Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Now that so many people are doing Print On Demand books and some folks have noticed how good a few of them are, the new “demand” is for someone to point readers at the good stuff. One of the people responding to that is Pod Critic, who read my own book, “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” and gave a good review, by which I mean one that told clearly what he looks for, how the book didn’t scratch his itch, and what he liked about it even if it might not be his cup of tea.

Back a while I wrote a review of a movie about rodeo bull-riders, praising it, and got back comments from other people who loved the movie and were disappointed by the responses of the critics and the public. They didn’t know rodeo, didn’t understand the “juice” of bull-riding, and couldn’t respond to the old killer bull turned out in the end to live peacefully. Just didn’t compute.

So when I heard Rick Newby on a recorded panel from the Montana Festival of the Book, saying that he would like his online magazine, Drumlummon, to emphasize reviews and criticism, it got me to thinking. The arts in this state are so layered and checkered, that it would be of the utmost importance to lay out the terms of each review. Our college towns and maybe our California imports take for granted kinds of art, theatre, cinema, music and so on that others in the state just don’t “get.” On the other hand, I sure don’t get most athletic performances (what makes a “good” basketball game? I dunno.) I could tell you a bit about rodeo, but not the real, gritty heartcore stuff. I can critique a story or novel that purports to be historical, narrative, and maybe magical-realistic, but I’m no good at interpreting poetry. A dead loss at bluegrass or honkytonk. But I can take a run at ballet. You see what I mean?

I suspect that much of the resistance to “regional” literature is really an inability of the person resisting to understand what’s important to the region, what the iconography signifies, what the rhetoric implies. They don’t claim their own failure to connect but push it off onto the subject. The defense of regionalism that “the Bible is regional” assumes that it’s universal, and doesn’t recognize that many people are not equipped to talk about the world of the Bible. I don’t mean they’re not believers -- I mean they can’t imagine that world of fishermen and shepherds, small seas and foot traffic.

We need to step back a whole other level, earlier than disciplines, maybe earlier than cultures, to a kind of meta-theoretical way of sorting out ideas about standards in writing. I’ve been reading EMT blogs with great relish, but got into a discussion with a friend (who put me onto them in the first place) about which was “better” -- EMT #1 who has a great wiseacre facade which sweeps back to reveal human tragedy or EMT #2 who takes on the grand novelistic sweep of dramatic descriptions and portentuous stuff that he can’t always spell or punctuate. He voted for grammar, I voted it was a side-issue, that the story was what counted. (So does Pod Critic.)

So now I’m going to turn the tables on Pod Critic and critique his criticism. He says himself that he reads for what Whiskey Prajer called perceptively “bulletproof narrative.” This is why his lead is as follows: “The tales in Twelve Blackfeet Stories are only interesting up to a point, and when reading them, one will find oneself straddling the fence of boredom and excitement. This conclusion isn’t based on the subject matter, because I have read books on Native Americans and have found myself completely engrossed—riveted, if you will—by the events that unfolded concerning early tribes. It is the way the author delivers these tales that is at issue here, as she sometimes uses an irregular narrative form that leaves a reader scrambling to find cohesiveness. Additionally, the stories, while loosely associated, are hardly linear.”

Pod Critic is quite accurate: the stories are not linear except chronologically and for some readers they will not be cohesive BECAUSE they are not unfolding events among early tribes, which is what a contemporary average white urban reader expects. I should admit to the more-or-less accidental nature of the links between stories, which didn’t occur to me until late. My model was a book I didn’t read and only knew from reviews (Ironically!) It was called “Generations,” was nonfiction, and tried to describe the essence of each American generation, giving each a tag description. I got to thinking what a sequence like that would be like for Blackfeet and since I have a time-line for Blackfeet, I got it out, divvied it into 20 year sections, and tried to decide what was characteristic of each one. It was obvious that the first major change was the coming of the horse. Others have speculated about how some young man first understood the use of a horse and what a major euphoria it was, so I was writing a counter-story, about an old woman who resisted horses.

There are moments of inspiration, however. The first story, Dogwoman, written in a smooth and inviting style—for the most part—touches on important and ancient themes, such as the interrelation between man and beast and earth, and the delicate balance that exists between them. But the story itself—which isn’t entirely concerned with that theme, but rather with a dog-loving woman’s hatred of imported horses—lacks a few ingredients that would have made for a more compelling stew.

In other words, where’s that warrior on horseback that I can identify with?

The second story bears a similar tint, giving us a rare and inspired moment between a father and daughter before charging headlong into an intermittent back-story that almost loses us—to say nothing of the main narrative.

Actually I sort of stole that scene from Beverly Hungry-Wolf’s “The Ways of my Grandmothers” in which she tells about her sister getting her face painted by her father every morning. It was again meant as a counter-story to the young man admired by his mother. But also, I was at my most polemical in this story, trying to describe what a “Bundle” really is and how it contains memories, moral force, strangeness and reassurance. The long trip to the SW is part of this (made possible by horses), the relationship with his best friend’s wife, his resistance to being a “holy man,” are all part of an attempt to get away from the idea that Indian religion is just some kind of primitive and blind “magic” and that all “chiefs” craved power and status. Then it occurred to me that this grown man could be the small boy of the first story, so that was the first “link.”

But while she paints scenes like a master artist, sans an actual canvas, her stories aren’t necessarily captivating—they are interesting at times, though, and they provide incredible insight into the lives of the Amskapi Pikuni people.

Actually, this gives me too much credit: there is no way I can give incredible insight into these lives from earlier and other times. They’re only a guess and guesses that might be much resisted by the living Piegans.

A great sense of importance emanates from the pages of the book, as though Scriver were attempting to capture the moments of these individuals and hold them in a literary time capsule for future generations to enjoy. I get that. I also get her attempt to immortalize these souls by delivering something offbeat; something that would stick in a reader’s mind, and leave them transfixed for its sheer uniqueness. The work does achieve some of these goals, as its experimental nature is something to admire, but the delivery is jerky, at best.

This is the best paragraph in the review, because Pod Critic is doing for me what I tried to do for the characters: see through their eyes. He’s trying to imagine what I was trying to do, though he doesn’t quite understand my urge to break up Indian stereotypes for the sake of the living people. Not that I’m not trying to be a good and memorable writer, but that I wasn’t watching the writing that closely.

I understand that a writer is somewhat balancing on the points of pins and needles when it comes to preserving a heritage through their work—which is equivalent to writing not only what you know, but what you love—while at the same time writing for the pleasure of their readers. Twelve Blackfeet Stories, unless you’re heavily into Native American culture, satisfies two out of three of these aims. The casual reader, therefore, may not find this collection of short stories to be quite so accessible.

Pod Critic, in the phrase “preserving a heritage,” gives away again his underlying assumption than I’m writing like George Bird Grinnell or James Willard Schultz, a kind of anthropological endeavor dealing with a lost people. But I’m trying to upset assumptions, challenge the “received wisdom” even among the Piegan themselves so they won’t just replicate the past. The difficulty in this was immediately proven when the first comment in response assumed the stories were myths and legends. To Pod Critic’s credit, he straightened her out quickly.

It never occurs to either of them that I’m writing TO the Indians themselves, much less that a few of these characters were based on people I know. The Two-Spirit man, for instance, exists. I didn’t know that a Jesuit resembling the priest in the story also exists as an historical person. I learned recently from his biography that if he was supposed to be Jesuit, I got his cassock wrong: the Jesuits didn’t usually wear buttoned cassocks, but rather a wrapped kimono sort of garment with a cincture. But a button was a plot gimmick, so I guess he wasn’t Jesuit.

If you love literature, but are not as concerned with story as with language, then Blackfeet has beautiful language to spare; the book is practically brimming with it. Additionally, the book does smooth out a bit when it crosses over into stories that feature the latter generations of the Amskapi Pikuni people, as these prove to be much more conventional in theme.

But, all in all, the book is as close to a worthy read as it will come, in my view at least.

To me the later stories are not so much “smoother” as “flatter” because I began to compromise and write happy endings so that younger Indian readers wouldn’t despair. The transition is at the point of magic-realism when the two women in the Starvation Winter find that a huge boulder (a buffalo rock) is really a door to the paradise where the buffalo are hidden. So it seems to me that my obligation as a writer is also to explain more what I’m doing, where I’m coming from, so that people like Pod Critic -- alert and sensitive as he is -- will understand that this is not an adventure story but a series of didactic reflections. So what I see as the next step in this sequence of stories -- which I’m not quite ready to abandon yet -- is not development on Pod Critic’s terms but more clarity and discussion about its didactic use. I should write explanations, interpretations, anthropological and historical grounding and put them in as an appendix for the teacher. I’m sort of inventing a new genre.

So I’d give Pod Critic a grade of 3 stars out of four, because for an “outsider” he saw pretty accurately. If he’d been a Blackfeet Indian, he would have written something else, and I’d have given him 4 stars. Fair and honest? Luckily, the book is printed by Lulu.com and I can easily create a new edition.

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm not sure a "new" edition of Blackfeet Stories is needed, unless you'd care to insert this critical response as an introduction, or footnote. I like how the current ed. works. The imaginative "breathing space" is very welcome, so far as I'm concerned. That mutual space where authors and readers can breathe together is yet another characteristic that is more likely to flower in POD fiction than it is in its "professional" counterpart. Along with creating the possibility of an unanticipated audience, this is another reason to be grateful for the advent of POD.