Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Brother Andrew


It started with the Great Plains, the lure of the openness, maybe, the exploration of Lewis and Clark, who, only an hour away, stopped to investigate a bump amid all the flatness here, a place they called "spirit mound" because the native people claimed tiny little human beings, a foot tall, lived there. No such folks then or now in our backyard.

From the plains, my interests moved to Native people themselves, especially "the Ghost Dance," prelude to Wounded Knee, as a religion, "the first real American religion," Ian Frazier calls it in his book The Great Plains. My interest in the Ghost Dance resulted in a novel, Touches the Sky, a novel that brings together my own ethnic and religious heritage with the story of the Lakota just west of here.

From the Lakota, my now much sharpened interest moved to education: the story of Indian boarding schools and the effects of mission efforts on the reservations west of here, a story that is, at best, a mixed bag of blessings.

And now let me throw this all into reverse for a moment. A quarter century ago I wrote a story about a woman who was then quite elderly, a woman named Dena Vander Wagen, daughter-in-law of a pioneer missionary, Andrew Vander Wagen, to the Navajo and Zuni Native peoples of western New Mexico. When she told me her father-in-law's story, I was taken by his willful immersion in the culture. This cowboy Vander Wagen wasn't a missionary in the traditional sense, a man determined to go out on a errand from which he'd return, a mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, as if his service was some special calling. When he came to New Mexico in the late 19th century, he came to live, to stay. The church that sent him didn't know quite what to do with that--someone who actually wanted to live with the people, not simply preach to them (although he wanted to do that too).

So five years ago already, I came up with an idea for a novel--the story of a man like Andrew Vander Wagen, pioneer missionary, set in South Dakota, among the Sioux, because I know far better how the sun rises and sets on the Great Plains than I know what the world looks like on the high deserts of New Mexico. My interests married, in a way. There's a novel I'd love to write, I told himself. . . .when I retire, when I retire.

Last night I opened a self-published family saga written about that man's life, a loving tribute created by Andrew Vander Wagen's granddaughter, Elaine Thomas, and I discovered, on the third page of the manuscript that this pioneer preacher and cowboy and horseman and Indian trader, this tough guy saint, this man I've so long admired, was, in fact, a relative of mine. His grandfather was my great-great grandfather.

Now that's an immense stretch, and I know it. Most people couldn't care less. But among the Navajo he loved and served, that blood link would certainly be enough for us to call each other "brother." Among the Sioux, our being family would mean a great deal.

I'm not a mystic. I have trouble with sweet Christian people telling me that God told them to do this or that or the other thing. I'm likely too much a rationalist and a realist--I'm not into magic of any sort really. I'm not like Andrew Vander Wagen that way; he says one day, back in the 1880s, he was pole-axed by the Holy Spirit when he was on his way to train and run horses in Springfield, Illinois. I never got myself tripped up, run down, or chased across town by the Holy Spirit.

But last night, on the third page of a book about a man I've admired for a quarter century, I discovered the two of us had some shared DNA, and I felt the closest I've felt in years to an outright call from on high.

Awhile ago a friend of mine asked me if I'd contribute a story to a collection he wanted to edit, a collection of stories about saints. I was born and reared too much a Calvinist to have any significant knowledge of saints, and I told him so. "No, no, no," he said. "Don't think of it that way." He said he meant contemporary saints too, people whose lives were somehow exemplary. He's no more a Roman Catholic than I am.

I told him I thought I could do that, and I had just the man in mind, a pioneer missionary cowboy.

And now it turns out we're relation. Amazing. Last night I got pole-axed.

3 comments:

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

You probably have been run around town by the Holy Spirit. It's just that you saw your legs moving, and you just happened to believe they move because you asked them too. Who knows...being a Calvinist, I'd believe that God purposed the results of His anonymity and enjoyed it.

Gail Kooi said...

Have you written about Brother Andrew? Who was our great-great-grandfather?

Anonymous said...

The ultimate Dutch bingo, eh?