Earlier this summer, I reread Peter De Vries's Blood of the Lamb and loved it. "Loved it" may be overstated--how about "found it riveting." I'm not sure if my reading of Frederick Manfred's Scarlet Plume now marks a return to nativism or what (both writers were born and reared in the Dutch Reformed world), but I just finished that novel last night and found it, too, riveting. I honestly don't know if I'd recommend the book to anyone, but I enjoyed it.
I'm interested in the 1862 Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota because it's a part of local American history that I don't know much about. Honestly, that's why I picked up the book--again (like Blood of the Lamb, I'd read Scarlet Plume before, years ago); it's a story taken from that sad history. Reading fiction from someone you know has its limitations because one's enjoyment is colored by one's acquaintence: I keep seeing Manfred when I read, sometimes seeing him at the expense of experiencing the story, if that makes sense.
What I disliked about the novel is Manfred's especially shaky appropriation of female-ness. I'm not about to claim expertise in that regard, but it seems almost irrefutable that the man--and he was a good friend--didn't "get" women, or at least didn't create them well. In Scarlet Plume, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place because his two major characters are--methinks--out of his range. On one hand he chooses a central character who is Native American. Being raised Dutch Calvinist may have its advantages, but one of them, is not the ability to know what goes on in the soul of a Yankton Sioux warrior at odds with the brutality of his band, circa 1862. I'm not convinced by Scarlet Plume, the book or the character.
Vying for our interest, and actually winning us over, is the real protagonist of a novel, a white woman who falls in love with Scarlet Plume, a woman who, early in the novel, is the victim of a beastly attack when the Yanktons go on a bloody rampage, as they did, by the way, in 1862. She's Manfred's main concern, really. I just don't think she's convincing.
One of the marks of a great novel is our unwavering conviction that the characters actually do exist--think Marilyn Robinson's Gilead, for example. When Manfred tries to climb into the psyche of a violated white woman in 1862, he doesn't do much better than he does with the noble savage with whom she falls in love.
In other words, I don't think he pulls it off. DeVries does. Blood of the Lamb is a much, much, much better novel.
However, what I like about Scarlet Plume is the broad sweep, it's thematic and moral target. Right now, once again we're in the middle of our own national problems with race and culture. The moment Obama used the word "stupidly" in his press conference two nights ago, I knew he was in trouble. In terms of the interaction beteen two human beings, in this case it's altogether possible that what happened in Cambridge was exactly what the cop thought it to be--an uncooperative suspect raising holy hell when he shouldn't have.
But that doesn't mean Obama was wrong. In light of the reality of racial profiling, in light of the fact that we're talking about an old man who walks with a cane and is 5'7" tall, in light of the fact that he was in his own house, and that he is the pre-eminent black historian in America, in light of the fact that the case was almost immediately dropped, it seems to me that the police did act stupidly.
Right now, as I go out to the rec center, I'll snap on the iPod and listen, as I have been, to another book, something titled Outcasts United, the story of an rag-tag bunch of immigrant kids from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, who tear up soccer fields in and around Atlanta, but generally butt heads with the white establishment in an Atlanta suburb, Clarkston, where they live. If there's any question about the reality of racial profiling, Outcasts United dispels it. It's almost impossible to see Prof. Gates's story apart from the realities of life and living here and now.
And, in Scarlet Plume the big story Manfred tells he has right, even though he handles the particulars, well, somewhat "stupidly." The big story is the immense gulf which separates national and ethnic and religious cultures. The big story is that the captive white woman and her Edenic Yankton lover would have had immense problems getting along in either society in the 1860s, if, in fact, they could have loved at all (a question Manfred never really entertains). They're as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet, and their love is similarly destined to crash horribly.
The fact is that ethnicity and faith and nationality create cultures that don't mix easily, and anyone who says they do is smoking something potent. Just this morning, I read the horrific story of four boys, ages 8 -14, who raped an eight-year-old girl in Phoenix. Bad enough? There's more. The girl's father says he doesn't want her back. She's defiled and therefore brought shame on her family.
All five kids are Liberian immigrants who've lugged along their own dossier of cultural notions. The fact is, multi-culturalism goes over much easier at food fairs than it does in real life. In Scarlet Plume, Manfred--like Obama--got the particulars wrong; but the story right. People from wholly different cultures don't make sing out sweet Coke commercials as easily in real life as they do when their paid good money.
There was something plainly ironic last week about all those white guys chiding Sotomayor for suggesting that her being a Latina would have a bearing on how she saw justice itself. Their being white doesn't? Gimme a break.
All of that having been said, if you're among those who truly believe that if we in America only had a monochrome populace of good, white Christian people, we'd be just fine, you're kidding yourself. Some South Africans believed it not long ago, and they're still suffering. Then again, it might be difficult to find a more monochrome nation than South Korea, right? Well, check this out.
A century ago in the small Iowa town where I live, some Dutch people really disliked the wetbacks flooding in. Where were those immigrants from? The Netherlands.
And answer me this, why am I writing now, once again, second time this summer, unrepentantly, about a long-ago forgotten novels by Dutch-American writers?