Saturday, October 17, 2009

BLACKFEET EYES: A Partial Review

If you go to the above url -- and I hope the link holds, because it’s too long to type out -- if it doesn’t, try googling “Blackfeet Eyes - Google Books Result” which is where I got it. Or you could cut-and-paste. It links to a big piece of a mystery novel written by Dr. Leonard Schonberg, a deceased ob-gyn doc from near Billings. Enough of the book is there for you to form an opinion. It was supposed to be the first of a trilogy, but since Dr. Shonberg lost his life last year, I don’t know what that means.

My own opinion about this particular book is more aesthetic than political. I think this is by an ambitious Montana liberal who, in his upper-class narrowly-educated way (Docs these days are not known for their humanities background.), wants to demonstrate privileged knowledge of Indians on reservations. He’s gone to some trouble to get Blackfeet rez places right -- up to a point -- though Teeple’s IGA has now swallowed up both the Red Crow Kitchen and Ben Franklin and there are other glitches. It’s unlikely that any cop with history on the rez wouldn’t know about someone living along one of the main river coulees, no matter how reclusive he might be (esp. if he’s white and a little weird), and the roads on the rez ARE mostly paved now. It’s even less likely that a Browning cop wouldn’t know well the last remaining service station in Valier, which is the main stop-for-coffee-and-gas town between Browning and Great Falls. There is no gas station on the “outskirts” of Valier. Valier (pop maybe 400) has no outskirts. Little stuff like that. It’s curious that Valier is featured so much in this plot.

There’s the whole issue of whether a white man should be “entitled” to write about Indian subjects, whether he is “stealing” raw material from an Indian writer. I think in this case that’s a non-issue. The main thing keeping Indians from being writers is skipping school. But that’s an issue for another post.

The main trouble is something Lance and I have been talking about: dialogue. This book, like many other relatively amateur books, depends upon the dialogue to carry the story and stiffens up with so much information that everything slows to a crawl while one guy explains to another. William Kittredge has said that the main contribution he made to Jim Welch’s writing was to point out that people talk past each other, that much of what is understood is sub-text running along underneath the words, and sentences are usually incomplete. Gestures, body-language, timing -- all that sometimes means more than the words. In other words, a writer should listen to real people before inventing his own little puppet play in his head. (Or HER head.)

Thank goodness Schonberg resists writing in dialect -- people don’t say “init,” but he does throw in white man Blackfeet vocabulary words, the ones learned from a book, maybe, or in a class. Everyone in this book sounds pretty much the same. Another stumble is using real people’s names. White Calf is much too iconic and honored a name to use for a villain without getting into trouble. Standing Bear is no car mechanic. At least I’ve never heard him described that way. Motor-mouth, maybe.

Some rez people will go into a fan dance with race cards if they hear so much negative stuff about Browning. They are firmly of the opinion that if bad things don’t come up in polite conversation, bad things didn’t happen. Details such as meth crystals on a baby’s pacifier will make them, well, froth at the mouth.

My recent three sets of company were all horrified by the reservation towns, seeing only poverty, dilapidation, wrecked cars and wandering dogs. I forget that stuff. Truly. What I see is friends, stories, and many improvements. Bob used to say that it’s not that Browning has so many street drunks, it’s just that they all look the same to outsiders, so the same eight derelicts staggering around and around the block, seem like hordes. To anyone who knows them by name, we have a pretty good idea of what their agendas are, where they’re going. They don’t seem very scary. Strange that Dr. Schonberg never mentions ANY dogs! He picks up the obvious: racetrack, sculpture at the hospital, etc.

It’s true enough that horrible things happen on the rez, which is fifty miles on every side and includes more than 8,000 people of many kinds, most of them the kind that mind their own business. The growing majority get to work and to school, take care of their families, and join to abate trash, protect wilderness, guide kids, and all the other good things. Outsiders rarely even see them, much less get to know them. Neither did I see any sign, after reading the online sample, that there was going to be discussion of the dark powers of need, suffering and oppression that cause bad things.

The upshot is that though Dr. Schonberg’s physical landmarks might be recognizable, the relationships among the people are not at all familiar. This is a book by an outsider about issues that preoccupy outsiders. It’s not that it’s about murder, mutilation and the abuse of women, but that it’s all surface, even though the protagonist is supposed to be a tribal member. Hillerman is obviously the inspiration -- at least his sales record -- without awareness of the controversy around him and the depth of his participation of in Indian life.

Why get all worked up about Dr. Schonberg trespassing on reservation life when he clearly has no more understanding of it than some tourist with a notebook and camera? It is curious that he’s focusing on Blackfeet when his home was in Crow country. Since the latter are traditional enemies of the former, maybe he thought he could dodge some criticism. Likewise by making the villains all whites, outliers, freaks and geeks -- just like any good middle-class college grad who feels entitled to reject those who are nonconforming or “failures.” Why else would the book be promoted so heavily on Yellowstone Public Radio?

Not a whole lot of middle-class folks yet, though there are some. I doubt many will bother with this book. Nor should they, except maybe out of curiosity. It’s just irrelevant. If you want to know about Blackfeet, read Jim Welch.


Lance Michael Foster said...

Thanks again Mary for adding some logs to my mental fire. I have trouble writing fiction and what you told me about talking past each other helped me. I wish you were my writing teacher!

I had a couple pretty good writing teachers in my early writing days, Burgess at Carroll, and Gans and Dunsmore at UM. But I dropped the fiction ball long ago, and the mold has covered it pretty much ;-)

But I gotta get'er done...

Anonymous said...

Doctor Schonberg lived in the mountains above Clancy, near Helena. I don't believe he was an ob-gyn. He had a masters degree in public health and was an actor and member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Anonymous said...

I should have said that ob-gyn credentials are not listed on his website, nor did he ever mention that background in hours of conversation with me.