Monday, March 26, 2007

Twelve Blackfeet Stories, by Mary Scriver

When Jehovah brought back those that returned to Zion,
We were like unto them that dream.
- Psalm 126:1

And you may say to yourself,
“This is not my beautiful house!
This is not my beautiful wife!”
- Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime

Everyone experiences moments when their grasp of reality suddenly seems tenuous. Lately mine have occurred during nighttime journeys by car. Particularly when I’m travelling a well-worn path, I’ll suddenly look around without comprehension. Did I take the turn east, or am I still driving north? Where am I? Eventually I’ll recognize a landmark, and reassurance settles back in.

The reassurance itself is illusory, of course. Taking the familiar for granted is everyone’s peculiar and inevitable act of hubris. The next visit to the doctor could change everything. So could the next trip to Wal-Mart. So much changes; so little changes.

Still, there are social systems and communal coping strategies that we rely on and place some faith in, no matter how tenuous. How was it for the Native Americans as they watched a familiar landscape they already regarded as dreamlike become surreal to the extreme, overturning and supplanting every tenet they held sacred until their very identity came into question?

The train was much bigger than it had seemed from a distance and there were clouds of steam as the engine labored to pull. He ran alongside, a bit weak from lack of exercise. Then it stopped again and a man came along with a lantern. Horse saw that the boxcars were painted with strange animals — long necks and impossible noses, strange ruffs around the neck. Extraordinary people were pictured on there as well — very fat women and men with drawing all over them. They must be very powerful.

The man with the lantern was ordinary enough. “Better get back on board, Chief. We’re only gonna be here a few minutes more. This fort ain’t big enough for the circus.”

The Indian Man got onto the flatcar, snuffing up the strange smells. A great ripping trumpeting sound came from inside the train. His heart leapt in him and he grabbed the handle of the knife in his belt. “Stumiksatosee!” he muttered. “Medicine bull.” Then he laughed. It was all part of the dream-like experience of being free again and going home.

This passage comes from Horizon, one of the Twelve Black Feet Stories by Mary Scriver. The historical setting is sometime in the mid-1800s, and the Indian Man — Horse — has just been sprung from an asylum. His sense of freedom is temporary; the people he is riding the rails with know his “home” is now a reservation. The dreamlike experience which began at the asylum and has worn down Horse with its immeasurable tedium and indignities will continue to grind on without relief.

Scriver’s stories encapsulate just over 200 years of Blackfeet history. Those two centuries prove to be an unwelcome revolution for the Blackfeet, as they’re repeatedly driven to the brink of extinction. They manage to survive, however, as does some measure of their spirit — but both are beleaguered, reconnoitering an alien reality.

This is tremendously compelling reading. Scriver knows the people and their history (the book is an exceptional value just for the Blackfeet timeline she provides in her endnotes), and her patient attention to physical detail and its effect on character heightens the disturbing, illusory quality of Blackfeet life as it’s strained to the breaking point again and again. The ordinary is juxtaposed with the extraordinary, and her characters summon what they can to deal with the roiling sea-change around them. Against all odds the stories generate a quiet sense of resolution and hope — although when pointedly set against a present-day Montana and its arsenal of Minuteman missiles these spiritual achievements seem slight and tentative. Certainly a cultivated sense of irony and a willingness to laugh will help, and as long-time readers of Mary’s blog already know, she possesses both traits in abundance.

In genre and artistic achievement, Twelve Blackfeet Stories sits comfortably next to the fiction of Guy Vanderhaege and Joseph Boyden. Along with Scriver, this is a trio of literary names I would like to see reach the same public recognition as Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry. This is a wonderful book, a charter tour of a world in which we are all, to some measure, alien. I look forward to exploring more of what promises to be a very stimulating and culturally necessary body of work.

1 comment:

prairie mary said...

GEEZ! Big thanks, Darrell! What a review! It will show up on Google, too! This week's high point research-wise was hearing about "Google Book Search" and typing in "Blackfeet." It was like hitting the jackpot on a "fruit machine" and getting a bucket of change! Old government documents detailing agreements, inspections, evaluations and regulations. I think they might be downloadable, too.

The stickiest point research-wise is trying to find someone who has seen or possibly held a buffalo heart. Is it different from a beef heart in some way? There are people around here who know - I just have to find them.

Prairie Mary