At least some of its features I could have guessed had I never opened the cover. It's plainly and unflinchingly Christian, for one, everything but "Kumbaya" at the radiant climax. The New Mexico missionaries, blessed with Dutch names, are marvelously beneficent, perfectly sweet folks, who the Zunis and Navajos greatly admire. Temptations abound, the lure of the old ways, frivolous and flirtatious young Indian girls; and there is, of course, the eternal promises of the new, Christian way.
It was published in 1937, by Zondervan, who wouldn't look at it today. But, who can blame them?--nobody would buy it today either. I'm guessing that in 1937, Zondervan's customer base was the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a denomination only 40-some years into its very first and hugely ambitious mission project, the reservations of northwest New Mexico. I suspect that lots of people may have read Roaring Waters--I don't know.
The author's name is embossed on the cover and appears on the title page--"C. Kuipers." But that's it; there's no bio anywhere. I'm assuming it's the Rev. Cornelius Kuypers, who went to New Mexico as a teacher and, decades later, left as a preacher. I met him once or twice in his own twilight years in Arizona. I only wish I'd known him better.
I stole the novel from the Cary Christian Center, Cary, Mississippi, another dedicated CRC project. Just one of the projects designated for our work group in the summer of 1977 was to do something with the library. The library--just like tons of the stuff in the center--was composed of CRC cast-offs: the stepladder said "Property of First Pella CRC," I remember; pots and pans came from Kalamazoo. You know. The library had scads of Zondervan books from the mid-20th century, when CRC readers like my parents might have actually read books like Roaring Waters because they were written by "our people."
One of my jobs that week--the English teacher--was to look through the stacks of a library that was very rarely used and culling the ingrate volumes, the ones not ever likely to move. Roaring Waters, I told myself, was not going to get read in poverty-stricken, African-American, Cary, Mississippi. But I just couldn't throw it away. So I kept myself, along with Rooftops over Strawtown and some book by Marian Schoolland.
The plot is painstakingly predictable, and the characters fit the formula: young Koshe, a Zuni kid, is, by golly, going to walk the straight-and-narrow. Somewhere in the pages is a love story, but it doesn't really intrude on the fact that it's a coming of age novel--and, as I said, it's as hard-headed about where it's going as a pair of wooden shoes. What's more, I couldn't help thinking that there's an alarmingly warm self-portrait here as well--but that's just worth a smile.
No matter. I loved the book because it changed me, changed my mind. I honestly wouldn't have believed that a CRC missionary to the Zuni pueblo, circa America's Great Depression, would have understood and even showed sympathy for the Zuni religion and culture, as Kuipers does. To be sure, Koshe isn't about to head in that direction under Kuipers' own committed pen; but Kuipers' understanding of the world of the kachinas, a world he knew and seemingly understood, was, at least to me, quite surprising, and I love to be surprised when I read, to learn.
That may say something about me, finally, about my own latent progressivism and arrogance, in fact, which maintains stoutly that, enlightened as I am these days, I can't help but feel that some of those pioneer missionaries were pious fools. Not frauds--I don't doubt their sincerity or their spiritual commitment--but fools, especially when it came to knowing the people they served.
I found Roaring Waters, a book no one else has read for years I'm sure, to be most fascinating with respect to Zuni ways, even surprisingly sympathetic. Koshe's choice is not between simply good and evil, but Christian and pagan--and that paradigm I found fascinating.
I know what it's like to write a novel. I know it's not easy. That C. Kuipers wrote this one in a house that still exists, I'm sure, in the heart of Zuni pueblo during the height of the Depression, and that I read on Google that he wrote at least two others (I've got them ordered), is to me as amazing as it is wonderful.
I wish, years ago in Arizona, I'd taken the time to meet the old man and hear his story.
This morning my morning thanks are for an old novel, 75 years old, a book with the scantest of readerships--and the missionary/teacher/preacher who spent a lifetime in the Zuni pueblo, not just telling others what to think, but learning, like a good educator, to listen to the people he served.
Bottom line: Roaring Waters is not a great novel, but to me at least it's a great book.