Monday, July 16, 2007


When the temp rises to a hundred and sits there for a week, the effect is much like the temp sinking to twenty below and sitting there for a week. The young go about their business, sweating and swilling and laughing, but the old sit quietly reading or something comparable. If it’s cold, one wraps up and sits close to the heater. If it’s hot, one wrings out a towel in cold water to hook over one’s neck while sitting quietly. Just sitting is very bad for diabetics and makes the glucose score go up, so it’s important not to eat, but boredom can guide one’s hand and mouth to trouble. Therefore, it’s important not to be bored, to think of things and make plans. Okay.

I’m thinking about this series of movies I’ve watched about Africa and India. (I’m still reading “The Raj Quartet” and have started watching “The Heat of the Sun,” which I gather is not a book.) I would include some Aussie movies in this category. (I was interested that in “The Heat of the Sun” there is a wicked doctor named Strachan, my maiden name. In “A Town Called Alice” there is a faithful soliciter (played by the actor who played “Hudson” in “Upstairs, Downstairs”) who is named Strachan. They pronounce it correctly: “Strawn,” and are clear that these “Strachans” are Scots.

What if this “Strawn” here were to write a novel using these elements, but about Montana? Here’s a list of the elements:

1. A wide grassland with a huge sky, largely untouched and unmapped. (Often portrayed just as airplanes and automobiles come on the scene -- horses still in use.)

2. An autochthonous people seemingly savage but actually fitted to the land in a subtle and self-renewing sort of way, a fittingness soon to be destroyed by “civilization.” A class-based governing structure struggles to impose new standards, sometimes provoking violence and injustice and other times creating huge profits from raw materials.

3. Enough confusion, tragedy and great love in the way things play out to make great stories. Some madness in there. Some courage.

I can’t think of a recent major Montana book about quite this contrast between two cultures and the kind of characters who end up bridging the difference out of force or love. (Maybe Guthrie’s five-book series comes close.) I think it’s partly because Americans are still reluctant to face their greedy intra-national colonizing of a darker people, though they love to read about exactly the same thing when the English are involved. Or maybe it’s because in the US it was done with so little style. Maybe it is a story that must be told in Canada.

These days in the US the mountain men and cowboys are often sympathizers with the Indians, becoming Indian themselves. Native American outrage, fanned to a blaze by post-colonial theory, won’t permit a sympathetic version of white colonizers. It’s ironic that in a hundred years, all the white officials couldn’t change NA’s -- but television did it in ten. The only trouble is that so many, especially the young, went towards ghetto culture: the clothes, the music, the drugs. Off-rez folks are hardly aware of this new kind of Indian.

I’ve been waiting to see how the story of the death of the White Quills boy turns out. His throat was cut early in the morning (a very dangerous time when druggers are coming down, not even minimally rational yet) of last Thursday, the first day of North American Indian Days. He will be remembered for that date. It’s certainly the seed of a novel, but not one I’ll write.

Much of the interest in these tales is in the gradually dawning realization of the complexity of both the “over” class and the “under” class. In Elspeth Huxley’s stories it’s the child who finds out what things really mean and what the dynamics among the various tribes and age groups might be, even as it is gradually dawning on her what is going on among her English elders, their romances, their economic problems, and their tensions with the Boers. Likewise, Isak Dinesen and Paul Scott are good at these complicated and subtle forces. World-wide context is easier to invoke when it is WWI, Depression or WWII.

Here in this corner of Montana the Blackfeet would be the Masai and the Cree the Kikuyu. There are buffalo on both continents, but no elephants (mammoths and mastodons) here. The paleo-scientists have accused the pre-Indians of eating them, but there are no trees. What would the mammoths eat? Those trunks are not meant for grass. They probably declined when the grasslands evolved. Antelope, deer, elk abound -- once in great herds.

Today there might be a plot in the growing tension between the management of wild iconic animals and small ranches where people balance at the edge of disaster because of weather or disease. Could US Wildlife officials be figured as British Army and conservation/protection leaders (“buffalo huggers”) be construed as idealistic landed gentry from “back home?” Could one picture the chattering classes on the balconies of the great log railroad lodges, downing their drinks while holding forth to each other, like over-privileged Kenyans? Could a grizzly attack be the equivalent of a lion or leopard attack and Mike Madel be played by -- let’s see -- someone cleancut and earnest or Chuck Jonkel, wry and dedicated, be played by Trevor Eve, except with a tranquilizer gun? Hmmmm. Sounds more like satire than thoughtful novel.

Actually, when one lays out the list of Africa tales (adding maybe “Snows of Kilimanjaro” -- the Greg Peck/Susan Hayward version?) it is clear they are not in the same style. “In the Heat of the Sun” is a pastiche, written for the star from elements already on hand. It is often farce, or close to it, when dealing with the rich and drunk or perverse, with a bit of overlap with cartoon genre when the hero is attacked: Pow! Biff! Sock! Never a false move. Leaping off burning buildings with a child in his arms and somehow landing unscathed... (The small boy motif probably relates to Eve’s favorite charity, an organization he founded to help children.)

Then there’s Valentine -- I LOVE him -- played by Julian Alistair Rhind-Tutt (what a name!), perfected version of David Caruso’s first draft red-head. He’s an upper-class, super-marksman ectomorph to match Eve’s mesomorph brute-force working man. His trademark is to shoot something out of the villain’s very fingers, then announce calmly, “The next one kills you.” One believes him. Why doesn’t he have his own series?

Flame Trees of Thika” slips into pinafore genre. “Out of Africa” preserves Dinesen’s romantic dignified style. “The Raj Quartet” leans towards the social sweep of David McLean. In terms of Montana, “Heaven’s Gate” overshot and became ridiculous. “Legends of the Fall” approaches the stature of these African tales. Any others? Maybe more titles will come to mind when the weather cools off.

"Into the West." Maybe. I haven't seen the new one about Wounded Knee. "Dances with Wolves"? Hmmmm.

1 comment:

Chas S. Clifton said...

What did mammoths eat? Osage orange fruits, for one thing. Check out science writer Connie Barlow's Ghosts of Evolution. You will never look at an avacado or a coyote gourd the same again.