Two Books about Native Americans

Recently, I read two books about the native people who originally inhabited what became the United States of America. The first was The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa). She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Her latest book tells the story of her grandfather’s recognition of a proposed law in the U. S. Senate which would eventually “terminate” all treaties with Indian nations, and immediately terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He gathered others from the tribe and alerted them to the real meaning of the text. The tribe had already been dispossessed of the better land in their area, and had poor education, health, and employment opportunities. Some left for Minneapolis and other cities in desperation, and others moved to another reservation near the Great Lakes. This termination would remove them from their land and disperse them as refugees. Erdrich combines her grandfather’s work with a fictional story of an Indian family, and especially about one of the daughters. For me, the two stories had different tones and intentions, and made the story fragmented to the point of losing direction completely sometimes. She tied them together with a vision of the old man’s, linking them spiritually. The Night Watchman gives the reader an authentic look at Indian life in more modern times than normally found in literature. It is a searing indictment of American disregard for the value of Native peoples’ lives, and for the ability of her grandfather and his tribe to understand what was happening in that proposed legislation. He could see in the night, and he was a fine watchman. The Night Watchman was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The second book, Red and White, by Kenneth Weene, weaves together the nuanced story of Lonely Cricket, a young member of the Ho-Chunk nation, with a sweeping epic of American history after the Civil War. He gives us the details of the boy’s life, his Native parents’ lives, and those of the White settlers who live nearby. He tells the story through the events and behaviors of particular people, while connecting them to the bigger picture. The locations are well-described, and the characters seem to be authentic and historically accurate. The crux of the novel is the identification of people with one group or another, which is exemplified in Lonely Cricket. He lives in a time of change as European Americans move west. Native people are killed, families separated, and tribes are broken up and removed from their traditional lands. Lonely Cricket is swept up in this turmoil. He holds to his identity, drawing strength from the stories of his father, Lame Bear, and the love he has for his sister, Happy Turtle.

The novel is interspersed with teaching stories, ostensibly those of the Ho-Chunk. Whether these are accurate I am not able to say. They appear to be respectfully given. The stories are building blocks of a moral and ethical life or tell the particular story of a people.

Weene I think avoids the pitfalls of a White author writing about Native Americans. Instead, he explores the intersection of different cultures and histories. The clashes and convergences create a range of perspectives which he handles well. At the same time, the main character’s experience remains the center of the novel. The boy discovers his true birth parents, and that changes everything. Or does it?

To tell the complex story of American history we need more of these kinds of books. They provide great insight into the bad faith and ideals, tragic failures and resilience, of our country.

Death and Renascence

Excerpt from Chapter 4

Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

PJ described the hours and days that followed. “There was a terrible clacking noise beating on his eardrums. Loud. Sharp. Penetrating, like metal against metal, woke him. When it moved away it came back again, stronger, louder, more tortuous than before. How could he bear it? He cried out, ‘What is that noise? I can’t stand it. Can’t someone stop it?’”

A nurse answered, “It’s only a power mower. Someone outside is mowing the lawn.”

“Make them stop it,” he pleaded. “I can’t take it.” But already he could begin to take it. After all, it was only a power mower, a man mowing the grass. The sound became normal.

“What is this?” he cried out. “Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are you?”

With her calm and matter-of-fact voice, the nurse answered, “You were out yesterday for a long time, out cold. Now you’ve had three blood transfusions and you are alive again. Take it easy. Don’t worry, just rest.”

He thought, “How awful. Yesterday I was dead. My God, what a silly sentimental speech I made.” When he woke up and saw that he was alive, it repulsed him. “Why couldn’t they have left him alone? Why couldn’t they have let him remain dead?”

He wrote:

There was really no place in the world for him now. He was not a newborn baby. He had a man’s body, a man’s consciousness, a man’s load of experience, memory. How could he accept life?

He had died and those damned doctors were probably patting themselves on the back, bragging about how they had saved him.

Damn them. Why didn’t they let him die?

He hated with all his strength the life he would now have to begin to live. He turned his face to the wall. He was horribly shattered that he had to live again. His family could have taken more easily the consequences of his death. Now, he, himself, would have to live with them, while they lived with a man who was no longer a husband and a father, but a specter returned to harass them. He buried his face in the pillow. He did not weep, or mourn for himself, dead or alive.

“The Father and Husband died on the operating table forty years ago. I could not continue my former life, could not be the man I was before my death.”

“You said you’d lived past your destiny.”

“Yes. But I had to accept that I could not regain my death any more than deny myself alive.” He was a skeleton, but he was alive. “I had to learn to live again, and find new reasons to live.”

In “Tender Branch,” he quoted the Book of Job:

“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down,
that it will sprout again,
and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”

“So when I physically died on the operating table, I was reborn, innocent as a newborn baby, but with the memory of a grown man. But death had taken away all my guilt and replaced it with innocence.”

***

PJ, in yellow cut off shorts and ravaged wicker sandals, was sitting on the corner by the restaurant with his Fair Weather Gallery. People passed by and I heard one of them say, “Look, the Old Man of the Village.”

He would not put a price on the drawings and designs.

“Art is priceless,” he said. People failed to understand that when they took or received a piece of art they were supposed to offer a contribution to the artist, so the artist could keep on working. PJ continued to be mystified by people who took a piece of work and simply walked away.

I sat down on a folding chair next to him, picking up one of his paintings and resting it against my legs. Across Greenwich Avenue, where the Women’s House of Detention once stood, a garden was in full throttle. “I didn’t know if you’d be here,” I said. “I took a chance.”

“The fragile thread is woven from these intuitive acts,” PJ commented.

People sat at the sidewalk café. Again, the owner waved to PJ, who smiled back.

“Intuition is the motivating force behind our actions. It’s natural to respond and act intuitively, and unnatural to think about acting.”

PJ evoked many different responses on the street. Some people thought he was a bum, some thought he was crazy. But others, artists, printers and writers, Village residents, would stop to chat, recognizing him.

“I wanted to talk to you about The Document.”

“Do you want to ask me questions about The Document?”

“Is it a journal? What kind of thing is it, exactly?”

“The Document was begun one year and two months after he split with his wife. The purpose was to identify the ghost of Vivian’s husband because he had been reborn and didn’t have an identity. So the documentary writer decided to take this new born, fully grown baby and ‘make a man out of him.’”

“How do you identify yourself?”

“The first thing was that Vivi’s husband had an idea of one man and one woman. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of love with Vivi and he had just had a hot love affair with JJ and she had rejected him. The whole thing was a terrible mess.”

“You had an affair?”

“It was a big whoop-dee-doo affair that was supposed to take the place of losing Vivian. What it led to was a big deception on my part and on JJ’s part, too. She deceived herself that it was love and that I would marry her and things like that. The affair lasted a year and she decided she would reject me and give it up, it was a sudden thing. This was a tremendous blow to my ego. So that was when the document writer picked up and began trying to get me ordered in a line. He wrote for the ghost to read, that after all, a man could love as many women as he wanted to, as would let him and it didn’t have to mean sex in every case. That was the birth of the great lover.”

Over the years, he had created new identities, new reasons to live. He recorded all his “deaths and renascences.” Some identities were sequential and others simultaneous. Several of these identities were female. The most constant, perhaps continually renewed, were The Writer, The Artist, and the Professor of Love.

“You can die of an overload of guilt and hostility,” he summarized. “I died of an overload of guilt many times and was reborn with the innocence of a baby.”

“Didn’t N.O. Brown say something like that? About a new man, reborn into a second innocence?”

Yes, he nodded. “As one identity succumbs, a new one has to be created.”

In The Document he sought his motivations and evaluated the use of his time and the consequences of his behavior. “And in those early years I lived my life intuitively,” he said, “although I did not know it then, making choices which were completely unconscious, but which all together moved my life in a certain direction. We may not know it, but we make decisions based on what is valuable to us, and these small unconscious decisions cause us to go in one direction or another.”

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Covenant: When We Left Paradise

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The friendships of four children are tested by family dysfunction, relocation and the changes of the 1960s. Set in semi-rural, part-suburban Florida, this short novel takes the children through school integration, civil rights, and the explosion of rock’n’roll music. Secrets and betrayal lurk beneath the seemingly normal surface. Orchie and Red seek love and a meaningful life, Bobby escapes his abusive grandfather and learns the truth of his parents’ deaths, and Lucy goes in search of her tribal family near the Everglades after her father leaves the family. In the atmosphere of the Gulf Coast’s vacationland, the circus, and great swaths of wilderness, their journeys tell the story of an era but are also universal. 

Covenant, by Mary Clark, Kindle

Excerpts from Covenant:

She saw clearly when she left paradise. He left the garden, seeing the world for the first time.

It is 1960.

Elvis’ voice is an ellipse from every hamburger joint. In rural Florida, subdivisions and truck farms, migrant workers camps, quarries, parks, ranches, rodeos, and small villages dissect the sprawl of the land. The circuses—Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, Clyde Beatty and the Cole Brothers—winter at the fairgrounds.

Children sit on their front lawns listening to transistor radios play soul and the blues, country, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll, words burning down in the sun, staying like liquid metal in their brains. Blue-jean babies, leather-jacket ladies, flying beyond their parents’ call.

Fishermen found Larson’s boat drifting on an estuary. The next morning, his body was found below an old boat ramp.

“He must have fallen, hit his head, gone overboard,” Earl said, “and his boat kept on going.”

Red and Orchie walked to Bobby’s house. He was standing at the end of his driveway, as if he had been waiting for them.

“The police came here and told me my dad was dead.” Bobby stuffed his hands in his jeans’ pockets. “I didn’t feel anything.” He hunched his shoulders. “But when they said I couldn’t live here anymore, I . . . I started to cry.”

Orchie put her arm around his shoulders.

In silence as they walked to the orange groves, Orchie imprinted on her memory the freckled nose and sprout of hair on the back of Bobby’s head, the too-small tee-shirt, the too-big blue jeans, and vowed never to forget.

A vision of the trading ships of the world coming into the harbor, bringing their gift, their legacy—sailing, sailing—the heavy vessels of the past empty their cargo and are refilled, flowing with a purpose, only to run empty across time and space to find that purpose again. Swinging across the globe and back, they circle quietly with the joy and ecstasy of fulfillment in time, until they sink into the fold and mantle of the sea, all the while creating a design so potent it shapes eternity.

Reviews:

That is a truly wonderful book Mary. I read it right through in one go and it held me spellbound. It’s like a glass of rich red wine.  You drink it slowly right to the end and then you say, Ah. – David Turnbull, writer, occupational coach

The story is soothing and stark, amusing and disquieting, individualistic and altruistic as it reflects through hours, days, months and years. Mary Clark’s writing is eloquent, even as she ‘speaks’ of poverty and violence, devastation and betrayal. It is word-rich with beautiful sensory descriptions that set the scenes – the woods, the swamps, the beaches, the small town – where the young people spend their time; a blend of raw reality and dreaminess that moves the narrative beyond the simple alliance of children to an agreement that requires them to look into their consciences and hearts. – Diane Denton, author

Plot, movement, characters, ambience, and metaphors. A series of scenes beautifully created and sewn together. Very satisfying. The complete picture will remain with you. – Sally young-eslinger, poet

My Writing Process: The Blog Hop Tour

DM Denton (http://bardessdmdenton.wordpress.com) invited me to participate in this Blog Hop Tour and answer four questions about my writing process. Diane is the author of A House Near Luccoli, All Things That Matter Press, an historical romance based on the life of the Baroque musician and composer Alessandro Stradella. An accomplished artist, she illustrates her own books. Her short fiction books include The Library Next Door and The Snow White Gift.

1) What am I working on?

I am taking a stab at philosophical essays, relying more on my sticky-note mind that gloms up ideas, phrases, points of view and a dim memory of wandering into the wilderness from time to time in my life, than any deliberate reading or traditional educational experience. Some of these essays are inspired by a writing group of thinkers, caregivers, teachers, and disabled persons: actually each person in the group embodies several or all of these “labels.”

Currently, I am working on Children of the Moon, or is it working on me? In this long short story, or novelette, a troubling and enigmatic character named Shadow is befriended by several teens. Two teenaged brothers, Sandy and Will, are separated as Sandy is convicted of assault and sentenced to a long jail term. Two teenaged girls, Laurel and Mira, face their own challenges along with those of the brothers. A rancher-lawyer, Morris Rubra, tries to help them all. There’s a bit of mystery in what happens to Sandy, and at the end, an unexpected link to another book of mine.

The other major project, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen, is much longer. This is what I call a “docu-memoir” of my early years on Manhattan’s West Side, working in the arts and transiting into community services.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Each of my books mixes styles, or genres. In this way, perhaps my writing will bridge the gap between very different people, and if I can achieve it, between and among diverse communities.

I’d like to think I’m part of a trend toward mixing genres and creating new classifications. One popular author, Alexander McCall Smith, in his detective series combines the slimmest mysteries with philosophy, social commentary, ethics, and a dash of history.

Tally: An Intuitive Life (All Things That Matter Press) is part memoir, part biography, and features conversations about philosophy and art history. It differs in that it doesn’t keep to a strict chronology, and two of the main characters’ names are changed, really a literary device. So it’s best described as that new amalgam, Creative Non-Fiction.

Children of Light (BardPress/Ten Penny Players) is a blend, or alternation, of poetry, poetic prose and dialogue, built around the themes or issues, and characters, rather than traditional plot lines. It is traditional in that it is chronological, but even in the specific times and places, there is universality. A reader called it a “poetry novel” years ago and the name has stuck.

Covenant (self-published Kindle Direct)  falls into a new category: Boomer Lit. It is primarily historical fiction, with occasional poems, calling on some of my own experiences growing up in Florida in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Other parts came from research and stories I heard later on.  There is little embellishment, which there often is in the historical fiction genre, but there are variations of theme and character, so it is my hope (it springs eternal) they appear at different stages, in different lights.

In Children of the Moon, my writing continues in this terse style, with metaphors bundled into a few sentences. These follow one upon another. Each sentence or two sentences is like a Tweet. I began writing like this about twenty years ago as modern life bore down upon me with all its stimulation and diversity. Before that, I was interested in the detail, the finest descriptions. The change helped me cull out the meaningful from the noise, and move on, because so much more is available, out there to be apprehended. Yes, there is a loss of the wonderful detail, the embellishments of 19th Century literature. But I think we receive and take in information differently now.

3) Why do I write what I do?

There’s the sheer beauty of the experience. It began with that, and still does. Writing is also an adventure into the unknown; sometimes it’s a response to a subliminal beckoning: into what you sense but don’t realize that you have any knowledge or understanding of until you make the journey. There are always surprises, times of pain, times of fun and epiphany.

Certain ideas and characters have been with me for years. With them I live through and express my reality. In a way they are avatars that I unleash in fictional or historical settings. The ideas that populate my mind, that Jungian garden, involve human motivation, our essential nature, and our role, if any, in the universe. So there’s a lot about intent, guilt and innocence, identity, relationship with the natural world, love and friendship, freedom, search for meaning, and death.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, for instance, is an unvarnished look at old age and dying, and how we determine the meaning of our lives. It is a story of caregiving and friendship across generations and values and lifestyles. It will challenge you as a reader.

4) How does your writing process work?

It would be a good idea to have one! I suspect I would be more successful. Basically, I sit down and write whenever and wherever I can, as long as I have the space and time to concentrate.

And now, I recommend visiting the websites of these fine writers who have joined us in the Blog Hop:

Grace Peterson is an author, garden columnist and blogger. Depending on the weather she can be found either pecking on her laptop or puttering in her garden. Her blog can be found at www.gracepete.com

Jo Robinson is a South African writer. In her book, African Me and Satellite TV, a woman living in modern Zimbabwe has managed to escape reality for years, until she takes in an elderly domestic worker and begins a journey into the turmoil outside her door and within her own life. Jo also writes short stories, science fiction and fantasy. Her blog on “My Writing Process” starts March 3: http://africolonialstories.wordpress.com/

MaryLee MacDonald is unable to join the Blog Tour since she is working on her new novel. She is a prolific writer of literary fiction and creative non-fiction. Her book, Montpelier Tomorrow, is forthcoming from All Things That Matter Press. Please visit her Author’s Guild website: http://www.maryleemacdonald.us/.

Without Risk There Is No Art

My Review of A House Near Luccoli by D. M. Denton, published by All Things That Matter Press

The author’s style takes the conventional and then begins the deconstruction, the rearrangements, to bring us into the reality of Alessandro Stradella, a gifted Baroque composer and musician. This deconstruction and rearranging is what an artist does. Rather than imitate reality, he selects what is important to him, and abstracts what is essential to achieve a new reality. People, relationships, emotions and ideas are put through this process of reordering. The artist abstracts what is vital and compelling, and releases it as a living thing.

From the moment of inspiration until the intuitive flow has ceased, expression is more important than communication. For this reason, an artist often is not very good at personal relationships. So it is with Alessandro Stradella.

The book explores the ways in which passion can order and disorder an artist’s creativity, and drive even a repressed and unadventurous person to experiment. Stradella’s behavior is a form of rebellion against the power that the elite have over artists in his day. His music is filled with pure notes, a sharp contrast to a corrupt world that tempts him.

When he deconstructs one of the powerful, his risky behavior is a direct threat, not a concerto that can be interpreted and dismissed with a smile. Rearranging and abstracting, done clumsily, appear to be a form of imitation known as mockery. Stradella takes this beyond the stage and written page and pays a heavy price.

Without risk there is no art, only craftsmanship. There are beautiful sentences in this book that would not have been possible without the experimentation that preceded them. A House Near Luccoli tears away at the borders of convention, just as Stradella did in his life.

It may be irrelevant to think in terms of success and failure when it comes to any artistic endeavor, since all efforts contribute to the artist’s journey, and there is always difference of opinion on what has succeeded and what has not. But there are times when the artist and the audience know the effort has not reached the desire outcome, when the intuition has moved in another direction and the work continued at a less inspired and more conceptualized level. In this book, Denton has often remained true to her intuition. Some sentences soar, while many loop out into variations on a theme, as music does, with results that are satisfying, or disconcerting, and oddly, often both. This baroque writing style adeptly embodies the times and the musician/composer who inhabits the story.

This review is also posted on Amazon and Goodreads.

Tally on The Story Reading Ape’s website

A short biography and notes about Tally: An Intuitive Life appeared in November 2013 on  The Story Reading Ape:

Tally is the story of Paul Johnston (PJ), and his relationship with two young poets: Erin Yes and Rogue. PJ lived in Greenwich Village, NYC, most of his adult life. This book is a chronicle of his life, and these friendships in his last years, taken from his letters and writings, and audiotapes he and I did together.

The name Tally comes from an early conversation in the book, when the poet Rogue first introduces Erin Yes to PJ. In PJ’s garret Rogue and Erin see the remains of a rich life: books, film, artwork, theater and dance flyers, photography, music, and photos of family and friends. Rogue says to her: “I’m drawn to old age because I want to know how it all adds up, or doesn’t add up in the end.”

In the beginning, Erin simply wants to help an old man whose sight and hearing are failing. She becomes intrigued by some of his ideas: how an intuitive program is built up in childhood, how we deal with guilt and innocence, what leads to amiability and hostility, and how we can adjust our “intuitive self-guidance.” Rather than rationalize or justify our motivations and actions, he believed we had the ability to honestly (that is, without defensiveness or righteousness) evaluate our intent, behavior and its consequences, and make a change that is positive and remain, or renew, ourselves as innocent, amiable human beings.

With Erin’s help PJ publishes some of his writing and hosts parties in his artist’s loft. He tells her that they are “together in amiable affection.” As PJ struggles with illness and old age, Erin becomes ever more deeply involved in the often difficult, but also rewarding, friendship with this eccentric Old Man.

For more, click here.

Note: Book Promo was November 16, 2013 – but check Amazon to see if there are any new discounts! Tally is part of Amazon’s Matchbook program which means that if you buy the print book, you get the Kindle for $1.99 (send one as a gift).