity, not only in style and diction but also in plot structure, Our Souls at Night has amazing character development. Within a few short scenes, most often through conversations between Addie and Louis about their past lives while lying together in bed at night, I began to care deeply about these two characters and felt a strong empathy with them. Haruf’s genius as a writer is to take ordinary people living ordinary lives and make them extraordinary.

from Kent Haruf’s Facebook Timeline

STOP HERE if you haven’t read the novel, and you don’t want to know how the story ends; however, it is something I just have to write about. You can come back and read it later and tell me if you agree or disagree!

For me, endings are the hardest part of writing, whether it is fiction, nonfiction, or even a scholarly article. Not only is it the point or the impression that the writer wants to emphasize, but it must also satisfy readers by logically evolving from events in the plot as well as the characters’ development. It must have, as my old professor Dr. Gundy reiterated, MAGNITUDE. Even more important, I think, a good ending must have an emotional impact on the reader (or in the case of a scholarly work, intellectual impact).

Throughout Our Souls at Night, Addie Moore is adamant that she no longer cares about what the people of Holt think about her. “I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long–all my life. I’m not going to live that way any more” (8). When gossip spreads throughout the town about their relationship, Addie decides to jolt the townspeople even more when she suggests to Louis that they go downtown on the busiest day of the week, walk arm in arm down main street in broad daylight, and have lunch together at the Holt Cafe. Moreover, they select a table in the middle of the room, and sit by side, holding hands. At this point in the narrative, I am applauding the couple, pleased that they are leading their lives for themselves, not for others. Even when Louis’s daughter hears about it and protests, they remain steadfast in their unusual relationship. Holly is embarassed, and she tells Louis that he is acting like a teenager. When he discusses her failed relationships, she retorts, “Let me be, Daddy. I’ll live my own life.” Louis replies, “That goes for both of us” (53). At this point in the narrative, I am applauding the couple, pleased that they are leading their lives for themselves, not for others.

Then, Addie’s son and his wife separate, and Gene brings six-year-old Jamie to spend the summer with his grandmother. For a while, Addie and Louis sleep in their separate houses until Jamie forms a strong bond with Louis, who shows him some baby mice, lets him help with chores and odd jobs, finds him a dog, and teaches him to play ball. For the first time, it appears, Jamie has a stable, happy life, and Addie and Louis resume their sleeping arrangements and even go camping together. The three form a very close bond, and Jamie is the happiest he has ever been in his young life.

However, when Gene finds out about his mother’s nighttime relationship, he is furious, insulting Louis about his past life, and assuming that he is a dirty old man who is after his mother’s money. When Gene and his wife try to work problems out in their marriage, they take Jamie back home with them, and Louis and Addie continue to enjoy their simple times together. Suddenly, Gene returns to Holt and demands that the two stop seeing each other, and that Jamie should never see Louis again. Worse, when Addie calls, Gene refuses to let her talk to Jamie, and she can hear her grandson sobbing in the background. When she tries to call him herself, he begins crying, saying he will be punished if her talks with her. Addie is heartbroken, and it changes her relationship with Louis. Addie confides in Louis, “I can’t so this any more, she said. . . . I have to have contact and some kind of life with my grandson. He is the only one left to me. My son and his wife mean little to me now. That is all broken. I don’t think they or I will ever get over it. But I still want my grandson. This summer made that clear.” Louis understands, knowing the love between Jamie and his grandmother. “He’ll outlive me,” Addie explains. “He’ll be with me when I die.” (166).

Shortly after they separate, Addie falls and breaks her hip, Gene has her taken to a hospital in Denver, and then moved into an assisted living home in his town. Gene still forbids Louis from seeing his mother, and she acquiesces. Jamie visits frequently, especially when his parents resume arguing and yelling, and Addie knows that she has made the right decision to be nearby for her grandson. However, she is still so lonely. Finally, Addie calls Louis, needing to talk to someone in the night, “For as long as we can. For as long as it lasts.” Haruf ends with the image of Addie looking out the window and seeing her reflection in the glass and “the dark behind it” (179).

This was not the conclusion that I wanted! In Plainsong,  Haruf ends the novel on Memorial Day with the major characters, now an unconventional family, gathering for supper. Although not all of the individual problems have been solved, the scene is peaceful, and the future promising. Not so in Our Souls at Night. I wanted Addie to stay with Louis so that she, too, could have peace and comfort. As she had done her whole life, she sacrifices her happiness to provide stability for her family.

The ending haunted me, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was the only honest way that Haruf could have finished the story. He foreshadows the ending with the death of Addie’s friend, Ruth. Addie makes all of the arrangements, and only a few people attend her funeral.  She has no family, only a distant niece who inherits everything, sells Ruth’s house, and does not want her aunt’s ashes. She and Louis scatter the ashes in Ruth’s back yard. Ruth’s death has a strong impact on Addie, who asks Louis, “What is going to happen to us?” (109).  As close as Addie is to Louis, he is not family, and in the end, as the old proverb goes, “blood is thicker than water.” If Addie had returned to Holt and Louis, and if Louis had preceded her in death, her fate would have been similar to Ruth’s–neighbors arranging her funeral and no one caring about her ashes or final resting place.

More important, however, is that Addie will provide Jamie with the love and stability he needs, and he will love and care for her until she dies. If I had to make a choice between doing what was best for me or what was best for my children or grandchildren, I would not hesitate either. Haruf chose a real-life ending, not a story-book one, and I admire him for that.

All the Light We Cannot See

  All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

(Scribner, 2014)

Because All the Light We Cannot See has been on so many “top ten” lists for 2014, like the New York Times Book Review, Powell’s Books, and Goodreads, because Anthony Doerr has won so many awards, not to mention the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, and because it is historical fiction, when I saw this book for sale at my book store, I grabbed it. Even though I have a stack of “must read” books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves, I started on it immediately. Although the structure was slightly confusing at first and the characters a little slow to develop, once the momentum picked up, I was hooked and finished it in three sittings.

The story is set in 1944 during World War II in the coastal town of St. Malo, France, as the United States Air Force begins bombing the city which is being occupied by the Nazis. The story then flashes back to 1934, and Doerr introduces us to his two main characters.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is a six-year-old blind girl being raised by her father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. For her birthdays, he carves her intricate, wooden puzzles within which he hides  gifts.  When the Nazis overrun Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to St.Malo to take refuge with an eccentric uncle and his long-time housekeeper, one of the leaders of the French Resistance. Meanwhile, Werner Pfennig, a seven-year-old orphan boy, is being raised with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage in a German mining town. White-haired and blue-eyed, he earns a chance to attend an elite Nazi military school because of his math skills and his genius for working with radios, saving him from a life preordained for the mines like his father, killed in a mining accident. Werner, too, winds up in St. Malo where he is ferreting out and helping destroy Resistance forces.  Doerr adds an ailing arch-villain, Sergent van Rumpel, who closes in on Marie-Laure, intent on finding the “Sea of Flames,” a blue diamond with a red center that supposedly grants immortality to its owner–but also misfortune. The reader knows that the lives of these two protagonists will  intertwine sooner or later and that van Rumple will be a catalyst. The suspense lies, of course, in how the connections will play out and what will be the result. However compelling the plot, the strength of the novel lies in Doerr’s focus on the inner struggles and maturation of the characters as they strive to overcome their personal handicaps, blindness and poverty, rather than on the military aspects of the war.

The historical elements of the novel interested me. Although the Siege of St. Malo, France, is not a well-known battle of World War II, this historic, walled city was nearly destroyed because of a false report that thousands of Germans were occupying the city. As a result, according to Phillip Beck in the Journal for Historical Review (Winter 1981), “A ring of U.S. mortars showered incendiary shells on the magnificent granite houses, which contained much fine paneling and oak staircases as well as antique furniture and porcelain; zealously guarded by successive generations. Thirty thousand valuable books and manuscripts were lost in the burning of the library and the paper ashes were blown miles out to sea. Of the 865 buildings within the walls only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.” As the story begins, both Marie-Laure and Werner are enduring the bombing and burning of St. Malo in separate buildings, each confronting imminent death.

I was particularly drawn to the Nazi youth training schools like the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta that Werner attended and the influence that it had on spreading racial and political propaganda and in teaching students to love Hitler and to obey to state authority. The National Political Institutes of Education describes the goal of these German schools: to raise a new generation for the political, military, and administrative leadership of the Nazi state. “Thirty such schools, under the direct supervision of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel), were created by 1941 with over 6,000 students enrolled. Military-style disciple dominated the school where only “racially flawless” boys were admitted after eight days of entrance examinations. Because of the grueling and competitive training, one fifth of all cadets did not succeed, many cause of accidents incurred during training, like the disastrous beating of the “weak,” gentle Frederich. Werner is torn between his desire to avoid being sent to a life underground or to follow his conscience as did his friend Frederich, whose life was destroyed because of his refusal to submit. “Six more times he hears Rodel swing and the hose whistle and the strangely dead smack of the rubber striking Frederich’s hands, shoulders and face. . . . As some point the beating stops. Frederich is facedown in the snow.” Throughout the novel, Werner struggles to make the right choices. In this case, he does not. He “opens his mouth but closes it again; he drowns; he shuts his eyes, his mind” (194). Werner wants to help his friend, but his will to survive overrides his morality.

One intriguing event chronicled in the novel was the rounding up of all French men between the ages of fifteen and sixty and imprisoning them in an historic fort, Fort National. As Beck explains, the fort was in the line of fire between the Americans and the Germans, and eighteen hostages were killed or mortally wounded. Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, is one of the men imprisoned, leaving the blind girl  to fend for herself in the war-torn city while being stalked by van Rumpel. After surviving five days alone with little food or water, Marie-Laure finally decides to confront her predator. She “reaches beneath the bench and locates the knife. She crawls along the floor to the top of the seven-rung ladder and sits with her feet dangling and the diamond inside the house in her pocket and the knife in her fist. She says, ‘Come and get me'” (452).

Anthony Doerr by Shauna Doerr (Permission of Simon & Schuster)

Anthony Doerr by Shauna Doerr (By permission of Simon & Schuster)

For any writer, trying to figure out how to tell one’s story is the greatest challenge. Whose viewpoint should be used? Should it be first person limited or third person omniscient? Or, how about multiple perspectives, one of the more popular options in today’s literature? And where does one start? At the beginning, in media res, or at the end? The choices Doerr makes to begin at the end and tell the story from multiple viewpoints works perfectly because it not only creates suspense, but it also helps the reader understand the story from opposing sides,  the French civilians and the German soldiers.

At first the tetter-totter structure of the flashbacks unsettled me, and my teacher instinct was to sticky tab each one and keep track of the time sequence. However, I decided to let the plot line sort itself out and merged myself into the reading flow. Doeer begins the narrative in the present with the bombing of St.Malo and with most of the major characters congregated in the city. He then flashes back ten years to give us background into their lives leading up to this intersection. Here is how the time sequence of the chapters plays out: (Zero) 7 August 1944; (One) 1934; (Two) 8 August 1944; (Three) June 1940; (Four) 8 August 1944; (Five) January 1941; (Six) 9 August 1944; (Seven) August 1942; (Eight) 9 August 1944; (Nine) May 1944, 7 August 1944; (Ten) 12 August 1944; (Eleven) 1945; (Twelve) 1974; and(Thirteen) 2014. The narrative structure is all very logical and sequential, and I had no trouble switching back and forth in time as well as between character viewpoints. Trying to determine exactly how much of the story to reveal and in what order is tricky to pull off, but Doerr succeeds masterfully. Although most book reviewers laud Doerr’s beautiful images and prose, which I admire also, few mention his intricate, structural tour-de-force.
As for classroom applicability, I think All the Light We Cannot See would be appropriate and enjoyable for high school students after a mini lessons on flashbacks and multiple viewpoints. And if it could be coordinated with the study of World War II in the students’ American History class, it would be a great book to teach collaboratively. A joint final project (maybe a multigenre research paper?) would  incorporate writing across the curriculum and encourage critical thinking, especially synthesis and the newest level, creating. Check it out!





The Long Knives Are Crying

The Long Knives Are Crying by Joseph M. Marshall III
(Fulcrum, 2008)

I first became acquainted with the work of Joseph Marshall through his collection of short stories and essays in The Dance House: Stories from Rosebud. I used it successfully as a mentor text for several years in my freshmen composition courses because of his flowing narrative style, his compelling characterizations, and his imagistic and sensory language. That my students were learning about the history and culture of the Lakota Sioux was a bonus. When Marshall published The Journey of Crazy Horse in 2004, I began teaching it in my general studies literature courses. Because I was teaching both of his books, I asked the author if he would come to our campus, visit my classes, and give readings around the community. He graciously agreed, and I put him to work! My favorite story about his visit was his presentation to a combined English and History class  late one afternoon. Students were sitting in desks and on the floor and standing against three walls. He held them mesmerized by his stories until about ten minutes past dismissal time when, unfortunately, I had to interrupt. What was unusual was that not one student zipped up a backpack or looked at a watch when the time for the class to end approached! I was amazed. That never happened in my classes!

Since then, I have taught several of his works, including the first in his trilogy of Lakota Westerns told from a Sioux perspective, Hundred in the Hand,  about the Fetterman Fight where Crazy Horse emerged as a strong leader. I have been teaching the second novel in the series, The Long Knives Are Crying, an account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, for several semesters now. Both novels are frame stories narrated in the voice of a fictional character, John Richard Cloud.

The frame story in The Long Knives Are Crying begins in 1920, and Cloud, now an  eighty-one year old grandfather, is traveling with his two daughters and his grandson Justin, a World War I veteran, to revisit the site of the Greasy Grass fight where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors defeated Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. As the old warrior stands by the monument on Last Stand Ridge, memories overwhelm him. “The last time he stood here, dead soldiers and dead horses were scattered on the dry, dusty slope” (6). His family want to hear about the battle, and he replies, “This is a good day for remembering” (10). The narrative flashes back to November 1875 and the winter camp of Crazy Horse. Cloud, his wife, Sweetwater Woman, and their daughter, Song, where among the twenty lodges in Crazy Horse’s camp.

The first half of the novel describes nine Sioux bands gathering at Sitting Bull’s request to discuss the problem of white invasion into Sioux Territory. A messenger tells Crazy Horse’s band, “I invite all who have like minds and hearts to gather so that we may talk. In the old days, our old ones talked about what lay in their path. That is what we must do now, because if we allow the white men to take our lands from us,  the thing that lies in our path now is the end of our ways. The white men have already done too much damage” (18). As the group travels to join the other bands, Marshall describes the daily life of the Sioux, their customs, and their legends. In addition, he adds several scenes of conflict and suspense, such as  when Song is kidnapped by a Crow warrior seeking revenge, when Cloud and Crazy Horse confront two grizzly bears, and when hunters go in search of a small herd of the last buffalo to feed their families. Interspersed within the story and  told in the point of view of generals Sherman, Sheridan, and Crook as well as some soldiers, are scenes from the army perspective.

Interestingly, another third of the book focuses on the gathering of Sioux and Cheyenne (nearly four hundred lodges with two thousand people and four thousand horses), a sun dance, and a detailed account of the Battle of the Rosebud, or the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother, when Crazy Horse leads an attack on General Crook. This decisive battle plays an important role in the later defeat of Custer because it undermines the three-pronged “hammer and anvil” attack planned by General Sheridan involving Colonel Gibbon from the west, General Terry and Custer from the East, and General Crook advancing north from Wyoming. Although the Sioux withdraw after a prolonged fight, Crook retreats and would play no role in the Little Bighorn battle.

What surprised me about this novel was that the actual battle with Custer and Reno, called the Battle of the Greasy Grass by the Sioux and Cheyenne, occupies only seventy-three pages of the 441-page novel. However, by this point in the narrative, I had become emotionally connected with many of the characters, including the fictional Cloud and his family, and the surprise attack by the Long Knives (cavalry) on the encampment on the Greasy Grass River that begins the engagement compelled me to continue late into the night to reach the ending.  I jokingly told told my husband, “I am going to stay up and see what happens to Custer.” That was another surprise, but you will have to read the book to discover it for yourself!

Joe MarshallCSC_4351“Write about what you know” is the premier advice from professional writers, and one of the skills I admire most about Marshall’s writing is his ability to infuse his own experiences into his fiction. First, it is obvious that Marshall knows and admires horses. I have owned, ridden, and trained horses all of my life, and he is able to include even the subtlest details about a horse’s habits and training, adding verisimilitude to these scenes. In one scene, Cloud and Crazy Horse decide to exercise their “buffalo runners,” horses especially trained for hunting. Since the hunters would be using both hands to shoot arrows into the bison at close range, such horses needed to respond only with leg and weight cues. “The horses flew over the prairies as the riders let them stretch out and run, guided only by an occasional shift of weight with a lean to the right or left. . . . Eventually, Cloud and Crazy Horse resumed a straight-up posture and the horses began to slow down until they gradually settled into a high lope” (139). Throughout the novel, the Sioux use the keen senses of sound and smell of their horses to alert them of danger. “Yellow Wolf suddenly stiffened and pointed to the horses, only a few paces away. All of them were peering north, their eyes forward and their nostrils flared”(257). Marshall’s knowledge of horses reverberates throughout the story.

An expert not only in crafting traditional Sioux bows and arrows but also an accomplished archer, Marshall uses this knowledge to make the hunting and battle scenes in the novel vivid and realistic. In one scene, Cloud, his family, and some friends are returning from paying tribute to their ancestors when they are ambushed. Cloud climbs to where he thinks the shots originated and attempts to lure the shooter into firing again.  He decides to play a game with arrows that his grandfather taught him. Lying on his back in the brush, he places one arrow on the string  “and two others he fit into the crook of his bent fingers holding the bow.  . . .  The game was to launch three arrows into the air, one after the other, and have the third in the air before the first came back to the earth” (112). The trick not only works, but one of the arrows kills an enemy. Later, when Little Bird gives Cloud a “sinew-back hunting bow made our of chokecherry wood” and a “bow case and quiver made from the tanned hide of a mountain lion,” Marshall describes how the bow is constructed. “The sinew was applied evenly, covering the entire back of the bow, giving the weapon a slight backward curve because the sinew had shrunk as it dried. The sinew backing also added strength to the bow. It was longer than his other hunting bows, and the center, the handle, was wrapped with tanned otter hide with the hair side out, meaning the arrow would fly from the bow without the slightest whisper of noise to alert the game” (149).  All of the scenes including bows and arrows are written with the same exactitude.

However, the mental and emotional realism of battle and its toll on the warriors stands out the most significantly. A Marine with combat experience, Marshall not only understands battlefield conditions and weaponry but also what it feels like to fight in a battle, to fire at an enemy and to be fired upon, and to face death, both his own and that of others. Marshall describes the Girl Who Saved Her Brother as she rides into the battlefield to rescue him: “In one of those incongruous moments in the midst of combat, although she knew the distance she had to cover was about a hundred long paces, she didn’t seem to be getting closer. Buffalo Calf Road instinctively leaned low over the withers of her horse, her fingers curled around the neck rope and mane with a death grip, and the rifle in her right hand. She shouted at the horse and kicked him mercilessly to coax more speed. Strangely, she could not hear herself shout, or any other noise for that matter” (309). Later, Little Feather, or Bug, who had been a spy for the army, suddenly matures and finds his place within the tribe. “Strangely, Little Feather did not hear the thunderous crack of his rifle, but he did feel it slam into his shoulder. Whether it had been a hit or a miss, he did not know.  He was not brash enough to think that he had suddenly become a warrior, a full-fledged fighting man, but he had become a defender of the people” (386). Packed with sensory details, the episodic scenes not only depict the chaos of battle but the physical and emotional extremes of the participants.

Marshall, too, realistically portrays the psychological aftermath of war. After the Battle of the Rosebud, the Sioux gather up the wounded and dead and prepare to return to the village. “The mood was one of relief more so than elation. In the minds of most of the warriors, they had won the day, but it had worn them down physically and emotionally. Many sat or reclined, simply resting and trying to ignore the lingering sights and sounds of battle. Conversation was at a minimum. Eyes stared ahead to some distant point, searching for peace and solace, not seeing the rock or the brush they seemed to be looking at” (325). Even after the victory over the Seventh Cavalry, the warriors do not celebrate but cleanse themselves in sweat lodge ceremonies. Many realize, just as the modern reader does, that this is not the end but the beginning of the end of the traditional Sioux way of life.

The Long Knives Are Crying does not conclude, however, on such an emotionally tragic note. Cloud tells his children that stories are how the Lakota keep going. “We cannot fight with guns anymore, but we can still be a strong people if we remember our stories. That is how we remember where we came from, and that is how we know who we are” (438). That is advice for all writers to remember.

Citizens Creek

Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

When I read that Lalita Tademy’s book, Cane River, was a previous Oprah Book Club Pick and a New York Times Best Seller, I had my doubts about the applicability of this novel as a “serious” work of literature appropriate for teaching in my university American Literature classes. I should not have prejudged it. I cannot remember when I have read a book that I did not want to end! Not only is it historical fiction, my favorite genre, but it is about the American West, one of my areas of specialization. I discovered that the protagonist was based the life of an historical Black Creek, who played a strong role in both African American and Native American history. Thus, it will be especially well suited for the multicultural unit I am preparing, for it chronicles Black history as told by a Black writer as well as little known events in the tragic tale of displacement during the settlement of the American West. Better yet, the plot is strong, the characters well-drawn, and the style riveting.

Briefly, the narrative follows the life of Cow Tom beginning in 1822 during his early years as a Black slave to his Creek owner, Chief Yargee. His single goal in life is to earn enough money to buy his freedom, and, eventually, the freedom of his wife and children. Because of his knowledge of raising cattle learned from his mentor, blind Old Turtle, he is steadily adding to the money Yargee is holding for him. When the Upper Creeks learn that they are to be removed to the Indian Territory, Yargee also discovers that the tribe must send seven hundred warriors and two translators to help the United States Army round up the Florida Seminoles for their Removal. Although Cow Town has recently married Amy and has a daughter, Malinda, he is eager to go as interpreter because Chief Yargee promises that part of the “rental” for his services will go toward Cow Tom’s freedom, and it will give him the opportunity to find his long-lost mother.

Cow Tom discovers that he must lead the military to the Seminole camps where the army destroys their villages and imprisons the Indians in forts where many succumb to illness and starvation before they are forced west. Cow Town follows orders so that he can hurry home to be removed to Indian Territory with his chief and family. I do not want to destroy the suspense that continues building in this novel except to say that even though he eventually meets up with his family and even finds his mother, the inevitable conflicts arise, most life-threatening. For the remainder of the novel, Cow Tom’s skills as negotiator and interpreter prove invaluable for the Creeks and the Black Creeks as they struggle though the years of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation era, and adaptation to life in the Indian Territory as freedmen.

As Cow Tom’s granddaughter, Rose, grows older, she accompanies her grandfather as he negotiates for his people and interprets for the white men. Her story begins weaving in with that of Cow Tom, and when he dies of old age, the story continues with Rose as the main protagonist. It concludes when Rose’s children are grown, shortly after Indian Territory becomes the state of Oklahoma in 1907.

I knew about the Seminole Wars, the Five Civilized tribes, their Removal (except for the Seminoles) to the Indian Territory, the Dawes Act, and, of course, the effect of the Civil War on the West. I also knew that some of the southern tribes had slaves, but I did not realize the large number of Blacks held in servitude by the Five Civilized tribes nor did I ever think about it from a Black perspective. Needless to say, this novel was an eye opener. According to Atlanta Black Star‘s article, “Five Native American Communities Who Owned Enslaved Africans,” all of the Five Civilized tribes owned Black slaves. The largest of these tribes, the Cherokees, owned over 4,600 Black slaves by 1842. Only the Seminoles did not enslave the Blacks but worked out a sort of sharecropping system in return for sanctuary on their reservation.

“Read as a Reader but also as a Writer” I preach to my students, and what I focused on in this novel was how Tademy wove historical facts into the narrative. In this scene, Rose’s husband Jake has just returned from a cattle drive and has unwelcome news to report:

“Everyone’s in an uproar about the Dawes Roll in Haskell.”
“What’s that?” asked Rose.
“The government wants us to come in and register on the Dawes Roll. They are listing each person in the nation, every member recorded, child or chief. In town, some are for, some against.”
“We’re already on the list,” said Rose. “Been listed since I was nothing but a girl.”
“That’s Canadian Colored Town payroll,” Jake corrected. He shrugged. “This is different. Payroll is our fair share of the tribe money from Washington. Tribal Council decides who’s on that list. Fullbloods tried to outfox the government by refusing to turn over names. Foolish. Now Washington sidesteps the tribes to make their own list. Payroll is by Creek government, the Dawes Roll is United States government. Showdown’s coming” (366-367).

Tademy not only helps the reader understand the disastrous Dawes Act as Amy learns about it, but she also adds the human element to the facts, the complicated political ramifications as well as the fear and confusion felt by all involved in more government promises that would likely be broken.

Once the Cow Toms receive their allotments, greedy shysters descend, trying to convince the naive new property owners to give up their rights to white guardians. When Rose and Jake’s son Eugene (that, too, is compelling subplot) falls prey to one of the tricksters and plans to travel to Muskogee to sign over his allotment, the parents gallop to stop him. They are appalled at the scene when they arrive at the train station:

“They navigated and pushed their way through the men on the platform, many of whom were stinking drunk, falling-down drunk, sleepy drunk, mean drunk. One grabbed at her skirt, and another made lewd, slurred remarks, but for the most part, they’d drunk themselves into relative docility. The grafters among them were easy to spot, usually less inebriated, but not always, jealously guarding their marks, like shepherds, trying to keep another grafter from poaching their claimed territory, men persuaded to join them on the train ride to sell of their land allotments” (397).

That “our” Eugene is among those being taken advantage of heightens the horror of history. No longer are these facts in a history book; Tademy gives them human faces, faces we have grown to care about in the course of the narrative. That is showing, not telling, making her writing an excellent mentor text worthy of emulation.









Zia Summer

Zia Summer by Rudolfo Anaya
(University of New Mexico Press, 1995)

zia summerRudolfo Anaya now has me hooked with his Sonny Baca detective stories. I am not sure why I began with the second book in the series, Rio Grande Fall, perhaps because of the setting of the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, but I liked it so well that I went back to read this first book. I also do not know why both novels have been waiting, unread on my bookshelf since I bought them both in 1997 at the Western Literature Conference in Albuquerque, the year after I had been national president and had hosted the annual conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Albuquerque conference was where I presented my past president’s address, and if I had known Anaya was in the audience, I would have been more nervous than I already was.  After his reading that evening, Anaya signed my copy of Zia Summer: “Susanne– A great future! Rudolfo Anaya.”

My husband read both of these detective stories shortly after our trip to the conference and loved them, but somehow they became buried lower and lower on my “to read” bookshelf. Perhaps I considered them too “popular culture” and feared that they would not live up to my admiration of his classic Bless Me, Ultima. Besides, as I state in my post on Rio Grande Fall, murder mysteries, even with a sexy P.I., have never been my favorite genre. Was I ever wrong!

The protagonist, Sonny Baca, is a fledgling private detective in Albuquerque who is hired by his aunt to investigate the murder of his cousin, Gloria Dominic. She is the wife of Frank Dominic, a wealthy man who aspires to becoming mayor of Albuquerque and building a canal system through the city on which he will build casinos. The antagonist is Anthony Pajaro. a.k.a. Raven, the evil leader of a sun-worshiping cult who believe in human sacrifice. Raven is also on a crusade against nuclear waste and is plotting to blow up a truck carrying highly toxic materials whose radioactive elements will poison Albuquerque. I am not exactly sure how Pajaro’s humanitarian environmentalism connects with his sun worship and human sacrifice except that he has no problem collecting devout followers or destroying everything in his path for his beliefs.

The plot is rather slow moving with Sonny constantly complaining that he is making no progress on the case although it picks up at the end. However, that does not matter because Anaya uses the time wisely to build Sonny’s character and the several inner conflicts he is facing, to develop a great sense of the setting and atmosphere of Albuquerque, and to enrich the story with cultural and historical backgrounds.

Sonny faces several inner turmoils, beginning with his attempt to follow in the legendary footsteps of his great grandfather and namesake, Elfego Baca, a local folk hero. Although he carries Elfego’s .45 caliber single action Colt revolver, with which his El Bisebuelo killed several men, Sonny has yet to fire his gun at anyone. In fact, he often rushes in too quickly, unthinking,  and must be saved by others, including his girlfriend Rita. Rita poses another conflict. Sonny loves her, and although he turns down many tempting sexual offers, he is unable to make a commitment to marriage. Nor is he able to make strong connections with his family–his mother and twin brother Armando. He knows he should be a better son and brother, but he does not commit to strengthening his family, either. In addition, he is haunted by the spirit of his dead cousin whose soul will not be able to rest until Sonny undergoes a limpieza, a cleansing ceremony, with curandera Lozenza Villa. This ceremony takes place at the beginning of Rio Grande Fall.

Albuquerque, too, plays a strong role in the novel, for it is being environmentally challenged by Dominic, who wants to divert its water into Venetian canals rather than used for irrigation and by Raven, who wants to contaminate it with radioactive waste. In addition, Albuquerque is becoming a mecca for Californians and other who want to move to the historic city. Developers are building huge mansions in the valleys and destroying centuries old adobes and villas to build golf courses and subdivisions. Meanwhile, the homeless population is growing, and the poor are being marginalized and victimized with drugs.

However, what I enjoyed most, and what will make this a very teachable book, are the customs, traditions, and symbols that inform the novel. As the title suggests, the Zia sun is the predominant symbol, and throughout the book references are made to sun worship in various cultures but especially New Mexico. The Zia  symbol replays throughout the work in several manifestations as does the significance of the summer solstice. Tied in closely with that are the Lords and Ladies of the Light, the Senores y Senoras de la Luz who symbolize clarity and goodness. When they appear in the morning, Sonny’s “mind was clear, at rest, absorbing light, communing with something primal in the universe, connecting to the first moment of light in the darkness of the cosmos.” Don Eliseo, Sonny’s neighbor and mentor explains, “In the beginning was the chispa, the spark of imagination. . . . The chispa came to the womb of Madre Noche, the womb of time. The first light was born, male and female, and it was good” (183). On the other side of clarity is darkness where evil resides. This sets up the main theme as well as conflict of the novel: “The battle of good and evil is always for the soul” (60). Don Eliseo warns Sonny that “every generation repeats the struggle between good and evil” (62).

Among the many cultural references that Anaya expertly weaves into the plot are La Llorona, El Hombre Dorado, the bogey man Kookooee (El Coco), the Ojo de Dios, the Dance of the Matachines, and shapeshifting. The characters also exemplify the difference between healing brujas (curanderas) and evil brujos. And did I mention the delightful sparks of humor scattered throughout the narrative, especially the antics of a trio of Hispanic elders, who dub themselves Snap, Crackle, and Pop? I cannot think of a better book to engage reluctant readers while expanding their understanding of the culture of the Hispanic Southwest.


Rio Grande Fall

Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya
(University of New Mexico Press, 1996)

Bless me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya has always been a staple in my American literature courses because of its timeless coming of age story of young Antonio Marez as well as the author’s creative use of Magic Realism, or a term I prefer and will discuss later, Mythic Realism. In addition, the novel’s setting includes excellent historical and cultural references that add to my students’ multicultural knowledge. However, several sites  on the internet provide excellent chapter by chapter synopses and character descriptions, so I decided to try anther book by Anaya that my students could not find summarized on Sparknotes!

I must first admit that I am not a fan of murder mysteries with a private investigator as the main protagonist and lots of government intrigue, especially involving illegal drugs. But after having met Anaya and hearing him read at a Western Literature Association conference in Albuquerque, I thought I would give the novel a chance. Besides, it is not available in Sparknotes or any other comparable site, so my students would have to actually read the book. In addition, a murder mystery probably would appeal to my general studies enrollees.

The plot centers around a murder at the famous Albuquerque Balloon Festival when a woman falls to her death from a hot air balloon, and the hero, Sonny Baca, is called in to investigate. I discovered that this book is a sequel to Zia Summer published in 1995, and the opening chapters had to catch me up quickly with the incidents that occurred in the previous novel that led up to this story. It was all sort of confusing, and I almost closed the book, but I persevered, and soon I became engrossed in the twists and turns of this sequel as Baca tries to figure out whodunit.

Although Anaya included the requisite number of drug cartels, rogue CIA agents, and altogether too many gorgeous women trying to lure Sonny into their beds, what saved the novel for me was not especially how the murder was solved but the cultural and historical elements of the setting and, again, his use of Magic/Mythic Realism. In reading works such as Bless Me, Ultima, I had usually been employing the literary term Magic Realism to explain unrealistic elements of a work on fiction, such as the brujas, the Golden Carp, and Ultima’s owl. According to most definitions, it is a literary technique that uses incredible or fantastic events in a matter-of-fact way to make a narrative apparently realistic. Concepts such as dreams, visions, special powers, spirits, and shape-shifting are accepted as commonplace by the reader who is expected to suspend his or her disbelief or presupposed ideas.

Author Alberto Rios on his “Magic Realism” website at Arizona State University offers many definitions of Magic Realism gleaned from authors and literary critics. I especially like this one by Angel Flores in his essay “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction”: “In magical realism we find the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal. It is predominantly an art of surprises. Time exists in a kind of timeless fluidity and the unreal happens as part of reality. Once the reader accepts the fait accompli, the rest follows with logical precision (Magical Realism. Ed.  Zamora and Faris, p. 113-116).

However, in my research in preparation to teach Fools Crow by Native American author James Welch, I discovered a different angle to the “unreal” in literature. In Other Destinies, Louis Owens defines this unreality as Mythic Realism (213), believing that in most Native American literature, “there is no disjunction between the real and the magical, no sense that the magical is metaphorical. . . . The sacred and the profane interpenetrate irresistibly, and this is reality. If the reader can pass through that conceptual horizon, if the reader acknowledges and accepts this reality, he or she experiences an Indian world” (165-166).

A chasm exists between magic and myth. Whereas magic relies on illusions and appearance, myth, on the other hand, is an accepted belief by a particular community. According to the Handbook to Literature, “myth in its traditional sense is an anonymous, nonliterary, essentially religious formulation of the cosmic view of a people who approach its formulations not as representations of truth but as truth itself” (Harmon & Holman, 2008:359). In other words, in some cultures, when the spiritual world interacts and communicates with mortal men and women, it is not magic: it is real, it happens.

This difference will be significant in teaching any work by Anaya. In Rio Grande Fall, Sonny goes through a ceremony with a bruja who helps him find his “nagual,” or animal spirit, the coyote, and later in a climactic scene, he enters their world. The antagonist, Raven, is also a brujo although he becomes evil incarnate. It will be critical for students to understand the difference between mythic and magic realism in this story, for to some Hispanics, brujas and brujos, both good and evil, are real, and students must learn to accept the reality of the world Anaya believes exists.

Cultural and historical allusions would also make this a very worthwhile multicultural text to teach. Sonny is the namesake of Elfego Baca, an historical, New Mexican folk hero; the Festival del Otono and the burning of Kookooee, El Coco, in effigy is still celebrated; and the homeless are a cultural problem across the United States. In addition, there are references to La Llorona, the Virgen de Guadalupe, the zia symbol and the solstices, and the trickster coyote as well as historical references to the Aztecs and Cabeza de Vaca.

Perhaps the most worthwhile lesson students could take from the novel, however, is the classic theme of good versus evil. “‘Life is a struggle, back and forth, the force of evil and the force of good,’ Don Eliseo said. ‘All through the centuries, man creates the gods and the demons, and they fight, back and forth. And where does the fight take place? In the heart. El corazon is the battleground. There is clarity for the soul if a person pays attention. If you don’t pay attention, evil fills the soul. One has to pay attention, every day, every minute'” (331-332). The old man warns Sonny to take care of himself. “Those evil people are never done” (332). And since two more Sonny Baca mysteries follow this one, Shaman Winter (1999) and Jemez Spring (2005), the reader can be certain that Baca will continue to combat the forces of Raven’s evil.

China Dolls

China Dolls: A Novel by Lisa See
(Random House, 2014)

Lisa See is becoming one of my favorite authors. Shanghai Girls: A Novel,  published in 2009, introduced me to this Asian American writer. China Dolls is See’s ninth and latest novel. I particularly like this book because it is set totally in America and centers on three Chinese American girls in San Francisco in the late 1930s and 1940s, an intriguing time period in American history. The novel begins in 1938 and narrates the lives of three every different young Asian American girls whose lives intertwine as they are all seek employment in San Francisco. Grace Lee grew up in Plain City, Ohio, theirs the only Chinese American family in the small, midwestern town. Raised to be totally “American,”she knows nothing about her Chinese language, culture, or heritage, but she has become an exceptional dancer. However, she flees from her physically abusive father to try to find work at the upcoming world’s fair. Helen Fong, on the other hand, has been raised in a traditional way by her wealthy, influential father, and her every move is scrutinized and chaperoned. The third young woman in the trio is Ruby Tom, a daring and sometimes reckless Japanese American who is passing for Chinese, so she can dance in the newly opening Forbidden City, a Chinese nightclub. The three girls meet at the audition, and their lives weave together throughout the scramble for work during the Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent interment of Japanese in American camps.

Many conflicts arise in the story, not only within each of the girls as they strive to fulfill their dreams during the Depression and World War II eras but also as they struggle with each other, their families, their love interests, and the larger political tensions. The plots and subplots are complex, and I will not ruin the suspense by summarizing them. Whereas Jami Ford’s novel about Japanese internment camps, House of the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, centers on a Chinese boy and Japanese girl who remain friends and help each other during these devastating years, China Dolls highlights the discord that often arose between the Chinese and Japanese Americans during this time period, much of it based upon anger over the recent “Rape of Nanjing,” the capital of Nationalist China, by Japan’s Imperial Army in 1937 when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were brutally killed and tens of thousands of women sexually assaulted. needless to say, China Dolls was hard to put down.

Historical novels are my favorite genre because I learn so much about history, especially when written by masterful researchers such as See, who interviewed performers and historians, viewed documentaries and photograph collections, and read autobiographies and oral histories. In this novel, I discovered a whole new world I did not know existed, Chinese nightclubs and the Chop Suey Circuit of traveling shows, Chinese family compounds, and San Francisco’s Chinatown. Although the main characters are fictional, See includes many historical figures such as Charlie Low, Walton Biggerstaff, Ming and Ling, and Ed Sullivan. I admire her doggedness and desire for authenticity.

The novel is clearly and carefully organized. It is divided into three parts and an epilogue: “The Sun: October 1938-July 1940”; “The Moon: August 1940-September 1945”; “The Truth: December 1945-June 1948”; and “November 1988.” Each chapter told from the point of view of each of the girls and titled with the name of the girl who is telling her story as well as a subtitle that hints at the contents. My only negative comment about this work is that I wish See would have had stronger, separate voices for the three very different women as they related their lives in their separate chapters. She did employ this sporadically in their dialogue, but the same overarching “voice” still permeates each of the girls’ chapters.

I usually read historical novels for pleasure, but Lisa See is becoming a model for me as a writer when one looks at her overall pattern of publishing. She began her career by writing her family history, researching the cultural and historical background of China and America in the process. Her memoir, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Familywhich she published in 1995, is on my out of control “to read” list in Goodreads. The narrative centers on her great-grandfather, Fong See, who came to America and became one of the richest men in Los Angeles’s famed Chinatown. This memoir encompasses the histories of both China and America,  focuses on the mistreatment of the Chinese by American railroads, and continues with the difficulties Chinese Americans faced as they struggled through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and World War II. Chinese immigrants faced many conflicts, not only with the prejudice of “Americans” but also between their dreams and the realities of immigrant life. Some critics have compared On Gold Mountain to Roots, the epic African American history of Alex Haley, and it inspired an exhibition for which she was a guest curator, On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington 2001.

After On Gold Mountain, See wrote a series called Red Princess Mysteries: Flower Net (1997), The Interior (1999), and Dragon Bones (2003). The series features Liu Hulan, an agent for China’s Ministry of Public Security, and David Stark, her American husband, an attorney, as they solve cross-cultural crimes. All three of these mysteries have a generous mix of Chinese history and contemporary issues, and all three of these international thrillers have been on best selling lists.

Lately, See has begun using the background she learned while writing her family history as the impetus for her most recent novels. She has been churning out a best seller every two to three years, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan set in China in the nineteenth century (2004),  Peony in Love again set in China, this time the seventeenth century (2007), Shanghai Girls set in the 1930s in Shanghai and Los Angeles (2009), Dreams of Joy (a sequel to Shanghai Girls) set in China, this time during the 1950s and 1960s during Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward (2011), and China Dolls set in the 1930s and 1940s in San Francisco (2014).

There may be a lesson to learn from the progression of See’s writing career and how she began utilizing her research to write fiction. That will give me something to think about after I finish my family history! My children have always been urging me to write a bestseller! AH, if it were only that easy!

The Wake of the Wind

The Wake of the Wind by J.California Cooper
Anchor Books, 1998)

Wake of the WindHaving successfully taught J. California Cooper’s novel Family several times, I was looking forward to The Wake of the Wind, not only because I enjoy her style and honesty in depicting the cruelties of slavery but also because the book is set in the Reconstruction period of American history, a time not often covered in literature, especially from a Black perspective. In addition, I was hoping to find a book that would be more appropriate for the public schools as there are several graphic scenes of violence and rape that some administrators, parents, and perhaps students might find unsettling. However, although the historical elements of the novel are excellent and the descriptions of the violence and rape less graphic, I was disappointed in the slow movement of the plot and the long-winded didactic intrusions.

In a July 11, 1986, Publishers Weekly editorial review of Cooper’s second collection of short stories, Homemade Love, the critic wrote, “Cooper is overfond of aphoristic commentary and exclamation marks, and her narrators may have similar-sounding voices, but she tells stories that move and dance about people who pop off the page to lodge themselves firmly in the reader’s affection.” Cooper has been criticized frequently by reviewers for her use of exclamation points, but she replied to reporter Stephanie Stokes Oliver, “The people in my short stories live in exclamation points” (Essence, May 1991). Unfortunately, Wake of the Wind could have used more exclamation points and less preaching!

The plot, however, is compelling with twists and turns as we watch Mor, Lifee, and their family and friends move from life as slaves to landowners who are eventually able to send their children to college. To see people once degraded and denied any sense of love and family ties unite and work successfully to overcome their oppressors is heartwarming. The journey is not without its tragedies and fears as the South tried its best to hinder their progress and independence. As in Family, we also see many instances of blacks with one white parent “passing” as whites in American society.

Erica Chu, one of my former undergraduates (who, I am proud to say, is in the doctoral program at Loyala University), received a grant from UNK to fly to Seattle to interview Cooper. The interview was published in The Writer’s Chronicle in the October/November2007 issue. In the article, Cooper discusses The Wake of the Wind. “Lots of little things in that book were for people to know–not just about slavery, but about life now. You have to be intelligent. Those were not fools who went through The Wake of the Wind. There were some thinking people in there. I wanted readers to know that not everybody got lynched–because some people were thinking. . . . They worked hard,and if you look at what’s behind you, like where you come from, somebody back there was working hard to survive. Then that’s how you got here.”

So, the bottom line on this book is that if you don’t mind wading through a little long-winded moralizing, this book will be one that will stick in your memory, lodge itself in your affection, and help you understand the Reconstruction period more fully. But will it keep the attention of the average high school or college general studies student? Probably not.

Leaving the Pink House

Leaving the Pink House by Ladette Randolph
(University of Iowa Press, 2014)

Leaving Pink HouseEven if Ladette had not been my editor at the University of Nebraska Press, and even if I had not read and admired all of her other award-winning books, especially Sandhills Ballad, which I have been teaching at UNK every semester, I still would have been interested in Leaving the Pink House. I am in the process of writing my own memoir/family history, and I knew it would be a good model. She told me that she had tried a unique way of organizing the book, and since my work in progress, “Placebound,” is rather eclectic, I pre-ordered the book so that I would have a copy while the ink was still damp.

Since I was most interested in the structure of Leaving the Pink House, I will start there. Ladette begins her memoir with a description of the trip that she and her husband took to look at a farmhouse on an acreage outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, to fulfill her husband’s dream of living in the country. They had been searching for some time, and each dilapidated or poorly remodeled house made the prospect of a rural resettlement seem unattainable.  The remainder of the first part of this chapter describes the decision to purchase their “dream house.” Here Ladette sets up the unifying idea for her book: “I best understand life through the houses where I have lived” (2). The second half of the chapter flashes back to her childhood, focusing on the house where she grew up in Custer County, Nebraska, and some family history.

These first chapters serve as templates for those that will follow. Alternating chapters detail the month by month process of remodeling the Randolphs’ country home followed by chapters that flash back to the different houses in which Randolph has lived that narrate her own and her family’s history.  The last chapter ties both story lines together by aptly documenting the couple leaving the pink house, auctioning unwanted household furniture and goods, and moving to the country. The use of houses, past, present, and future, serve effectively to achieve thematic and structural coherence and unity.

What interested me next  about the memoir was how Randolph would describe painful moments in her past, particularly her divorce from her second husband (her first husband was killed tragically in an automobile accident). Would she follow the tell-all example of Kim Barnes’s Hunger for the World, Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club? Thankfully, no.  She simply titles the chapter, “House of Pain,” and begins with these lines: “I knew the precise moment I should have left my second marriage and didn’t” (144). She then describes how excited her husband had been after he had jogged for ten miles on a new trail near the hospital while she was in surgery and recovering in intensive care. She briefly describes an incident with an injured sparrow as well the time her husband left her and their baby home alone with three homeless, male strangers. She also flashes back to the scene in another hospital when she has just been told that her first husband was dead. Randolph stays in that marriage twelve more years, and ends the chapter philosophically, writing, “But I can’t leave it there, on such a sour note, such a despairing analogy, for it’s not like that at all. There is a happy ending, there really is. Time passes. We endure.” Her final sentence in the chapter concludes, “And with time I’ve also learned this lesson: gratitude is the sum of what you have lost and in some way found again” (154). Randolph transcended the dirty laundry and discovered meaning from her pain. Less can be more. This is something I need to remember in narrating my own story.

Professional writers advise wannabees to look to other texts in the genre as models. Leaving the Pink House is a memoir/family history that I would suggest everyone read, not only for the unique structure, the smooth transitions between the past and present, dreams and reality, and the flawless style, but also for Randolph’s honesty, compassion, and restraint in recounting her life. “Sometimes the most obvious truths are elusive” (225), Randolph writes in the final chapter, but she was able to capture them for us in this unforgettable memoir.

The Meaning of Names

The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker
(Red Hen Press, 2014)

Meaning of NamesI truly enjoyed reading The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker because it is by a Nebraska author about Nebraska, and it is historical fiction, my favorite genre. Shoemaker did a great job of making the characters come alive and keeping me interested in the plot while weaving into the narrative the dramatic events of the war years.

The plot centers around Gerda Vogel, whose parents were German immigrants, and is set in the fictional Sandhills town of Stuart, Nebraska, during the years of 1918 and 1919 in the midst of World War I and the Spanish Influenza world-wide pandemic. When she marries farmer Fritz Vogel against her parents wishes and moves away, she becomes isolated both physically and emotionally from her family. Catholic priest Father Jungels, local physician Ed Gannoway, and John Kaup, ridiculed by the townspeople because of his polio deformity and who steps up to drive the doctor to his house calls for people dying of the flu, add dimension to the main plot.

Shoemaker’s descriptions are brilliant. Of Father Jungels, she writes, “The new priest had fingers like sausages. His ample chin fanned around his neck and folded over the edges of his collar. With skin smooth and unblemished as a young boy’s under dark hair, thin and retreating, he looked like a middle aged child . . . ” (70). She also sets up the ironic cycles nature, foreshadowing the impending terror of the epidemic. “The late September midday would hold the heat of summer, but on the morning of the first death, autumn was on the rise. A light fog lay in the hollows until after the sun topped the horizon. Daylight revealed skeins of snow geese following the ancient flyways south” (152).

This book especially intrigued me because I have been doing my own research in the Minden Courier for my next book, and I was surprised about how deeply World War I had  affected other Nebraskans and how true to reality the events in the book were that I had discovered in my own research.

The first news article that I read in the Minden Courier (on microfilm) about the war’s affect was an October 24, 1915, notice that the local horse dealer, Mr. Watts, wanted to buy two loads of war horses to ship out immediately. The following June 24, 1915, an short editorial was posted: “Last week a couple of men were in this neighborhood buying up horses evidently to be shipped to Europe to be shot to pieces. Anyone who doesn’t think more of a horse than to sell it for that purpose ought not own a horse. Let those warring nations raise their own horses and if they cannot raise them as fast as they can kill them, let them be without horses.”

After the president declared war in 197, the draft began in Kearney County, and by June 17, 838 young men had registered. Then the draft began, with the Minden Courier printing a list of the first 300 to be drafted. Each month a certain quota had to be filled, and the men reported for physicals at the Minden county court house. As I read through the list of draftees, I looked for the names of our grandparents, just as Fritz Vogel searched for his.

Meanwhile, the Minden women gathered for the Red Cross to make bandages and knit clothing; young men joined the US Boys Working reserve for farm labor; and Kearney County people joined the nation in food conservation regulations:  2 wheatless days per week; 1 wheatless meal each day; 1 meatless day (Tuesday); 1 meatless meal each day;  every day a sugarless day.

In The Meaning of Names, Gerda witnesses a group of men brutally beat a young German boy and throw him off of the moving train while others in the train car shout, “Kill the kraut!” When a newspaper article distorts the incident to emphasize the patriotism of the young would-be soldiers, Gerda argues, “That paper is wrong. I know what I saw.” Her husband warns, “Don’t be borrowing trouble, Gerda” (70) .

Although Shoemaker’s novel did show the prejudice against Germans, in many communities it was even worse than for the Vogels. I was appalled at the fear that prejudice instilled in the countryside. In Kearney county, there was widespread concern that German farmers were hoarding their wheat to keep it from American servicemen. On August 8, 1918, the Courier reported that the Council of Defense decreed that foreign languages could not be used in public, in churches, or in Sunday Schools—except a special service could be held for old people. Moreover, no one could use the telephone unless they spoke English! And since all telephone lines at that time went through a local operator, this could be easily monitored.

Even after peace was declared,  a Minden man named Anders Jensen, a 58 year old bachelor, was charged with being a “German Alien Enemy” because he would not “cease lambasting the administration and the president.” His 80 acre farm was seized, he was sent to Lancaster jail, and ultimately taken to a prison camp because he told people that he would  rather have the ex-kaiser rule than Wilson. Another man, Ed Jordan of Wilcox, was paroled after he had been convicted of disloyalty. However, he had to report to the local post office each week and was under close surveillance. His crime was that while he owned fine farm, he refused to purchase Liberty Bonds, and he made disloyal remarks to a government man who was posing as a book agent to trap him. Jordan’s wife divorced him, and the court gave her a “liberal allowance to raise children as Americans.”

However, Shoemaker’s descriptions of the impact that the influenza epidemic had on Nebraskans was extremely well done, especially the emotional pain and scars suffered by the survivors. “Isolated as they were on the small farm east of that obscure town, how could any of them know they stood on the brink of a horrible history? Would Gerda have abandoned Katherine to her illness if she had known the strength of the demon flu? . . . While the world focused on a war in which Man killed Man with horrific abandon, Death slipped behind the battle lines and entered their homes, took their families” (177).

Again, in my research in the Minden Courier, the Spanish Influenza dominated the news stories. Two Kearney County men died from flu during training in Seattle and were buried at the Fredricksburg Cemetery; all schools were closed; and all public meetings both indoors and outdoors were called off by the State Board of Health. In addition, the October 1918 draft was cancelled because of the epidemic. This was especially significant to my family and my husband’s family because my grandfather, August Berndt, was  #149 on the list for that month, and Terry’s grandfather,  Guy Bloomfield, was #843. It gave them a reprieve until November–and then the war was over–for our families and the Vogels. “Armistice Declared!” (214).