A friend of mine, a Cherokee, once told me to beware of getting too far into Native history, culture, and life because such investigations might not ever let me go. "Look out," she said, "you won't be able to get back out." Her words stick with me because right now, it seems, I'm almost powerless to stop reading.
I just finished The Last Indian War: the Nez Perce Story (Oxford, 2011) by Elliot West. Earlier this summer, I read S. C. Gwynn's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History (Scribner, 2011), the book with the longest title since the 19th century, as well as Geraldine Brooks new novel, Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 2011). I got into big, sprawling books about the American West years ago, by way of Dee Brown's 1987 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Vintage) and Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star (1997), as well as Hampton Sides Blood and Thunder (Anchor, 2007) and, last summer, Black Hawk's Autobiography.
When I think about the geography those books cover, what's notable in its absence is something about the Trail of Tears. But I read Diane Glancy's Pushing the Bear long ago too, and it seems I know that story without having read an authentic history. Just two years ago I was on Missionary Ridge, made famous by the Civil War, but named the way it was because of the Cherokee people who once inhabited that beautiful area around Chattanooga but were long ago sent packing--and dying--to Indian Country, Oklahoma. I almost forgot to mention that I have nearly a box full of books on Minnesota's Dakota War of 1862, a story so tragic it can hardly be told--and pity Minnesota because next year it will be 150 years since the madness and people there still have terrible trouble telling the tale.
The only novel, above, is Brooks' new Caleb's Crossing, which has, at its heart, the relationship between the Puritans and the Wampanoags, the Native people who lived along the coast the white New Englanders invaded. Brooks' ability to cast a spell over a reader is created, in large part, by her astounding use of language. As Bethia Mayfield spins out her diaries, her language is so exotic that one begins to think that if 17th century Puritans didn't speak and think like she does, they should have. Brooks' ability to bring the reader into another world altogether--the world of early American settlement in New England--is so immense that it sometimes actually stops me by its own incredible comprehensiveness. Really. It's a wonderful book.
But as I read Caleb's Crossing, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Ms. Brooks, as well as for lots and lots of readers because she is--and the feeling is unavoidable--virtually hamstrung in creating a plot. The plain and simple truth is that any historical fiction about the conflict between colonialist and indigenous cultures in these United States--Nantucket to Olympia--has the exact same, sad story line. Lewis and Clark got by really well in their long trek back and forth to the Pacific, but they were explorers; they didn't come to take the land. The American story may well begin with exploration, but it always ends in exploitation--and much, much worse.
And that story line must have given Ms. Brooks fits because it kept her in the harness of what really happened, stem to stern, in this country. Caleb's Crossing simply had to be tragic. Bethia Mayfield feels all kinds of indescribable feelings for a handsome, thoughtful boy from the Wampanoags, Caleb, this young man who longs to be a "pawaww," a holy man, but who designs his own life from what he recognizes as an inevitable change happening all around him. He determines he will go to Harvard to learn all he can about the foreign culture that has invaded his people's world. Alas, the ending is as predestined as the faith of the Puritans, and any reader who knows a thousand similar stories on the continent understands perfectly well that Caleb can not succeed. The only question such readers feel is how will Brooks bring the story to an end? We know the outcome. Only the specifics are yet to be determined. That history, the history of white domination of indiginous people, is ever with us, even though most all the descendents of the colonials, like me, would, now that we've forgotten, much rather not be reminded at all. Even Buffalo Bill is history. Westerns are passe.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to high school classes in South Dakota, and I asked them if they could list four important Lakota chiefs--two classes, maybe fifty students. In South Dakota. One student raised his hand and said "Crazy Horse," in part because I hinted that on the other side of the state there was this huge monument being sculpted from a mountain in the Black Hills. That's it. One name from fifty South Dakota high school kids. I don't think there's any question--we'd rather not remember.
I'm no historian. I haven't studied American history, but I've read enough to determine that there is a remarkable and tragic sameness to every chapter, from that belonging to King Phillip to that of Pontiac and Black Hawk to Spotted Tail and Crazy Horse and Quanah Parker and Manuelto and those thousands of Californian indigenous who were dispatched more quickly, it seems, than any of their brothers and sisters to the east. Time after time, chapter after chapter, tribe after tribe--it's the same story.
And now, I guess I'm about to start over, having just yesterday ordered Nathan Philbrick's Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn (Viking, 2010). Been there, done that. But I'm in, I guess, in the fashion my friend, Diane Glancy, warned me I would be.
And that's okay.
But one thing is perfectly clear. I cannot talk about "American exceptionalism" in the way many, many do these days. I recognize that America has been good to me, given me opportunity unlike any my immigrant great-grandparents might have had had they stayed in Netherlands. I've read Ben Franklin a dozen times. I know the boostraps idea is no pipe dream. I could name a dozen Dutch names in garbage and pyramid sales and heavy equipment who had only a pocketful of plug nickels and worked their behinds off to make a fortune for them and their children, literally a fortune. "The American Dream" is very, very real.
But I also know, all too well, that it wasn't free, that the story of the unsettling of those people who lived here when my people didn't is, as an old Lakota preacher once told me, America's original sin.
Go ahead--read a book or two from America's still swelling library of Western history books. The story line is the same. Caleb, that bright and wise Wampaunog kid in Geraldine Brooks' new and impressive novel, went off to Harvard College; but something bad had to happen. As a writer who cares about history, Geraldine Brooks had to know, from page one, that this kid's story could not end happily.
Whether or not there's a real Plymouth rock, whatever conveyance Bradford and his Plymouth brethren used to come ashore, long ago, in what is now Massachusetts, the story of what happened to those indigenous people whose corn he and his Brownists ate to stay alive that first winter is very, very sad.
And that story is chapter 1 of this Christian nation.
This morning's thanks are for those, like Eliot West, who continue to write chapter 1.