Two Rival Naturalists

Natural Rivals:

John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands

by John Clayton

(Pegasus Books, 2019)

Natural Rivals is an expert and balanced analysis of the characters of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot as well as the pivotal role they played in preserving America’s natural resources. Facts, descriptions, observations, and interpretations all flow smoothly together, the current of the prose sweeping the reader along on a pleasant voyage of discovery of the environmental history of America’s public lands.

In the “Prologue,” Clayton sets out to dispel the oft-accepted belief in the opposing philosophies and personalities of Muir and Pinchot: “practical Pinchot is conservation” whereas spiritual Muir is preservation” (xvii). What he sets out to prove is that “they simply offered alternative paths to articulating a constructive societal relationship” (xix). He states that managing public lands was complicated, and the major conflict centered on society’s relationship with nature. He clearly sets forth his thesis: “This book tells how the Dream Team of rivals John Muir and Gifford Pincott contributed to establishing the public lands ideal” (xx) and that “rivalries such as theirs can sometimes be productive rather than divisive” (xxi). Not only does Clayton clearly articulate his thesis, but he organizes his material logically and systematically, using multiple sources to help us understand the backgrounds of these two influential men and their role in the American environmental movement.

In Part I, Clayton focuses on the biographical backgrounds of these two men, not simply retelling their life histories but interpreting them and showing the connections and differences in their lives. He explores the nuances and intricacies of their relationship, not only with each other but also with nature.

However, this book not just a simple set of inter-related biographies. In Part II, Clayton uses these two men’s beliefs and actions to analyze the controversial issues surrounding the establishment of America’s first public lands and their purposes. Although the path to the Pettigrew Amendment was complicated with the typical political roadblocks, Clayton cogently explains the process and how both Muir and Pinchott were essential in its passage.

Clayton’s Epilogue is exceptional in its synthesis of the perceived Muir/Pinchott divide, calling it an “illusion.” He asks his reader to “free public lands from the illusion of a preservation-versus-conservation dichotomy” so that administrators can begin to “see public lands as a canvas for variable and changing visions of nature” (212). It was the merging of the visions of these two men that created the birth of public lands. Clayton concludes his Epilogue in the perfect textbook fashion of an argumentative essay and sends out a call for action for our nation and the world today. Just as America faced an environmental crisis at the turn-of-the-nineteenth century as our natural resources were being depleted, today we also face another environmental crisis: climate change. The connection to the past is apparent, and Clayton proposes that we learn from the examples of Muir and Pinchott: “we need a marriage of morality and capability” (215). The final paragraph of the Epilogue is outstanding. The last two sentences are as bright and forceful as a strike of lightning: “We need a prophet collaborating with a statesman. Natural rivals, coming together to be revealed as complementary and interdependent” (215). What a perfect ending that sums up the whole book!

Clayton himself is a sort of synthesis of Muir and Pinchott. His research is as meticulous and wide-ranging as that of Pinchott, and his prose often matches Muir’s in his descriptions of nature. “Tall evergreens behind me cast a shadow onto the shoreline. Beneath the lake’s clear waters, pebbles burst out in yellows, purples, and reds, as if the lake bed is lined with colored marbles” (213). Throughout the book, Clayton’s prose was a joy to read: concise, clear, and often poetic.

Environmental writing, history, and research are not my specialty, so I am not sure how “groundbreaking” this work is, but the biographical elements are perfectly done.  Both men come alive for the reader as distinct, multi-faceted individuals. Nor does Clayton merely laud them, for he presents their flaws and failings, too.

Two Great Photographers

In a Rugged Land: Ansel Adams,
Dorothea Lange, and the Three Mormon Towns Collaboration, 1953-1954
by James R. Swenson
(University of Utah Press, 2018)

Although I would not consider myself an expert on Adams, Lange, or photography, I have read their biographies, own books of their photographs as well as those of other famous photographers, and I am an amateur photographer myself. I have taken photography classes and have had darkroom experience. I have also visited three museum exhibits of Adams photographs. Thus, the subject of this book strongly interested me.

The biographical element of this book is unusual. While I was expecting to learn more about the lives of Adams and Lange, the book only focuses on a few short years of their lives. However, since much has been published about these famous photographers already, James R. Swenson does an excellent job in choosing which biographical elements to incorporate that explicates their collaborative process. Moreover, he analyzes their actions, motives, and photographic choices to give a more in-depth view of their characters than any factual biography could accomplish. I learned more about these two artists’ personalities than I would have in a full-fledged biography. However, I think the true biographies in Rugged Land are of the three towns. The histories, descriptions, and photographs of these towns, their inhabitants’ interactions with the photographers, and the photographers’ pictorial interpretations of the towns and the people are the heart of the book. Swenson even brings us up to date on these towns today.

Rugged Land also has a very balanced and logical organization. Swenson sets the stage for the entry of Adams and Lange into Utah. He begins with wide-ranging background on the LDS church, main street in American history, the Mormon place in Utah as well as American culture, and the “Mormon Idea.” Next, Swenson introduces background on the two photographers and the medium of photography. He then explains the history of photojournalism as well as the distinctive styles of both photographers. This is especially important because of the restraints that it places upon the two artists and sets up the eventual problems with the project. I thought chapter 3 “In the Field” was especially interesting because it explained the “process” of the project (obtaining permission from the church hierarchy) as well as the “themes” that Lange chose for each of the towns. Their project would be “synaesthetic” (78), an experiment in “photo-writing” (77).

The “biographies” of the three towns follow in the next three chapters, and the photographs chosen for Rugged Land show how these themes played out. The last four chapter focus on the product, the Life photo story. Swenson has a strong conclusion to his book, also. He analyzes the negative as well as positive aspects of the Life project, its importance in the history of Mormonism as well as the evolution of the art of photography, the universality of the images of the people and landscapes that still resonate with viewers today, and the place of their work in relation to others who came after them.  He also challenges the reader to reconsider the importance of this project in the oeuvres of Lang and Adams.

Swenson’s style is clear, concise, and descriptive. I especially enjoyed his analysis and interpretation of the photographs themselves. In many places I marked favorite sentences: “There is a certain intimacy within this portrait: a feeling of woman to woman, navel to navel. It is more conversation between photographer and subject than mere photographic portrait” (146); “With the bright sunlight washing in from outside and highlighting the tops of the wooden pews, Lange and Adams created an endearing portrait of a community” (152); “Unlike Toquerville, which seems to have been forgotten by or removed from the modern world, St. George was embracing it” (176).

The photographs are amazing, and I enjoyed “reading” them, too, and finding out about their backgrounds. It added so much to my appreciation of them. These, too, must be considered part of the textual biographies of Adams, Lange, and the three towns, my favorite part of this book. Swenson states that Lange and Adams were searching for “the essence of the Mormon people and their towns” (45). I think that they found it.

An associate professor of art history and the history of photography at Brigham Young University, Swenson’s 2015 book also focused on photographs, Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Documentary Photography (University of Oklahoma Press). It is not surprising, then, that this young author has amassed several prestigious awards. He received the 2016-2019 Butler Young Scholar from the Charles Redd Center for Western American Studies and the LeRoy Axland Best Utah History Article Award in 2018.  In a Rugged Land has received the Best Book in Utah History Book Award from the Utah State Historical Society, the Joan Paterson Kerr Book Award for best illustrated book on the history of the American West from the Western History Association, and an honorable mention for the best book of the year award from the Mormon History Association. Recently, he received the Evans Biography Award from the Mountain West Center at Utah State University.


Sherman Alexie’s Memoir

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
by Sherman Alexie
(Little, Brown 2017)

Throughout the years I have read nearly all of Sherman Alexie’s works, taught his novels, short stories, and poems, and watched many of his video interviews. I even heard him speak in person at the Western Literature Association Conference in Seattle in 2007 when he accepted (condescendingly) the WLA Distinguished Achievement Award. However, it was not until I read his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, that all of my conflicting attitudes toward him as a writer and a “personality” coalesced.

In his memoir, Alexie takes us on an emotional journey as he attempts to reconcile his conflicted relationship with his mother, Lillian Alexie. In “Lasting Rites,” when he learns that his mother has died, he writes that he “collapsed/ with grief” but also “collapsed/ with relief.” He continues, “I assumed/ I’d be freed/ From my mother/ And her endless/ Accusations./ Falsehoods./ Exaggerations./ And deceptions./ But looking/ At this book,/ I was obviously/mistaken” (109). In this work, Alexie relives the traumatic experiences of his life and re-experiences his tangled emotions. Grieving openly, he approaches his mother’s life and death and his relationship with her from many angles in 78 prose pieces and 78 poems, the number of years his mother lived.

Two themes repeat themselves throughout the memoir. One is anger (he also calls it rage)–at his mother, at the reservation bullies, and at society past and present. Before Alexie went on bi-polar medication, he explains that he would frequently lose his temper, often very publicly. He writes of his ability to “fire insults like arrows” and boasts of making “a lucrative career out of being a smart-ass who can cuss you out in free verse or in rhyme and meter” (93).  He concedes, however, that humor is a crutch and that “If I am being funny, it usually means I am uncomfortable. It usually means I am angry” (338). In “Imagining the Reservation” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie writes that”Survival = Anger + Imagination.” In this emotional journey of survival, exploring his past and his mother’s death, anger reverberates like a drum beat throughout the memoir.

The other theme is guilt and forgiveness. Alexie fluctuates between anger and his need to forgive his mother for their tumultuous relationship. He also experiences tremendous guilt for leaving his family, his reservation, and his tribe to attend the nearby white high school. In “Ode in Reverse,” his remorse is succinct. “This poem is for everyone in my life–/ My sons, friends, mother siblings, and my wife./ It’s a cuff to the head–a self-rebuff./ Dear ones, I have not loved you well enough” (199).  Alexie writes about the walls he created between himself and his tribe. “I didn’t belong/ Because maybe I never wanted/ To belong. When everybody danced and sang,/ I silently sat in my room with books” (350). In the poem “Dialogue,” he writes, “Dear sisters, dear brothers, I am sorry/ For being a ghost, for not loving you/ And our mother as much as all of you/ Have loved me. I’m sorry for being so/ Incomplete” (348). His emotions spill out in his lyric poems.

Since Alexie’s fiction contains much autobiographical material, does this autobiography contain fiction? In the first chapter, he writes that his little sister told him, “You’re always making up stuff from the past . . . And the stuff you imagine is always better than the stuff that actually happened.” Alexie admits, “I don’t recall the moment when I officially became a storyteller–a talented liar” (9). In a fictional conversation with Alex Kuo, he imagines his mentor calling him “the unreliable narrator” of his own life.  Alexie concedes that he might be unreliable to an extent, but emphasizes that he has an excellent memory, reiterating, “I remember everything” (10).  At the end of the memoir, Alexie repeats this theme, calling his memories his “highly-flawed version of the truth” (403). So how much can we believe? We have glimpses of the vulnerable Alexie, the “Reservation Runt” who admits to being bi-polar, obsessive compulsive, and suffering from PTSD, and who carries a heavy burden of familial as well as tribal guilt. Then we have the performer Alexie, who uses humor as a crutch and fiction to tell a better story. In the end, does it really matter? I agree with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “What matters in life is not what happens to you—but what you remember and how you remember it.”

Alexie’s memoir has something for all readers. First, it is a study of the process of grieving, one that is never really over but, hopefully, changes into acceptance. It will be cathartic for some readers who have suffered the loss of a loved one. The concluding chapter does come to some sort of resolution for Alexie, who like the wounded bird, shakes off the pain and flies away. Second, if you are an avid Alexie reader, this book will add autobiographical dimensions to his other works as well as a stronger understanding of his creative process. If you are not an enthusiast of him or his works, then you will at least understand what he, as well as all of the other children of poverty and abuse, endure and survive. We will all gain a little more compassion for those who, like the salmon, must spend much of their lives swimming upstream.

In an interview with Alden Mudge on Book Page, Alexie states,  “What I’m realizing now,” he says, “is that the writing of the book was just the first half of the ceremony. Now I’m entering into the second half of the ceremony, bringing it to the public, starting to talk about my mother, and hearing the stories of other people’s mothers.” However, he recently halted his book tour because, as he explains in a Facebook post, he “needs to take a big step back and do most of my grieving in private. My memoir is still out there for you to read. And, when I am strong enough, I will return to the road. I will return to the memoir. And I know I will have new stories to tell about my mother and her ghost. I will have more stories to tell about grief. And about forgiveness.”

Nine Boys and Some Horses

Two Nonfiction Books about World War II                                           
The Boys in the Boat               The Perfect Horse   

by Daniel James Brown (Penguin 2014)               by Elizabeth Letts (Ballantine 2016)
In the last few years, I have become intrigued by all of the complexities of World War II, a conflict that impacted my own parents, and I have read several good books about this era, some fiction and some nonfiction. I began by reading Unbroken (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand, the true story of  Louis Zamperini, who competed in the Berlin Olympics and then survived the horrors of Japanese prisoner of war camps. In the Garden of the Beasts (2011) by Erik Larsen describes the life of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany, who watches Hilter’s bloody rise to power. Two novels have also added to my backgound knowledge.  All the Light We Cannot See (2014), a story about a blind French girl and a young Nazi soldier, and The Nightingale (2015) by Kristen Hannah, a narrative about two sisters with very different roles during the occupation of France

Last summer, two more books came to my attention. The 2016 Rio Olympics spurred me to read The Boys in the Boat (2014), and because of the background I learned about the sport from reading the book, I became an avid rowing fan during the summer competitions. When I heard about the upcoming publication of The Perfect Horse (2016) that was also set during World War II, I could not wait to purchase it since I have been a horse lover since birth.  From both nonfiction works, I have discovered even more horrendous acts instigated by Hitler than I had already known.

In The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown follows the career of nine working class boys on the University of Washington’s rowing team and their coaches during the Great Depression as they competed against their rivals at the University of California at Berkeley. Ultimately, they defeated the elite teams on the East Coast, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, to earn a trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, presided over by Adolph Hitler. The boys practiced during all sorts of weather, often enduring excruciating pain, to become one, a team so attuned to one another that they achieved “swing,” a perfect rhythm that produced maximum speed when the coxswain yelled through his megaphone, “Give me ten big ones!” This unlikely team defeated the Germans despite all of the odds against them. Not only did two of the boys fall desperately ill in Germany before the race, but the Germans rigged the starting signal and placed the American boat in the worst lane, one plagued by crosswinds. Their victory over aristocrats and the Nazis reaffirmed American’s belief in the common man and in everyone “pulling together” to overcome all odds.

The rescue of more than five hundred horses in 1945 is the historical event chronicled in The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts. Hitler had chosen Gustav Rau to develop a “perfect” breed of military horses, so during World War II, he gathered the finest horses from Europe, including Polish Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Lipizzaners to begin his breeding program. However, with the impending defeat of Hitler’s troops and the advance of starving Russian troops, the horses were in danger of being hidden by the Germans or eaten by the Russians. General George Patton gave to order for the covert operation to Colonel C “Hank” Reed, and with the cooperation Lieutenant Colonel Hubert Rudofsky and veterinarian Captain Rudolf Lessing, the horses were transport to American occupied territory. Ultimately, 244 Lipizzaners were returned to Austria and other Arabians and Thoroughbreds became “spoils of war”and were transported to the United States.

Photo from author website

Although both books present accurate and detailed accounts that are amazingly well researched,  The Boys in the Boat laps The Perfect Horse in storytelling. It is not about the authors’ literary pedigrees, for both writers have impressive backgrounds. Daniel James Brown taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford as well as working as a technical writer and an editor. Currently, Brown focuses on writing narrative nonfiction full time. His other books include The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride (2009) and Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinkley Firestorm of 1894 (2006). On his author website, he explains, “My primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life as vividly and as accurately as I can.”

Photo by Ted Catanzaro

Elizabeth Letts majored in history at Yale and studied creative writing under John Hershey, a Pultizer Prize winner. She has written two novels, Quality of Care and Family Planning, an award-winning children’s book, and the non-fiction work The Eighty-Dollar Champion, the story of a plow horse who became a champion jumper. Moreover, she has a lifetime of equestrian experience herself, and Letts has won numerous awards for her books.


Both books involve a huge cast of characters as well as scenes set in both America and Europe, so it isn’t the complexity of the two that differ. In addition, each has one primary goal or narrative arc, either winning the Oympics or saving the Lipizzaners from extinction. I think the reason that The Boys in the Boat held my interest more than The Perfect Horse was that Brown focused not on just the facts of the events leading up to the Olympics but, instead, on the personalities of the boys and their intimate struggles; he made me as a reader care and empathize with them, both physically and emotionally. Not so with Lett’s characters. Somehow I just could not connect with the protagonists Hank Reed, Alois Podhajsky,or Tom Stewart although Hitler’s chief horse-breeder, Gustav Rau, was a despicable villain.  Perhaps the difference is that Brown was able to draw from the young men’s journals and logs as well as personal interviews with them, and that made his characters come to life.  Letts did her research, too, but she had only historical facts with which to work, and while I admired the courage it took to save the horses, I could not connect emotionally with any of the men or even the horses, Witez the Polish Arabian and Neapolitano Africa, Podhajsky’s Lipizzaner. Black Beauty or The Black Stallion it wasn’t. Perhaps that was the problem: I expected a story about a horse, and it was a story about a war.



Three Novels by Kingsolver

Three Novels by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees                    Pigs in Heaven                          Flight Behavior
HarperCollins, 1988                     HarperCollins, 1993                          HarperCollins, 2012

I went on another author binge, this time with the novels of Barbara Kingsolver. It all started when I found a hardbound copy of Flight Behavior on sale for $2.00. How could I pass that up? I remembered loving The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and The Poisonwood Bible when they first came out, but although Kingsolver has published many more books since then, it has been eighteen years since I have read anything else by her. I searched through my own library and discovered that I still had copies of The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, so I dusted them off and started reading.

Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees, narrates the story of Taylor Greer, a young girl who grows up poor in the South and is being raised by a single mother. Taylor has two goals in life: one is to graduate from high school without getting pregnant, the fate of most of her classmates, and the other is to escape rural Kentucky. After graduation she works at the local hospital and saves enough money to buy an old car, determined to keep driving West until her car stops running. With her mother’s support, she starts out, but while in Oklahoma, a desperate woman hands Taylor a three-year-old Cherokee girl, and then leaves, saying, “Take this baby. . . . There isn’t nobody knows it’s alive, or cares.” Taylor soon discovers that the little girl has been horribly abused and sexually molested, and she decides to keep the child. When her car’s tires give out, she coasts into Jesus Is the Lord Used Tires in Tucson, Arizona, and her life changes forever. Mattie, the owner, takes her under her wing, just as she does other immigrants, and soon Taylor finds Lou Ann, a new mother whose husband has just left her. The two women learn about motherhood together, and Turtle slowly comes out of her  traumatized shell. Ultimately, Taylor must travel to the Cherokee Nation to adopt Turtle. Although several sub-plots entwine themselves within the narrative, two major themes bind them together. One focuses on the strong community of women who help each other survive, much like the wisteria, Turtle’s “Bean Tree.” The wisteria vine thrives in poor soil and is dependent on microscopic bugs to provide fertilizer for the plant. The women are much like the wisteria and its hosts: “The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by . . . but put them together with the rhizobia and they make miracles.”  The book also asks us to rethink our definition of family to include unconventional relationships, those not connected by blood or marriage. Another important theme focuses on outsiders, not only illegal immigrants and those who give them sanctuary but also single mothers and families struggling to rise above poverty level. I enjoyed this book as much this time as the first time.

Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver’s third book, picks up the story of Taylor and Turtle three years later when Turtle is six, brings back Taylor’s mother Alice as a major character, and adds two love interests, one for Taylor and one for her mother. After Turtle sees a mentally challenged man fall into Hoover Dam and convinces the authorities to search for him, she becomes a celebrity and even appears on Oprah. Unfortunately, Annawake Fourkiller, a young Cherokee lawyer, is watching the program and begins proceedings to take Turtle away from Taylor and return her to her people. Taylor and Turtle flee from a happy home they have established with Jax, a musician, and struggle to survive on their own. Eventually, Taylor realizes that she must face the Cherokee Nation and try to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, Alice travels to Oklahoma, for she is one quarter Cherokee herself, to find a cousin to help them. There she meets and falls in love with Cash Stillwater, a Cherokee mourning the loss of his daughters, one who died and another who has become an alcoholic. Although I liked this sequel again, too, I will not ruin the ending for readers, I must admit that the foreshadowing is very heavy handed, and the resolution will be no surprise.

Flight Behavior is Kingsolver’s newest publication. The setting is in Appalachia, again featuring a young, restless woman, Dellarobia Turnbow, who does become pregnant as a teenager and marries the father even though she loses the baby. Ten years pass, and she now is a stay-at-home mother of two young children, living with her insouciant husband under the domination of her parents-in-law on a sheep farm. To mitigate her disappointing life, she engages in flirtations with local young men; however, none reach the stage of physical intimacy until she recklessly decides to meet on of them in a cabin on the family’s mountain. On her way to the tryst, she chances upon millions of Monarch butterflies that have flown off course from their normal wintering spot in Mexico, a region altered by climate change. Dellarobia, too, veers off of her flight path, believing the butterflies to be a sign to return to her family. The butterfly phenomenon soon becomes international news, with Dellarobia in the center of it, causing conflicts with her husband, her in-laws, the townspeople, the church, and even within herself. Dr. Ovid Byron, a lepidopterist from the island of St. Thomas who has devoted his life to researching Monarch butterflies, appears with his entourage of assistants to study the anomaly.  Dellarobia begins helping the scientists, and with the support of Byron, discovers that her life is not a dead end, and she takes flight as a new and independent woman. Again, Kingsolver did not disappoint me.

Photo by Seth Kantner

Just as we all mature physically, writers also mature professionally. What intrigues me the most about these three particular novels is the change in Kingsolver’s writing between 1988, 1993, and 2012. The most obvious growth is in her style, which becomes more polished–as one would hope for in any writer. In the first paragraph of The Bean Trees, Kingsolver writes, “But I stayed in school. I was not the smartest or even particularly outstanding but I was there and staying out of trouble and I intended to finish. This is not to say that I was unfamiliar with the back seat of a Chevrolet” (4). Five years later, in Pigs in Heaven, she has smoothed the rough edges of her sentences, creating a stronger cadence within and between the sentences: “It’s early morning, April, windless, unreasonably hot even at this sun-forsaken hour. Alice is sixty-one. Her husband, Harland, is sleeping like a brick and snoring. To all appearances they’re a satisfied couple sliding home free in their golden years, but Alice knows that’s not how it is going to go.” Nineteen years later in Flight Behavior, Kingsolver has matured even more as a writer, beginning the novel with a balance of concrete details and abstract ideas, not only setting up the scene but also building a thematic foundation: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture, or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.”

Photo by David Wood

Fortunately, Kingsolver’s apt and memorable, often humorous, metaphors continue to tumble over one another throughout all of her novels. “Nowadays, if you could even call the railroad in Tucson an artery, you would have to say it was a hardened one” and “The sloped desert plain that lay between us and the city was like a palm stretched out for a fortuneteller to read, with its mounds and hillocks, its life lines and heart lines of dry stream beds” (Bean Trees). “I think that’s why Las Vegas is the way it is. It’s kind of like the only trash can for a hundred miles, so all the garbage winds up in it” and “Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women’s friendships, it seems, the thing that make them bubble and rise”(Pigs). “His  mustache made two curved lines around the sides of his mouth like a parentheses, as if everything he might say would be very quiet, and incidental” and “She’d never before understood how much her life in this little house had felt to her like confinement in a sinking vehicle after driving off a bridge” (Flight). What I notice, however, is that as Kingsolver has matured as a writer, her metaphors stop calling attention to themselves and blend more subtly into the narrative.

Kingslover’s characters have always been well-developed, and except for her historical epic, The Lacuna, they often tend to be young, impoverished women swimming upstream in life. To her credit, each protagonist becomes a unique individual. The novels, however, begin to move slowly away from being plot centered to character orientated, from simply portraying conflicts against others and society to including deeper conflicts within the characters themselves. Although Taylor’s struggles in raising and adopting Turtle are deeply personal, the major conflicts in these two novels are mainly against other characters as well as society. However, from the very first sentence in Flight Behavior, Dellarobia struggles to accept and then to find her place in life. Although she must face disapproval and censure from others–her family, the church, the townspeople– these conflicts are internalized, must be dealt with within herself.

The only disappointing trend for me is Kingsover’s growing tendency to didacticism, to sermonizing. In The Bean Trees, she shows us a young, poor, single woman struggling to survive in an impersonal world. And, even though she brings up the political issue of immigration, rather than standing on a soap box and telling us her views about illegal aliens in America, she shows Estevan and Esperanza being shuttled from one secret hideout to another in an attempt to protect them from being returned to Guatemala, a politically corrupt country whose government has already kidnapped their daughter and will destroy them if they return. Kingsolver makes the personal political; she shows and does not tell.

Unfortunately, in Pigs in Heaven, rather than allow the plot and characters to illustrate the unfortunate plight of Cherokee children being adopted out of the tribe, the necessity of belonging to their Native community and learning their heritage, Kingsolver employs young Cherokee lawyer Annawake Fourkiller to launch into the Indian Child Welfare Act, ” a law that gives tribes the final say over custody of our own children. . . .Congress passed it in 1978 because so many Indian kids were being separated from their families and put into non-Indian homes. . . . A third of all our kids were still being taken from their families and adopted into white homes. One out of three.” Throughout the novel, rather than simply describing the close sense of family connections among the Cherokee, watching them practice their traditional ceremonies, and letting the story make her point for her, that Turtle must grow up as part of a larger community, Kingsolver feels the need to explain it to the reader.

The same tendency toward the didactic mars Flight Behavior. In this novel, Kingsolver tackles two major political and social concerns: pollution and climate change. For the most part, her narrative describes in exquisite detail the plight of the Monarch butterflies in the colder mountains of Appalachia as Dellarobia and the scientists helplessly document their attempt at survival, more alarmingly, the survival of a species. At the same time, unusual rains threaten the region, even more so when she discovers that her father-in-law intends to clear cut the mountain to save the family farm where the butterflies have settled. Unfortunately, Kingsolver does not trust the reader to “get it,” so she again creates a mouthpiece in entomologist Ovid Byron to explain to the reader the implications of climate change on the environment and all of its inhabitants.

Why is it that the more famous some writers become, the more they feel the need to tell rather than show their political or social agendas? I do not denigrate them for using their celebrity to take a stand on issues in which they strongly believe; I just wish they would remember the cardinal rule of storytelling. Anton Chekhov explained it well. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Three Novels by Ivan Doig

Three Novels by Ivan Doig
The Whistling Season        The Bartender’s Tale        The Last Bus to Wisdom
Harcourt, 2006                    Riverhead Books, 2012           Riverhead Books, 2015

As I child, I devoured the Bobbsey Twins series, moved to the Nancy Drew mysteries, and then consumed all of the Famous Horse Stories. After I had read everything that interested me in the children’s section of our small, rural library in the 1950s, the librarian took me into the adult section of the library. What a heady experience! She started me out with Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and I began reading everything available by these two classic authors, then moved on to Steinbeck. I should have divined then that I would become an English teacher. Still today, when I find an author that I admire, I become a obsessive fan.

My initial reading of Ivan Doig was as a graduate student when I read his nonfiction work This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1978) for a Plains Literature Course. Years later, I attended a Western Literature Conference in South Dakota and received a free copy of The Whistling Season, which promptly began collecting dust beside This House of Sky. When a close friend mentioned that her book club was reading A Whistling Season and that I would enjoy it, I was delighted to find that I still had my copy. Blowing off the dust, I began reading.

Doig narrates The Whistling Season through the eyes of Paul Milliron, who revisits his childhood home in 1957. Now, as Superintendent of Schools, his charge is to consolidate the rural schools in Montana, basically eliminating the historic one-room school that shaped him as a boy. As he revisits the decaying homestead where he grew up, the story flashes back to 1909, when his father, Oliver, a widower in need of a housekeeper, hires Rose Llewellyn, a widow from for Minnesota seeking employment. She advertises herself succinctly: “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite.” Intrigued, Oliver hires her, only to be surprised upon her arrival to discover that she has also brought along her brother, Morris Morgan. Rose soon has the house and three sons immaculate, literally whistling while she works, but she remains adamant in refusing to cook. Meanwhile, Morris takes over the teaching duties of the country school when the school teacher elopes with an itinerant preacher. Doig wondrously transports the reader into the hardscrabble homesteaders’ lives in eastern Montana, onto the hard desks of the one-room school, and among the schoolchildren in the playground where alliances take shape. Add to that the eccentric but compelling characters as well as an ending that totally took me by surprise (although in hindsight, I see that it was foreshadowed), and you have a book that is hard to put down. It will no longer collect dust on my bookshelf as it is now circulating among my friends.

Immediately after completing The Whistling Season, upon the suggestion of another friend, I took up The Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig’s last novel published before his death last year. This novel is set in 1951, and the narrator is an eleven-year-old boy being raised by his grandmother, a cook on a large ranch in Montana. When she has to undergo surgery for “female trouble,” she sends Donny off on a Greyhound bus to stay with her sister and husband in Wisconsin. However, life with his bossy aunt and hen-pecked husband does not work out, so he and his uncle, Herman the German, escape to see the West of Herman’s idol, author Karl May. The novel follows the classic journey theme, with much of the action taking place in the “dog bus,” filled with the eccentric characters that Doig draws so well. The plot is action-packed with lots of twists, turns, and surprises plus an ending that would satisfy even the most demanding of my student readers, for it ties up all of the loose ends that they always seem so desperately to need in a story. As this is the last of Doig’s novels (he died in April 2015 of cancer at age 75), this seems fitting.

Then, I chanced up0n a copy of The Bartender’s Tale in a local book store. In this novel, Doig again employs an adolescent boy as narrator. Russell, “Rusty,” has been raised by his aunt in Arizona until one day his father, T0m Harry, arrives to take over his paternal duties when his son “an accident between the sheets,” is old enough to begin school. Tom is a bartender at the Medicine Lodge in Gros Ventre, Montana, and the back rooms of the bar become Rusty’s home. However, when Rusty turns twelve in 1960, his life suddenly becomes complex. That summer, a new family takes over the local restaurant, and he becomes best friends with Zoe, who will be his classmate. The two eavesdrop on the patrons in the bar, explore the pawn-shop-like collection of treasures in the backroom, and after watching an outdoor Shakespeare production of As You Like It, make their small world into a stage where they practice comic “bits” with each other. Tom has kept his past secret from Rusty until Delano Robertson arrives, asking for his help in doing research for his “Missing Voices Oral History Project.” Not only does he want to interview the Mudjacks who worked on the Fort Peck dam project in the 1930s at their Twenty-Five Year Reunion, but he also wants to record Tom’s story about the years he spent as bartender at the Blue Eagle Saloon there. When Proxy, a taxi dancer Tom knew at Fort Peck, arrives with his alleged daughter, a dark-haired hippie, and asks Tom to teach her to be a bartender, Rusty’s life becomes even more complicated. As with Doig’s other novels, eccentric characters inhabit a narrative that serves up enough twists to keep readers intrigued. The theme of theatrical performance ties together the various subplots as Rusty and Zoe learn the difference between pretense and reality. Again, the novel has an ending of which my students would approve!

In an interview on the Harcourt website, Doig describes his style of writing as  “poetry under the prose.” He explains that “Rhythm, word choice, and premeditated lyrical intent are the elements of this type of writing. In the diary I kept while working on This House of Sky, I vowed to try to have a ‘trap of poetry’ in the book’s every sentence. I suppose that inclination is visible in all my books.” And it is. On the first page of Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig writes, How things have changed in the world. I see the young people of today traveling the planet with their individual backpacks and weightless independence. Back, then, on the epic journey that determined my life and drastically turned the course of others, I lived out of my grandmother’s wicker suitcase and carried a responsibility bigger than I was” (3-4).

Another way that Doig infiltrates poetry into his fiction is by creating original songs and poems that show up in works. For example, in The Whistling Season, he composed the song that the homesteaders sing when they gather to celebrate the arrival of Haley’s Comet, employing slant rhymes at the beginnings and the endings of the lines.

When I see that evening star,
Then I know that I’ve come far,
Through the day, through all plight,
To the watchfire of the night.

Doig fills The Last Bus to Wisdom with these verses as Donny collects autographs from people that he meets on his travels. A withered old woman whom he meets on the bus pens a poem that becomes prophetic.

When twilight drops a curtain
and pins it with a star,
Remember that you have a friend
Though she may wander far. (93)

Beginnings are important, too, for writers, and here is another place where Doig excels.

The Whistling Season : “When I visit the last corners of my life again after so long a time, the littlest things jump out first. The oilcloth, tiny blue windmills on white squares, worn to colorless smears at out four places at the kitchen table. Our father’s pungent coffee, so strong it was almost ambulatory, which he gulped down from suppertime to bedtime and then slept like a sphinx. The pesky wind, the one element we count count on at Marias Coulee, whistling into some weather-cracked cranny of this house as if invited in” (1).

Last Bus to Wisdom: “The town of Gros Ventre was so far from anywhere that you had to take a bus to catch the bus” (3).

The Bartender’s Tale: “My father was the best bartender who ever lived. No one really questioned that in a town like Gros Ventre, glad of any honor, or out in the lonely sheep camps and bunkhouses and other parched locations of the Two Medicine country, where the Medicine Lodge saloon was viewed as a nearly holy oasis” (1)

I would urge everyone to go on an Ivan Doig binge. He will hook you on the very first line, introduce you to memorable characters, and enchant you with his poetic prose. I’ll bet you can’t read just one!

Doc Susie

Doc Susie: The True Story of a Country
Physician in the Colorado Rockies

by Virginia Cornell
Manifest Publications, 1991

As a biographer myself, I was pleased when my book club decided upon Doc Susie for one of our monthly reads. Our members are always interested in learning more about our state and its history, so Susan Anderson, a member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, was a perfect choice. She arrived in Colorado circuitously as have most of us in our club.

Born in Indiana in 1870, Anderson moved with her brother John and her father, recently divorced, to a farm in Kansas where she graduated from high school in 1891. That same year, her father remarried and moved the family to a booming mining town in Colorado, Cripple Creek, where gold had been recently discovered. Her father wanted her to become a doctor and offered to pay for her education, so in 1893 she enrolled at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation in 1897, she returned to Cripple Creek where she became respected as a physician.

Unfortunately, in 1900 a series of catastrophes plagued Anderson. First, her beloved brother died of pneumonia, and then her fiance deserted her at the alter because of a conflict with her father. She moved to Denver to practice medicine but discovered that doctors glutted the market, and she could not make a living. To support herself, she took a job as a nurse in Greeley, emptying bedpans and taking orders from men less educated and less competent than she was. Worse, the tuberculosis she had contracted as a medical student intensified. She decided that the only way to save her own life was to live in the mountains where the clear air, cold climate, and high altitude could cure her.

Fraser, Co, 1907. Courtesy Denver Public Library

In 1907, Anderson moved to the the tiny mountain town of Fraser, Colorado, elevation 8,500 feet, where she concentrated on regaining her health, telling no one that she was a doctor. She moved into a shack right beside the railroad and spent the winter traversing the drifts in her snowshoes. By spring, her friend Cora, who owned the general store, declared that she looked as healthy as “a lumberjack” (42) and asked  her to help out clerking at the store. Eager to repay her friend for looking after her, she agreed. She maintained her anonymity until a young cowboy, who had heard rumors that she might be a doctor, rushed into the store asking for help to save Dave. Although hesitant to reveal her identity, she knew she had to go. When she arrived at the scene, she discovered that Dave was a horse. A crowd gathered as she stitched up the badly injured horse, and from that day on, she was Doc Susie to the townspeople and soon built up a successful practice.

Although Doc Susie was respected as a physician, especially renowned from her pneumonia cure, she was always nearly destitute as most of her patients were poor and only able to pay her with firewood or food. When the 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel was dug through the mountains near Fraser in the 1920s, she doctored the many men who were injured in the hazardous work, and also took on the job of Grand County Coroner. This steady salary helped her survive. Doc Susie lived in Fraser the rest of her life, practicing medicine there for 60 years. She died at age 90 and is buried Mt. Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek.

While Doc Susie’s story is interesting and inspiring in itself, author Virginia Cornell’s narrative approach is what makes the biography so compelling. Cornell grew up in Hideaway Park, two miles from Fraser where her parents established Miller’s Idlewild Inn near the West Entrance Portal to the Moffat Tunnel, which figures so prominently in the book . After she received her PhD in Renaissance English Literature from Arizona State University, she returned to manage her family’s ski resort as well as own and edit a small newspaper, the Winter Park Manifest. This fusion of Rocky Mountain resident, research scholar, and popular journalist combines to make Doc Susie one of the most readable and authentic biographies that I have encountered in a long time. First, Cornell knows firsthand the flora, fauna, climate, and personalities that make up small mountain communities, so the setting through which she moves her protagonist comes refreshingly alive. In this description, Cornell describes a barn dance. “Carrying baskets of fried chicken and potato salad into the bright interior of the barn she [Doc Susie] admired the clean-scrubbed pine floor, sprinkled with corn meal so the dancers could spin and shuffle even faster than if the floors had been newly waxed. Evergreen boughs and wildflowers were strung between stall braces. At one end, a planked platform for the musicians had been laid over tree stumps. Walking across the crunchy barn floor Doc enjoyed successive waves of smells: fresh pine, hay, rotted manure, neat’s-foot oil used on tack and harnesses, cinnamon cookies, lemonade”(118).

Cornell’s scholarly background taught her admirable research and writing skills, so she is able to weave into her narrative extensive investigation into early railroad history, pioneer doctors and their medical practices, the lumber industry, and the lives of women in early twentieth century along with personal interviews with residents of Fraser,  family letters and photographs, and even a diary by Doc Susie herself. The Moffat Tunnel near Fraser played an important role in the town’s history, and nursing the injured as well as serving as Coroner kept her informed of the dangers of the work: “the ‘official’ count of men killed so far, kept by the Denver newspapers, lulled the public into thinking that construction on the project was relatively safe. Only when accidents were spectacular did they excite the interest of the press. Doc Susie knew that the tunnel death toll was, in fact, much higher. . . .Reading in the Denver Post or Rocky Mountain News about serious accidents to workers–accidents almost invariably attributed to ‘their own carelessness’ or ‘unpredicable circumstances’–Susie could not repress a bitter smile” (191) .When Cornell states in her “Author’s Note” that she wound (literally) her way through miles of microfilm of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, I felt an immediate kinship because I had researched those same microfilms for almost those same years for my biography of Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Rounding out her credentials is her journalism background, for she made what could have been a dreary, scholarly work into a life story that appeals to a wide audience.

Cornell explains her approach, giving good advice to anyone interested in writing biography or even family history. “Although no events of consequence have been deliberately omitted,” she notes, “where facts were sketchy or sources disagreed, gaps have sometimes been bridged by informed speculation.”  She also comments that she compresses time to make the narrative more coherent and admits that she has “also ventured occasionally inside Susie’s mind.” When a biographer spends many years researching a subject, climbing inside that person’s mind and life is inevitable. Sometimes it is hard to step out of it! Cornell’s last paragraph in her “Author’s Note” is one all biographers should heed. “A thin line frequently separates readable biography from the biographical novel which uses life as a springboard for free invention of characters and events. I have tried scrupulously to stay on the legitimate biography side of that line, to confine myself to harmless embroidery of atmosphere and setting, and to present Doc Susie as she always presented herself: with unflinching honesty” (vii). In this, Cornell succeeds admirably.

Although my pile of want-to-read books is growing hopelessly out of control, I am intrigued by Cornell’s second biography, Defender of the Dunes: The Kathleen Goddard Jones Story, published in 2001. It documents the life of another strong woman, one who took on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company when she discovered that they were planning to build a nuclear power plant on her beloved Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes in California, one of the largest dune systems in the United States.

This River Beneath the Sky

26393937 (2) This River Beneath the Sky:
A Year on the Platte
by Doreen Pfost
(University of Nebraska Press, 2016)

Seldom have I read a work of nonfiction, especially one focused on ecology and the natural world, that has gripped my attention from the beginning pages and kept my interest almost non-stop to the end. Normally, I read such books sporadically, interested but not riveted. Not This River Beneath the Sky by Doreen Pfost. She braids nature writing, conservation issues, and memoir into a narrative that flows as smoothly as the many channels of her beloved river. Pfost organizes her twelve chapters around the calendar year and one specific location on the Platte River in central Nebraska. She begins with the arrival of the sandhill cranes in the early spring and ends full circle with their return the following year. This not only provides a full portrait of the river through all of the seasons, but it symbolizes the recurring cycle that has lasted throughout the ages, a reassurance that although generations may come and go, nature perseveres.

This book is extra special to me for two reasons. First, my roots are deeply embedded in the Nebraska soil, for I grew up playing in the Platte River and have witnessed its changes, the crane migrations, and the wildlife in that area of Nebraska for most of my life. Second, I was on Doreen’s thesis committee when she first conceived this project. We knew back then that even the few chapters she submitted could turn into a major work if she would only continue to write. For many, a thesis is simply a goal met; for Pfost, fortunately, it was a springboard! These personal connections, I believe, make me a better reader because I can speak with authority.

One major channel of Pfost’s text traces a history of the Platte River, one of the reasons she initially tackled this project. As a newcomer to the state, she began working as a volunteer at the National Audubon Society’s Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary where she discovered that she could find little information about the river itself. Using research from primary and secondary historical and contemporary sources, literature, and oral histories that she collected, a fascinating story emerges of a river that was once mercurial in its seasonal flows, abounding with diverse wildlife, and mostly devoid of trees and vegetation. As I child I had always heard that the Platte was once “a mile wide and an inch deep,” and Pfost explains why: floods scoured its islands, and prairie fires cleared its banks.  She also describes the changes wrought on the prairie ecosystem as farmers and cities made more demands on its water, not only in Nebraska but in states all along its course as well as the impact of the many dams that have attempted to divert, store, and harness its resources. Tracing the conservation challenges and efforts through the years, both those by governmental and private agencies, Pfost puts into perspective the needs not only of diverse species dependent upon the river habitat but also the demands of an ever-growing human population.

Another channel of This River Beneath the Sky brings the reader’s attention to the flora and fauna of the river, not only the conspicuous sandhill cranes, whooping cranes, and bald eagles but also flickers, bluebirds, house wrens, cowbirds, and the common sparrows. Although I am far from being a “birder,” Pfost opens my eyes to all of facets of bird watching: their nests, their calls, their eccentricities, and their beauty. For her, these creatures are her neighbors and friends, not another name to cross off of an accumulating species list. She cares about them, so the readers do, too.

For each reader, the main stream of this book may differ, but for me, the personal narrative provided the strongest current, unifying all of the diverse elements. Pfost is a transplant to Nebraska, arriving because of circumstance, not choice. A native of the woodlands of Michigan, nothing about the Great Plains is familiar territory. “I hated almost everything when we first moved to Kearney,” she admits. “I sought the only cure that had worked for me in the past–long runs, and lots of them” (129). As she navigates unfamiliar terrain, she begins to feel a part of her new environment, and I emotionally connect with her throughout this odyssey. As her memoir closes, she has become one with her surroundings, perhaps even more connected than those of us who have spent our entire lives here. Watching the last of the cranes depart north in the spring, she writes, “But tonight in the north blind, the calendar stopped–briefly and forever–as we stood beneath and within the living whirlwind of a hundred thousand beating wings, and tonight we’ll all sleep under the same sky” (175). When she finds a feather left by a departing crane, she realizes she has found a home. “The cranes never completely leave Nebraska. I suppose none of us ever completely leaves a place where we have been” (54).

Photo by Erv Nichols

After reading this book, I actually felt the urge to teach freshman composition again, if only to share the inspiring structure and style of this work with beginning writers. However, after remembering the 12,000+ freshman essays that I figure I have assessed in my career, I think I will instead urge other teachers to use it as a text for their own writing classes, both in high school and in college, and encourage other writers to use it as a model.

Structurally, This River Beneath the Sky resembles a matryoshka doll, one of those wooden Russian nesting dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside another. Although I am not an advocate of excerpting sections of larger texts, believing the whole is more important than the parts, each chapter of this work could stand admirably alone as a model. Each chapter’s introductions and conclusions frame the body and model effective ways to begin and end an essay. For example, in chapter 5, “Of Legendary Worth,” one of my favorite chapters, Pfost begins with a dialogue between herself and the descendant of one of the original homesteaders, John Meyers, who lived near the Platte River. The granddaughter recounts the family history and the dictum passed down to her to never sell the land, the same advice many other Nebraska farmers have handed down through the generations. The essay concludes with the knowledge that although there would be no more heirs to inherit the land, it would be left to a foundation in her grandfather’s name. The content of this same chapter serves as an example of ways to find material to enlarge a topic. Using oral history that she collected, research on the Oregon Trail, description of a personal trip from the headwaters of the Platte River in Wyoming downstream to the Meyers homesteaded land, and literary references to Willa Cather and Herman Melville, Pfost seamlessly intertwines specific details to explain and personalize a small segment of the river.

Sensory appeals and figurative language abound throughout the work, making it a delight to read and exemplary to study. The book begins with the description of a sound, one familiar to everyone in Nebraska. “Their voices arrive first. A distant, soft-edged trill rolls toward the quiet, gray river.” How many of us have heard this same sound and begin searching the skies? “Soon, a flock of birds, flying in a lazy V formation, materializes in the southern sky. As it flies closer, as the voices grow louder and sharper, each grey bird becomes distinct, it neck outstretched, legs trailing behind.” The author then introduces herself and the subject of the book. “I raise my binoculars and watch the slow sweep of wings, the upward flick of wingtips. After ten months’ absence and a daylong flight, two hundred sandhill cranes are announcing their return to the Platte River. . . . The V collapses as the birds cup their wings in six-foot arcs that tip, glide, and tip again, while cranes fall like pattering rain” (1). That, you can tell your students, is the way it should be done.

In addition to learning about the Platte River and its inhabitants, both human and natural, This River Beneath the Sky offers valuable life lessons.  One theme that I think Pfost wants to instill in us is the importance of “reading” nature, of looking around us and actually seeing.  On a walk along the Platte in June, she chances upon some killdeer tracks in the sand. “The killdeer’s tiny tracks intersect chaotically, and here are some larger tracks–long as my hand. The half dozen tracks end abruptly; on the final track, the middle toe left a deeper imprint. This is where the heron pushed off and became airborne” (65-66). By examining the scene in minute detail, she learns the story. “We can see life all around us if only we look: we can feel it with our hands and the soles of our feet” (142). She expands on this theme in chapter 10, “Teaching Ourselves to See.” Quoting writer and environmentalist Rick Bass who instructs “Look closely everywhere” and naturalist Aldo Leopold who advises “speculate why” (156), Pfost warns that we should not be too busy to see. Why look? Why speculate? She explains that it is crucial we share our stories and the stories of nature with others. “Through story, we interpret our own lives and the lives around us” (157). And where should we start? “Start with the ground beneath your feet,” Pfost recommends (170). This just begs teachers to take their students on a field trip, perhaps even to an adjacent football field or nearby city park, doesn’t it?

Although one can enjoy the sandhill cranes dancing and feeding in the cornfields bordering the Platte River, scan the skies as they head en masse for the river in the evening, and even view them on the internet crane cam, nothing can equal the breathtaking adventure of actually sitting among thousands and thousands of them in a Sanctuary blind. This River Beneath the Sky not only perfectly captures this sensory experience but adds depth, breadth, and understanding of the place they call home for those few weeks. If you would like to read more of Pfost’s writing, browse her website, A Naturalist Walks Home.

Nonfiction by Two Colorado Writers

Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado
by Andrea M. Jones (U of Iowa Press, 2013)

The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning
by Julene Bair (Viking Penguin, 2014)

Although both Between Urban and Wild  and The Ogallala Road are nonfiction books focused on place, both contain autobiographical elements, and both are written by Colorado authors, they could not be further apart in style and ecological agendas. To be fair, the subtitles give us a hint of the differences to expect: Jones chooses the essay format to introduce the reader to her life and environment while Bair considers her personal  history and connection to the land to be a memoir. Most importantly, both address the problem of how to live responsibly on this fragile earth.

Andrea Jones grew up in a suburban landscape outside of Durango, Colorado, but relocated closer to nature when she moved to a house a few miles west of Boulder where she was surrounded by Ponderosa pines and could look down on the city as well as the plains to the east. However, when she and her husband purchase an undeveloped acreage in Cap Rock Ranch, a rural, mountain subdivision west of Canon City,  she has to wrestle with the impact that their new residence will have on the landscape. She recognizes that “there are environmental and social implications for living in a relatively undeveloped  landscape . . . Part of my project of becoming at home has been trying to understand some of the obligations, the drawbacks, the demands, and the benefits. I reject the idea that the world exists only to satisfy human desires as well as the opposing extreme, in which human beings are inevitably toxic to the natural environment. The question becomes how to best occupy the boundary zones that are not urban but also not devoid of people. How do we define an ecology of habitation?” (10). Her life becomes an attempt to “create a life in the interface zone that’s minimally disruptive to the natural systems” (12).  My husband and I are facing the same challenges, for we are also residents of a rural subdivision, one of many on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, and we, too, want to conscientiously co-exist with our environment. Like Jones, I struggle to reconcile the fact that while we love the isolation and natural beauty of our mountain home, we are intruders in this former wilderness.

Writers on the Range

Each chapter of Between Urban and Wild chronicles a different aspect of living with the natural world, describing interactions with birds, deer, bears, and mountain lions as well as the problems of gardening, weed control, water, and fire mitigation.What impresses me most about Jones is her level-headed approach. She writes, “I am suspicious of monochrome thinking, and this propensity to value the natural over the built threatens to become a lazy routine” (27). For example, in the chapter titled “Lay of the Land,” Jones tackles the issue of thinning the forest. Many newcomers want their homes to look “natural,” so they do not want to fell a single tree. Having come from the plains of Nebraska, where every tree that survives is a victory, I can understand that way of thinking. Each tree that we had to cut when we first arrived in Colorado broke my heart. However, after working with the forest service, we discovered as Jones did that in most places, the forest today “is composed of spindly trees growing too close to one another to mature properly, their trunks crooked and leaning in a quest for light. The soil beneath these dog-hair stands, cast in perpetual shade by a thatch of boughs and incessantly showered with pine needles, is acidic and starved of the humus that accumulates with grasses and forbes grow, die, and decompose in a normal cycle” (32). Our society’s suppression of natural forest fires has caused this unnatural growth. “Wildfires burn away dead vegetation and clear underbrush, and some forest trees have co-evolved  with fire to the extent that it plays a central role in their reproductive cycle. More intense stand-replacing fires open up the tree canopy, allowing tree species such as aspen  to take their turn in the slow-succession by which the landscape changes its botanical clothing” (147).  Like Jones, we have thinned the trees around our house to protect it from fire and have discovered that native grasses and wildflowers, dormant for decades, are resurfacing, to the delight of the deer and the turkeys. And like Jones, we burn the wood all winter in the fireplace to heat our home, thus saving more natural resources.

One interesting chapter that expands on the interaction between people and nature, “A Walk in the Park,” discusses America’s national parks, “a peculiar category of landscape, a hybrid of development and wildness, and inevitable mix of people, vehicles, and natural wonders” (60). Jones has mixed feelings about them and the reasons people visit these public spaces: “to get a whiff of history, to clean city-clogged respiratory pipes with some fresh air, to feed a pair of eyeballs hungry for the sight of non-engineered landscapes, to feel a little swell of national pride or the contraction of humility.”  She also realizes that many stop only as a break on road trips because they offer restrooms, sandwiches, and a souvenir shop, or they want to take a “trophy photo” to show that they’ve “been-there-done-that” (68). Although she appreciates the efforts of the National Park Service to educate visitors, she worries that these honorable efforts will transform environmental education (and the parks) into another commodity for purchase or exploitation. She concludes, “The what for? of paying a visit to one of our nation’s national parks is, in the end, deeply personal, but it emerges from an ancient and pervasive human impulse: to explore the world, to see and touch and hear it for ourselves” (75). Our national parks are expansive, providing room enough for those who desire to escape civilization as well as those who simply want to walk the paved paths to the highlighted attractions. National parks are another example of the coexistence of urban and wild.

As a writer, what I enjoyed the most about Between Urban and Wild were the many sentences that literally dazzled me with their images, word choice, rhythm, and insight. Here are just a few samples of Jones’s exquisite prose:

“In high-country meadows, melting snow reveals last year’s grasses, ironed hard to the ground. Pressed down for months by the icy residue of blizzards, the fibers are draped across the contours of the land like wet silk” (23).
“The wind exhales through the evergreens in a gently shifting collective sigh that undulates over the hillside” (25).
“The [mountain] lion is a reminder that I live not merely at an address, but in an ecosystem” (46).

Ogallala Road, on the other hand, focuses on land already highly developed with little or nothing left of the original “wilderness” of the Great Plains once inhabited by Native tribes who lived in harmony with the environment. Julene Bair grew up on an isolated farm in western Kansas but skipped out during her first semester at the university when she was eighteen to follow an “exotic guy with a plan” to San Francisco. She had decided, as many farm children do, to leave the hard-work and small town monotony behind. She “hadn’t wanted to settle on being just a wife married to ‘just’ a farmer . . . I could go make my mark in the world, and the ground of my being would be there waiting for me anytime I wanted to touch in” (228). However, the hippy glamour and her “spacey” husband were disappointing, and her marriage ended in divorce and loneliness (86). Through a boyfriend, she became passionate about wilderness areas, especially the deserts, and even lived by herself for a couple of years off of the grid in a deserted miner’s cabin in what is now the Mojave National Preserve. There she married a cowboy, “the classic tale of a responsible woman who falls in love with an irresponsible man” (103). When this marriage begins to fall apart, she hauls her husband to the stability of the family farm in Kansas. However, this does not last long; he leaves when Bair is pregnant. She decides to stay, determined to help her father on the farm and raise her son there. While farming with her father for a year and a half, Bair begins taking correspondence courses. She decides to attend the University of Iowa, offering to return during the summers to help farm. However, she does not return to the farm as she promises her father but continues to work toward her graduate degree, ultimately accepting a position at the University of Wyoming.

Bair’s memoir contains three major conflicts. First, Bair has to come to terms with her father’s legacy. “Hang on to your land! Dad always commanded us. If we didn’t, he warned that we’d die broke, just as he predicted our aunts and uncles who’d sold out would do. He’d been right” (54). Second, she has to navigate another relationship with a cowboy, one who ranches near her family farm. And last, she opposes the misuse of water by farmers on the Kansas plains.

As a memoir, The Ogallala Road succeeds fully, with descriptions, dialogue, and scenes expertly written. Bair guides the reader smoothly as she flashes back and forth in her life. Her starry-eyed relationship with Ward, one she hopes will provide a strong father figure for her rebellious son and pull her back to the land, draws the reader forward. So does her torment in her relationship with the farm and her father. When he dies, what will become of the land that her family has toiled on for generations? Ultimately, she and her brother sell all twenty-one quarters, 13,440 acres, to the highest bidder, “megafarmers” from Colorado who own one hundred sections (64,000 acres) and run a big feedlot (237).

Julene Bair Website

For me, however, the subplot of the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer misses its mark. Just as Bair romanticizes her affair with rancher Ward, she also romanticizes the land, engaging in what Jones describes as “monochrome thinking.”  She describes the aquifer as “the mastodon in the room, being driven to extinction on the plains east of Denver. It isn’t talked about much in public because farmers have senior rights to the water” ( 265).  Like the Poppers who envisioned the Great Plains as a Buffalo Commons devoid of inhabitants and replanted and restocked with native grasses and animals,  the only vision Bair provides for the future of farming is investing in the Slow Money movement that supports grass-fed beef, locally and organically grown food, and composting. Rather than working at the grass roots level with farmers to change the misuse of irrigation water, rather than speaking up at the district water board’s annual meeting that she attended, rather than supporting and encouraging her son and nephew in an attempt to farm in a more sustainable way, and rather than renting the land to families who have lived in the area for generations, Bair sells out. She even laments the fact that if they had waited a few years to sell,  they “could have gotten more than two times” what they’d sold it for (251). She will certainly not die broke as her father predicted, but what legacy will she leave?

Ironically, as a result of her land sale, every inch of the family’s former land supports irrigated corn, with the new owners using more water than ever. Bair asks herself, “Could I have found a way to farm it sustainably that wouldn’t have led to financial disaster and without having to give up the rest of my life? Should I have given up the rest of my life?” (253). She is not willing to do that for her beliefs. When Ward ends their relationship, he tells her, “It’s just not practical . . . You’re an idealist. I’m a realist” (201). Fortunately, many farmers today are realists like Ward, devoting their lives to finding ways to farm responsibly. Bair neglects to mention the steps many state Natural Resource Districts have taken to meter and limit water use or the proactive stance of many farmers’ organizations who are introducing legislation that addresses water sustainability, chemical use, and erosion control. In her last chapter, Bair concedes that at first, her book was to be about the Ogallala Aquifer, but that it became more than that. It did. It became a memoir. The very real problem of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer as well as water resources throughout the Great Plains and the West must be addressed, solutions discovered, and changes implemented. However, the topic deserves to be more than a poorly developed subplot.

The important question that both books address is what Jones terms “an ecology of habitation.” How do we best occupy the land, whether mountains or plains, in a manner that is not toxic to the environment? We must learn to cohabit with nature responsibly and realistically.

Anadarko: A Kiowa Country Mystery

Anadarko: A Kiowa Country Mystery
by Tom Holm
(University of Arizona Press, 2015)

Anadarko: A Kiowa Country Mystery is an historical novel about two detectives, J.D. Daughtery, an Irish cop turned investigator and his “operative,” a Cherokee mechanic named Hoolie Smith. As in the previous mystery by Holm, The Osage Rose: An Osage Country Mystery, Daughtery is called in to solve a murder, this time of a white man on Indian property  as well as the kidnapping of a Black woman by the Klu Klux Klan. Meanwhile, Daughtery is asked to help clean up the political corruption of Anadarko, but he is called back to Tulsa because of problems with the Ku Klux Klan. He leaves Hoolie in Anadarko to try to solve the murder amid the political intrigues of bootlegging, the illegal procuring of cattle grazing rights, and the looming threat of natural gas exploration. The historical backgrounds of the Klu Klux Klan, the Volstead Act, political corruption in the 1920s, the reign of terror by whites on American Indians in procuring headrights, and the Native American Church add conflict and depth to the major murder plots.  Although Holm follows the detective fiction formula of an eccentric private eye and his sidekick solving murders, the historical 1920s background and the American Indian cultural references set this apart from the typical murder mysteries. The basic theme of good versus evil permeates both works.

  The work quickly catches the reader’s interest with two murders in the Prologue. Holm then follows the same format as in The Osage Rose with Daughtery called in on the crime and Hoolie as his sidekick. The men split again, allowing the reader to follow two plot lines with the men and plots converging in the end. The Epilogue, as in the earlier work, ends with Daughtery on trial for the retribution killings discussed in the earlier work.

Holm layers new cultural conflicts in Anadarko. The procurement of Kiowa land by whites for cattle grazing and possible natural gas production add a new twist to the more well-known Reign of Terror about the flagrant stealing of oil rights from the Osage. Hoolie’s participation with Charging Horse in the peyote rituals of the Native American church emphasize Native attempts to curb the problem of alcoholism rampant in the Prohibition Era. Most people know about the Volstead Act and the proliferation of bootlegging; few know about the Native church’s role in trying to halt this illegal activity among American Indians.

Courtesy of Tom Holms

One of the strengths of Holm’s detective fiction and one writers would do well to emulate is his descriptions of his supporting cast. As with John Tall Soldier and the Shelby family in Osage Rose, Holm increases interest with unusual characters. In Anadarko, Holm introduces Violet Comstock and Deaf Bob. Vi is a wealthy madam/prostitute who wants detective J.D. to help her and the mayor corner the illegal bootlegging market–under the guise of “cleaning up the town.” Basically all they want to do is eliminate the competition. However, she flatters and attempts to lure J.D. into helping her. “She was probably around forty and very well dressed in a red-flowered dress, high-heeled shoes with straps across the instep, and a ruffled apron. Her dark curly hair was cut fairly short. She had two spit curls plastered to her cheeks. Those cheeks were heavily roughed and her lips were bright red. She had a soft, smoky voice and spoke with a smooth, southern accent. To top it all off, Violet wore a red flower behind her left ear” (32). J.D. is smitten.

Deaf Bob is  a hermit, Spanish treasure hunter, and friend to the local Kiowa.  A white man once married to a Comanche woman who died from smallpox, whose children were taken away to Carlisle Indian school where one died and the other disappeared, and who had his ears cut off by Texans, Deaf Bob aids Hoolie and the Kiowa Boyiddle brothers in their various schemes to outwit the local political machines. “Deaf Bob was dressed in trousers, old brogans, and suspenders. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he held an old gray wide-brimmed felt hat in his left hand. The man was practically bald, and he had a big gray moustache that drooped down both sides of his mouth. He had no ears, only holes where they should have been. In his right hand was a Colt.45 Single Action Army Revolver”(188). Then there are the villains Marty and Moe. Hoolie cannot decide which of the men was worse. “One of them pulled the wings off the flies before he mashed them, and the other just killed them outright without any sort of emotion. One was simply cruel without expressing anger, lust, greed, or joy; the other took pleasure in cruelty” (108).

Holm also weaves cultural myths and stories into the main plot. J.D.’s dream of the Banshee foreshadows Vi’s murder, and the story of the Kiowa trickster Sayn-Day provides clues as to how some of the conflicts will be solved. The most pervasive myth is of Spider and her web. “Hoolie thought about his grandma’s story about how Spider stole some of the fire’s sun and brought it back to earth so that everyone could benefit from its warmth in so many ways” (193). Other animals tried but failed, and only Grandma Spider succeed by capturing the sun in her intricate web. Hoolie uses this tale to figure out how to “net in his own web some of the principal characters in this complicated tale of lies, murder, and corruption” (194).

Personally, I still prefer Osage Rose, Holm’s first mystery and one of my all-time favorites, to this sequel. Perhaps it is because we are fully introduced to the main characters in this novel, and their story continues in Anadarko as it typically does in most series. Or, maybe it is because more myths, both Irish and Cherokee, are threaded  intricately throughout Osage Rose. What works in both novels, however, are the well-plotted mystery narratives based on strong cultural and historical backgrounds, ones conveniently forgotten by today’s society, ones we all need to remember. Read them both!

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women:
A Novel

by Jim Fergus
(St. Martin’s Press, 1998)

Based on an historical (although disputed) event, the request of a Northern Cheyenne chief at a Fort Laramie peace conference in 1854 to send one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors to unite the two cultures, Jim Fergus creatively expands on this premise in his novel One Thousand White Women. Although the United States did not accept this offer of assimilation, Fergus imagines what would have happened if this exchange had actually taken place in a fictional journal penned by one of the brides.

The Introduction and Epilogue of the novel constitute a frame story told by the great-grandson of the protagonist, May Dodd.  J. Will Dodd has become intrigued with the family history about his crazy ancestor who was committed to an insane asylum and then ran off to join the Indians. After he finds an old letter written to her children, his grandfather, he begins to research the events, eventually discovering the journals May Dodd keeps of her time living with the Northern Cheyenne.

The main plot begins with May preparing to go West as a part of a contingent of women taking part in a noble experiment: “To foster harmony and understanding among the races–the melding of future generations into one people” (73). The theory was that since the Cheyenne are a matrilineal society, all of the children born of the unions would become a part of the mother’s “tribe.” That is, they would be considered and accepted as whites.

The government secretly begins gathering the women, mostly from insane asylums and jails, who will be traded for horses. May’s wealthy, socialite family has committed May into an insane asylum because she fell in love with a working man. Worse, she darkened the family name by living with him outside of marriage and bearing two children. To “save” the children, her father has her imprisoned because of her “promiscuous behavior.” She is confined to bed, subjected to inhumane treatments, and sexually abused. When the opportunity to escape arises, she signs up for the program immediately, circumventing her father’s approval.

What begins as an experiment in the assimilation of the Cheyenne into white civilization becomes an interesting study of the assimilation of the white women into the Cheyenne way of life as they become a part of the Native culture and eventually bear their children. Slowly but steadily, the women come to respect the Cheyenne people,  thrive in their marriages, and become an integral part of the tribe. The characters in the novel, especially the women, are interesting and diverse. I admired the women as they struggle to adjust to a completely foreign way of life as well as deal with the conflicts of a life close to nature, and I respected the Cheyenne for accepting the white women as members of the tribe, despite their differences. As the narrative unfolds, the daily life, customs, and spirituality of the Cheyenne are rendered faithfully and in detail.

Jules Seminole (Smithsonian)

Jules Seminole (Smithsonian)

However, a couple of elements of the novel disturbed me. One was the scene where the Southern and Northern Cheyenne gather for feasting and dancing, and the half-breed Jules Seminole (an historical interpreter) trades whiskey to the men and women. Granted, alcohol consumption and the negative effects it had on American Indians did occur and often, but Fergus grossly exaggerates the sex and violence, perhaps to increase book sales for twenty-first century readers who have grown accustomed to and expect such graphic scenes. He describes it as a drunken orgy. “Throngs of drunken savages, men and women, jostled me as I pushed by. Naked couples copulated on the ground like animals. . . . It was as if the whole world had fallen from grace, and we had been abandoned to witness its final degradation” (224).  Many of the white women cowered in the ineffectual priest’s tent as women were raped all over the camp. Granted, Fergus may have been attempting to evade the Noble Savage stereotype and present the Cheyenne as “real people,” but the wholesale drunkenness of the camp is unrealistic. Unfortunately, the disturbing scene of the raid on the Shoshone, the enemies of the Cheyenne, when the right hands of twelve children were brought back as trophies of war to strengthen their own children, is based on fact. The Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution in 1892-1893 records this event.

Captain John Gregory Bourke

I also could not empathize with the main characters, May Dodd or her lover, Captain Bourke (yet another historical figure). Throughout the novel, May lavishes praise on the Cheyenne people and their way of life and is accepted unconditionally by her husband, his family, and the tribe, yet she continues to call them “savages” throughout the novel. As the story progresses, she does begin to alternate between calling them “savages” and “the People,” the term they use to identify themselves, and she refuses to leave before she fulfills her promise to the government, but she always lapses back into her “civilized thinking.” Even toward the end of the narrative, she calls her unborn child a “savage baby” (366).  She intends to convince her husband Little Wolf and his people to move to the reservation where she can continue her charge to civilize, Christianize, and assimilate the Cheyenne. Her goal is to put in the two years she promised, have her Cheyenne baby, and then return to her own “real” children. Throughout the novel, I was waiting for her to see the awful truth of the situation, that the Cheyenne society was more civilized than white society, and to become one with the Cheyenne people, but she never did.

However, as much as I could not respect May or her captain, I do believe that they realistically personify the mindset of many Americans at the time, who believed that “the best Indian is a dead Indian.” As Captain Burke explains to May, “The savages are not just a race separate from ours; they are a species distinct. . . . pagans who have never evolved beyond their original place in the animal kingdom, have never been uplifted by the beauty and nobility of civilization. They have no religion beyond superstition, no art beyond stick figures scratched on rock, no music besides that made by beating on a drum. They do not read or write” (107). Others believed that what needed to be done was follow Richard Pratt’s belief: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” No matter how much May admired the Cheyenne, she could not stop viewing them as “Other.” This ethnic prejudice continues today.

When the destruction of the Cheyenne is eminent, Bourke wants to save May, but none of the other white women nor the innocent Cheyenne people, and he ultimately kills Horse Boy in cold blood. Perhaps that is Fergus’s intent; by contrasting the truly civilized Cheyenne with the self-seeking and barbarian whites, we more fully understand the true horror of America’s treatment of our Native people.

In my opinion, the strongest character in the novel was the mulatto Euphemia Washington, “Phemie,” who is a descendant of African Ashanti warriors. Having been a slave and raped by her master, she joins the tribe and marries on her terms, becoming a respected woman warrior, riding bare-breasted into battle like an Amazon. She also serves as a foil, countering May’s idealism with reality. “Absorbed? Assimilated? Hardly. Our common history is one of dispossession, murder, and slavery.” When May protests, saying that the children will be the hope for the future, Phemie sets her straight. “The plantations were full of mulattos–people of mixed blood and of all shades and colors. I myself am one. I am half-white. My father was the master. Did this make me free? Did this make me accepted by the ‘superior’ culture? No, I was still a slave . . . considered neither black nor white, and resented by both” (357).  Sadly, what Phemie predicted came true. Even the children who would later be torn from their parents, shorn of their hair and their culture, and “civilized” in Indian Boarding schools (like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School), were not accepted by the white culture and forced to return to the reservation where they no longer fit in or speak the language of their families.

Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf

May’s Cheyenne husband, Little Wolf, chief of the Northern Cheyenne, was also an actual chief who played an important role in Western American history, and he, too, is depicted accurately. Although the army attack on the winter encampment is dated in May Dodd’s journal as March 1, 1876, the actual massacre on the combined Dull Knife and Little Wolf camp on the Powder River actually occurred on November 25, 1876, exactly five months after the defeat of Custer at the Little Bighorn. According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, “U.S. troops found them and burned their village to the ground. This little-known battle, referred to as the Dull Knife Fight or the Red Fork Battle, impacted the Cheyenne people during the Indian Wars even more than did the Little Bighorn fight.” Little Wolf was shot seven times but survived. The rest of his story is heartbreaking, and one that even May Dodd foresaw. Eventually Little Wolf, Dull Knife, and their bands had to surrender in 1877 because they were starving. They were promised a reservation on their own lands; unfortunately, the army broke their promise to them again, and sent them to live in the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. After half of the Cheyenne died in 1878, the survivors escaped and headed back to Nebraska. Dull Knife and his band surrendered at Fort Robinson where many of them were later massacred. (This story is told in Mari Sandoz’s Cheyenne Autumn.) Little Wolf hid in the Nebraska Sand Hills and was eventually granted a reservation in Montana.

Jim Fergus Website

I am always interested in how authors transform history into fiction, how they choose which facts to incorporate and which to leave out, and why they sometimes “alter” history. Since so much of One Thousand White Women closely mirrors historical events and people, even in the smallest details of Cheyenne life, I wondered why Fergus would change the date of the massacre on the Powder River, setting it in March rather than in November when it actually happened. My guess is that he set it earlier so that he would not have to include the complex events of the Battle of the Little Bighorn that occurred in June. Both the Sioux and the Cheyenne participated in the event including, most believe, Dull Knife and Little Wolf. That would have made the novel much longer and more complicated. Another reason might be that, according to Fergus’s author website, he is working on the second book in a trilogy to be published in 2016 that will continue the thread of this work. I’ll bet that the Custer defeat will be included in that sequel.

Another historical discrepancy in the novel was the shooting of Jules Seminole by Little Wolf because of lewd remarks to his daughter. In reality, Little Wolf was banished from his people for killing a Cheyenne, but while drunk, and he killed a man called Starving Elk, who was, in fact, harassing his daughter. In this case, it is obvious why Fergus altered these facts! Although I cannot find what actually happened to the real Jules Seminole, he is a character that needed to be killed off!

Although May Dodd’s commitment to an insane asylum was only a small portion of the novel, this, too, is based on historical fact. In writing my second book, Kate Cleary, I did extensive research into nineteenth century asylums. It only took one person to petition to the court for anyone to be committed to an insane asylum and only one vague statement from one doctor after a brief examination to bring the person to a short trial (always men on the jury), which usually resulted in commitment.  Along with drug and alcohol addiction, the reasons a person could be placed in an insane asylum included hysteria, menopause, melancholy, smoking, and masterbation! Fathers and husbands, especially those with wealth, had little difficulty in persuading a judge to declare an unsubmissive woman insane.

All in all, One Thousand White Women does an excellent job in describing the courage, dignity, grace, generosity, and selflessness of the  Cheyenne culture and the atrocities inflicted upon them, indeed upon all Native people, in the name of Manifest Destiny. That Captain Bourke and May Dodd completely buy into this myth and exhibit the prejudice of their times may cause us to dislike them, but it is a history lesson that we should not forget.



Go Set a Watchman

© 2015 Mary Murphy & Company LLC

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee

(HarperCollins, 2015)

Like the rest of America, I was anxiously awaiting the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman with very mixed emotions. First, I was excited to read another book by Lee, since she published only a few essays after To Kill a Mockingbird. Then, I was afraid that I would be disappointed that the book would not live up to my admiration of Mockingbird, a book I have taught and reread for many years. Last, I was concerned that the eighty-nine year old author, who had a stroke in 2007 and is deaf, reportedly suffering from short-term memory loss, and confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living center in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, was being taken advantage of by people she trusted who had much to gain once this unpublished manuscript hit the best-seller lists. Somebody would be making a LOT of money off of the reclusive author.

None of my fears materialized. Not only did I enjoy the book, but I was pleased to discover that according to the BBC News (March 13, 2015) that the Alabama Securities Commission, who investigates fraud against the elderly, decided Lee was cognizant of and not pressured into publishing the book. Other articles about her attest to her understanding of the publication; that she may not remember details from one time to the next does not negate her understanding of it at the moment. At least, I hope this is all true. As for living up to To Kill a Mockingbird, I believe that it adds depth to the characters of Scout and Atticus, mirrors well the turmoil of the early 1950s, and contributes autobiographical insight into the author. Although it is not a polished work, it has has much to offer as a companion to Mockingbird.

I will not replay the plot in detail as reviews of Go Set a Watchman clog the internet. At my last check, there were nearly three million “results” in my Google search! In essence, the novel narrates the story of Jean Louise, “Scout,” as an adult returning on her yearly visit to her father and her hometown where she must decide if she wants to marry her lifelong friend, if she can tolerate the prejudice of the South, if she can love and respect her father again, and whether she wants to stay in Maycomb or retreat once more to New York City. To Kill a Mockingbird is a buldungsroman,  the rite of passage of a nine-year old girl who learns about the coexistence good and evil and the importance of walking in another man’s shoes before making judgments. Scout realizes that “there are just one kind of folks. Folks.”All of these moral lessons she learns from her father. However, life is not a non-stop flight to maturity but a voyage filled with turbulence. Go Set a Watchman continues this maturation process.

Jean Louise’s admiration for her father and his moral beliefs, which she has accepted as her own, are shaken when she discovers that he is a member of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a group of leading citizens who believe that Blacks are inferior to whites, and who support segregation. Moreover, he supports states rights and Jeffersonian beliefs that “full citizenship was a privilege to be earned by each man, that it was not something given lightly nor to be taken lightly. A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man, in Jefferson’s eyes. He had to be a responsible man” (244).  Atticus believes that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people” (246). Jean Louise crumbles emotionally. “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me,” she rants (248). “I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anyone in my life and never will again” (250).

Complicating Jean Louise’s emotional turmoil is the marriage proposal from Henry Clinton, a young man who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and is now working as a lawyer with her father. She grew up with the dictum, “Love who you will but marry your own kind” (9), and when the novel opens, she views Hank as her “own kind.” As the novel progresses, however, the relationship becomes more complicated when Aunt Alexandra opposes their marriage. “Henry is not and never will be suitable for you. We Finches do not marry the children of redneck white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives. . . . Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him” (36-37). Even her uncle Dr. Finch explains, “he’s not your kind. . . . I’m not going to argue with you over the relative merits of trash–” (273). That Henry, too, is a member of the Citizen’s Council contributes to her confusion.

The novel climaxes when Jean Louise confronts and denounces her father, and then packs to return to New York.  As she is loading her suitcase into the car, her uncle arrives and attempts to dissuade her, but she is insolent. He strikes her with a backhanded slap that sends her reeling, physically and emotionally. Dr. Finch gives her a shot of whiskey, and tries to help her understand her father. He explains, “you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings. . .  You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers” (265). Standing up to her father was a major turning point in her self-actualization, one Atticus deemed necessary for her personal growth. He was willing to sacrifice her love for him for her own well-being. As her uncle explains, “He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being” (266). Jean Louise’s denunciation was necessary for her to begin functioning as an individual. “I love you” were the last words he spoke to her after their argument, and now she knows how much (253).

Fortuitously, my September 2015 issue of The Atlantic arrived just as I was completing the novel. The article “The Coddling of the American Mind” helps explicate the confrontation between Jean Louise and her father. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that currently in education, students tend to be “protected rather than challenged” and that this process is both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual” (52). They explain: “There’s a saying common in education. Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding” (45). Jean Louise’s anger, even her renunciation of her father, was necessary to transform her into a more reasoning adult, one who could put herself in another person’s shoes and walk around in them a while. Watchman would be an excellent text for today’s students. It would help them realize that although they may not agree with a person’s beliefs, perhaps even those of their own parents, they can understand them. “If students graduate believing that they can learn nothing from people they dislike or from whom they disagree,” state Lukianoff and Haidt, “we will have done them a great intellectual disservice” (61). Rather than let Jean Louise continue in her own narrow biases, her father and her uncle conspire to open her mind.

Next, Jean Louise must decide where home will be for her. Dr. Finch accuses her of turning and running when she is confronted by bigotry, and asks her if she ever thought about coming back home. “You may not know it,” he says, “but there’s room for you down here. . . . The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you” (272). When she drives her uncle to his home, as she departs she hears him singing two lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore  (1887). They describe the young Jean Louise well: “exceedingly odd” and “suffering much from spleen and vapors.”  She responds with the lines that they only “cut respectable capers” now (275). The ending lines of the song hint at what Jean Louise’s choice will be, the same choice that Harper Lee herself made in returning to Monroeville. “My taste for the wandering life is waning/ A moderate livelihood we’re gaining/ The duties are dull but I’m not complaining.”

The last decision that Jean Louise must make is whether or not to marry Henry Clinton. When she asks Dr. Finch what she should do about him, he knows her heart and says, “Let him down easy. . . . he’s not your kind” (273). This is the most difficult part of the ending to accept as a reader, for throughout the novel, she has been railing against the bigotry of her hometown. Although she considers herself color-blind, does she succumb to her family’s unyielding class prejudices? However, from the beginning, she has had doubts about Henry. When he first picks her up at the train, she reflects that she was “almost in love with him,” then realizes that “Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal” and decides to remain a spinster for the time being (15). Although the readers realize that the novel will not end happily ever after in a marriage between Jean Louise and Henry, her reasons remain ambiguous.

Readers familiar with the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird may have trouble accepting the beliefs of the seventy-two year old lawyer of Go Set a Watchman, just like Jean Louise does. In Mockingbird, Attticus believes in equal rights for all and special privileges for none, and he ignores public censure for defending a black man falsely accused of rape. How could he defend a Black man yet believe they are inferior? How could he believe in equal rights yet still be a segregationist? To me,  Atticus’s actions are understandable when you consider that first, he was assigned to defend Tom Robinson by the judge; second, as an attorney, he believed in following the letter of the law; and third, he was a strong proponent of the tenth amendment, of states’ rights. It was not so much that he was against Blacks being equal, but that he was against the government telling the states what to do rather than letting each state decide for itself, especially after the Supreme Court’s Brown Vs. Board of Education ruling which declared that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. States Rights is still a controversial issue today!

 © 2015 Mary Murphy & Company LLCFor me as a writer (and literature professor), Harper Lee’s literary allusions add interest and deeper meaning to the narrative, one that will make many English teachers salivate. For example, Lee repeatedly refers to Robert Browning’s long poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” This reference is significant because it concerns a young man who is on a quest for the “Dark Tower” although the reader never really learns the tower’s significance. He wanders through gloomy and difficult terrain, discouraged, afraid, and longing for home, until he reaches his goal and sounds his horn. The tragedy is that no one hears his horns or understands him, making his quest appear meaningless. The cultural setting of Browning’s dramatic monologue echoes that of Watchman. “Childe Roland” is set during the Industrial Revolution, a time when many saw increased urbanization and a moralistic decay of Victorian society and mirrors the turbulence of the South during the 1950s. Moreover, Darwin’s new theories of evolution, new to the Victorians, were still upheld by the Citizens’ Council and shared in their pamphlet, The Black Plague. Some critics believe that the poem is an exploration of the mind; if so, it would clearly parallel Jean Louise’s emotional turmoil.

Lee also references Dorian Gray, the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), the story of a man who surrenders his soul so that he can remain young and handsome with his portrait aging instead of him. When Jean Louise comes down to breakfast after the revelation of her father’s prejudice, she is afraid to look at him, afraid that he would have changed in her eyes. However, she realizes that “He had not changed. His face was the same as always” (156). Jean Louise is the one who has aged.

Then, there is the obvious Biblical reference of the title of the novel from Isiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” In the article, “Go Set a Watchman: What Does Harper Lee’s Book Title Mean?” Greg Garrison  quotes historian Wayne Flynt, a Baptist minister and friend of Harper Lee. He explains that setting a watchman means that “Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town.” Flynt explains that Lee was raised in a Bible-reading family and that she loved the elegance of the language of the King James Version. According to him, “Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. It’s really God speaking to the Hebrews, saying what you need to do is set a watchman, to set you straight, to keep you on the right path. What more elegant title could there be?” Perhaps this would hint at Jean Louise’s probable choice of returning to Maycomb to fulfill her uncle’s invitation, “we need some more of you” (272). She could serve as the Watchman.

The book does have flaws typical of beginning writers (after all it was the “parent” of To Kill a Mockingbird according to Lee). The sections and flashbacks occasionally do not flow smoothly, for the reader has no way of knowing what was cut from the manuscript and used in Mockingbird. Moreover, Lee slips into the Telling Not Showing trap in her lengthy conversations with Dr. Finch and even her father. Fortunately, the novel also has much to recommend it. Lee’s descriptive style and especially her characterizations reveal the people, culture, and setting of the fictional Maycomb with insight and understanding. She has truly learned to walk in other peoples shoes before judging them.