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.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Report--Slave of the Sioux

There's no accounting for taste, and I'm not trying to sell a book. The fact is, I really loved Slave of the Sioux, not because it's riveting or factual or because it has any of the characteristics one might expect of a literary ancestor of the memoir, a genre greatly beloved by our age. It does, but that's not why I read it.

What's worse, I can't imagine anyone recommending this book. It's insanely politically incorrect. Fanny Kelly was kidnapped by a terrorist band of Ogallala (Sioux) after what some would call a totally unprovoked attack that killed several of her travelling companions as they, like millions of others, wagon-trained over what had been traditional Sioux lands. 

Once in the story, she seems to understand their anger; she stops and explains the hatred they harbor for those endless train of white men and women and children aboard thousands of prairie schooners. But for the most part what she suffers at the hands of her captives determines her attitude, and it's simple: they are savages. 

The s-word was universally appropriate in the late 19th century, and Ms. Kelly sprinkles it liberally--"savages here," "savages there"--and sprinkles is most assuredly too kind a word. That usage also earmarks the fascination I have, I guess, for a book like Slave of the Sioux.

As its genre-ancestor almost two centuries earlier, The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson, Fanny Kelly's story had to have been something of a best-seller back in the later decades of the 19th century, when the story of the West was vastly more interesting than it is today because people--red and white--were still living it. Kelly's story is set when it happened, 1864, when the white nation, for the most part, was far too taken by its own Civil War to pay close attention to what was happening in the great open spaces west of the Mississippi. 

But out here on the Northern Plains, a war was also going on, a clash between the armies of immigrants coming into the region and the red folks those newcomers so mindlessly displaced. Fanny Kelly is a casualty of that war. In the attack that led to her captivity, her small caravan of wagons and pioneers were murdered, massacred really, except for her and her adopted daughter. 

Ms. Kelly and her Christianized ways became something of a role model for disgruntled Ogallala wives; she simply did what her Native husband commanded. That compliance not only saved her life but made her so valuable that cavalry enterprises created to buy her back from her captors failed. She was, to her husband, too valuable. 

A community founded on violence as a virtue could not have been a happy home for her, and it wasn't. She found Lakota life brutal and merciless--and says so. To a contemporary reader who's adopted the "noble savage" characterization of Native America, what happens to Fanny Kelly will seem deliberately staged to make her white readership regard Native people as even more hideous. I'm sure it did in the mid-19th century.

But contemporary readers--no matter how they view the story of the American West--read a book like Slave of the Sioux in a completely different way 150 years later; and, for the most part, that's where my love of the book grows. What's of great interest to me is that significant difference. I can't help but read a story like Fanny Kelly's with a level of comfort and objectivity that, for the most part, wasn't available when it was first of all experienced and then subsequently published as a popular read (1871). The book is interesting in the way a thoughtful museum can capture our fascination.

Example? Easy. Fanny Kelly's family owned two slaves who traveled with them out west. Both were killed when in the Lakota ambush. Ms. Kelly doesn't really question the legitimacy of her family's owning servants, and when the survivors from the first attack have to bury the victims, they argue--seriously, she says--about whether or not Black victims can be buried with white victims. Finally, it is resolved that they will be, and when it is, Ms. Kelly notes it as a mark of their compassionate liberality. Amazing.

What happened in the American West--what happened in all of North America since the arrival of  this nation's first undocumented populace--was a cultural clash that had countless victims, the vast majority of whom were Native people. That raw fact is something that Fanny Kelly only obligingly understands and largely looks past. There was, after all, free land out west, land her husband and she simply determined offered for them and millions of others a far better life.  Call it "the American dream." That they could make such a blind determination still strikes me as greatly amazing as it is appalling.

But so it went with my people, even with my own family; all of which makes Fanny Kelly's story my story too, for all its sadness and horror. In a way, I was there too, just a bit downriver.

I don't need to apologize for reading Slave of the Sioux, and I'm not. To say I enjoyed it probably misses the point; but I did, not for the vivid action of the narrative (it is a 19th century action/adventure story), but for what it contributes to my own understanding of our own recent past and the story of America, a story I am very much a part of.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This summer we finally took a tour of Abby's cabin at Spirit Lake Iowa. After she was ransumed, she spent 30 years hosting guests in the cabin in which she lost her family. I rode on the roller coaster 50 years ago, which is a couple of blocks west of the restored cabin. Sad to say, I am a late comer to local history.

Those Swedes are still at it. They are trying to claim they were here 15k ago. I tried to tell them icr proved the earth is only 5k old, but I think they black listed me.