Several things are bouncing around in my head, so I’ll try to weave them together. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll discover what I mean.
First, I’m using my Netflix account to work my way though English profiler crime series, which encourage a certain way of thinking. (Most recently, “Wire in the Blood.”) The profiler tries to put himself (or herself, in this case) in the mind of the perp (or author, in this case) and use empathy to discover who that person really is, what the case is really “about,” the signature pattern.
Second, I’ve now read three works by Sid Gustafson. The first was “Horses They Rode” which unfolds from a short story about a horse trainer in Spokane who rides a freight train back to the rez, accidentally sharing the ride with a grizzly bear that’s after fermented corn. But it was the second book written -- at least copyrighted in 2006.
The earlier book, “Prisoners of Flight” (copyright 2003) begins with a pilot crashing and then doubles back to pick up the “prequel.” The most recently written story is a novelette still in manuscript called “Swift Dam,” and it’s about an old veterinarian and a younger Indian Chief of Police.
I haven’t met Sid, though I know his dad a bit and now I’ve emailed back and forth to Sid. But I know this part of the world pretty well. So I’m going out on a limb to try a “Tony Hill” profiler interpretation of these stories. It’s clear that all of them are about two men, very close, and only one survives -- so I will suggest that survivor guilt is a major dynamic of these stories. If two young men of the Boomer generation around here are close buddies and one of them is an Indian, probably the Indian is closer to doom. The death rate for young rez men is very high and usually the deaths are traumatic.
Sid grew up in Conrad, a white town founded by a man named Conrad -- in fact, the man who built Swift Dam, about which I will be writing quite a bit as I explore the local irrigation based on the system of canals fed by Swift Dam. Barnaby Conrad, a descendant of that powerful historic empire-builder, wrote a fine book, “Ghost Hunting in Montana,” about the Conrads and I suspect that Barnaby shares the dream many young men have of being “Deerslayer” and escaping to some Shangri-La with a trusty Indian guide, a Tonto. Sid might be a townie white boy, but he spent much time on his family’s ranch not far from the Mad Plumes’, where their rodeo arena is called “Hell’s Half-Acre.” To Sid, Indians are part of life, exactly equal to him, trustworthy companions. This is not the same as coming out from Boston and picking up an Indian in a bar in order to write about the encounter.
There’s a pattern in “Prisoners of Flight.” Two young men (one Indian) want to fly high (literally so far as the plot is concerned, though they talk about drying out as well), but they become trapped “Prisoners of Flight.” At first they appear to have landed in Rainbow Valley, Beulah Land, a place of healing. (It’s actually the Great Bear Wilderness. Or maybe it’s a treatment center.) Things become worse and worse (and they become more sober) and they suffer. Then one gets out and the other is killed by a grizzly.
In “Horses They Rode,” the young father is also “flying” (drinking) with his Indian buddy but this time the the transportation is a train and the place of refuge is a ranch where there are supportive and wise friends. Still, in the end the Indian dies -- but he is old. It may have been his time. Time is a killer. Not just individuals but also cultures.
In “Swift Dam” it is not the half-Indian police chief who dies. It is the old veterinarian’s Indian friend who was killed when Swift Dam collapsed in the flood of ‘64. The old vet is now becoming narcoleptic and diabetic himself, slipping towards death. As the author works through the pattern book after book the deaths become more natural, less emotional.
I think that “Prisoners of Flight,” the first book, is a “screen” for a reality -- quite a successful one. I don’t know whether Sid is really a pilot or whether he’s ever been a prisoner of war or even served in the Vietnam War. I do know that a fellow who HAD been a prisoner came through here about 2000, lecturing various places about patriotism and explaining the same tapping code that Sid uses to excellent effect. In fact, I was teaching a bunch of renegades at Cut Bank High School that fall and they could not resist using that tapping code for weeks after the assembly where this man spoke. Picking up a detail like that and making it so powerful an element in the story is good writing.
This is not “Brokeback Mountain,” but these days every buddy story has to SAY that somehow or everyone sticks there. So in come two “earth cookie” girls, twins but distinguishable, looking for their dog named “Hope.” (Symbol alert. And these sisters seem very “nursie” to me.) They have their own little communication system: raised eyebrows, quirk at the corner of the mouth, etc. “Sling,” the protagonist, calls them “the Grimace Sisters.” Sling takes one to a hot springs for an idyllic moment that is welcome relief as the plot line gets ever more grim. But the girls don’t really engage the writing -- they’re a plot element and so is the second Indian from the west side, a salmon Indian, who shows up at the end.
My hypothesis would be that these books may be coming out of the experience of being hooked on alcohol or drugs or both, a prison that also trapped an Indian buddy who didn’t make it. The killer grizzly might stand for an overdose or a car crash -- maybe suicide. How many of my former students have died from these causes -- maybe a hundred? There was nothing I could do about it. At least I couldn’t think of anything. I hoped the survivors would write and that would provide some clues.
In the first of these books, “Prisoners of Flight,” the Indian is the one who accidentally shot down his friend, but the protagonist faked collaboration in order to escape the prison camp and was scorned for it. In the second book, “Horses They Rode,” the protagonist did nothing to kill his friend, except that his race horse, his gambling, accidentally killed the old man. In “Swift Dam” it was the dam collapsing -- an act of God? Old treachery? History? In any case, less about the guilt and more about the survival.
Those of us who love this place and the autochthonous people who lived here -- still live here -- wonder what we can do for the future and how we can help the children of those people who are gone now -- some of them people we knew and loved. Giving them old clothes won’t do it. Even occasionally feeding them is not enough. Weeping over “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” doesn’t help. They must have justice -- that means education. It’s good that Sid is teaching Blackfeet kids in Dillon at the University.
So this is not frivolous writing, written to sell. This stuff comes not just from the heart but from the guts, which must sometimes interfere with the actual writing. The very intensity drives it along almost too quickly for reflection. (“Slow me down, Lord! Oh, slow me down,” prays the protagonist.) These are journeys, lyrically traced.
Now let’s shift the paradigm a bit. Sid says that his maternal grandfather gave him an entire set of James Willard Schultz books, a gift more precious than a Charlie Russell painting. Mad Plume’s place is where Chewing Black Bone, Schultz’ good friend, finished his days in a lodge, making his own moccasins by feel because he was blind from trachoma. Sid, born in 1954, was barely old enough to have have known this old last of the warriors, who died in the Sixties. Schultz himself is buried up at the top of the bluff -- you can see the Gustafson ranch from there. Sid says he keeps an eye on those graves. Schultz stories are almost always buddy stories, two guys caught up in a dangerous adventure. This pattern is deep in Sid, but there is no frontier now. The warpath must be pursued in Vietnam, the wilderness is a federal reserve, the equivalent of a buffalo horse is a private airplane. But the essence of deep committed friendship is still there. Heck, it’s in Gilgamesh, it’s in the Old Testament, it’s human.
“Why Gone Those Times?” laments Schultz. We can’t solve time but we can tell the stories. What about the eye? “I alone escaped to tell you.”