Saturday, August 03, 2013


Helen Fitzgerald Sanders

“The White Quiver” by Helen Fitzgerald Sanders is dedicated to Helen Clarke.  Sanders thanks Horace Clarke, Little Dog, Bear Head, the Sanderville brothers and Louis Hill.  If these names are familiar, you will be clued in that they told Sanders mostly what she wanted to hear.  They are all very clever diplomats.  Sanders claims White Quiver is an old and honored name, but maybe “quivering white” might be closer to the truth.  She’d be the white and the quivering is pretty much erotic or at least romantic.  She outright invents a “kissing ceremony” in which all the Indian virgin girls kiss all the big old warriors.  Of course, the eponymous “White Quiver” is heroically “hot” and the best kisser.

“Towering a good head above the warriors about him was a young man of giant stature and noble face.  His bronze-colored, hard-muscled body, which showed the purification of icy waters and stern suppression of the flesh, was bare to the waist save for a snow-white quiver that hung across his shoulders. . . .Only his eyes moved and they followed the Dawn Mist. . . He, oblivious to the people about him, watched the Dawn Mist in a dream of wonder.  Her black hair and pale face were like the meeting place of the night and day.  She seemed to him to be a creature of the clouds -- a pale, fair silvery mist of the morning that shapes itself for an instant against the blue, then is lost -- less of a reality than an illusion.”

This is uncomfortably like Ruth Hill’s Hanta Yo with its Nazi Ayn Rand flavor.  It is important to keep books about Indians in the context of the times when they were written.  About the time this one was written (1913), my grandmother’s household would line up to kiss relatives goodbye after a visit, particularly if they were men going into danger.  One day the schoolteacher the family was boarding accidentally got into the line of family and the departing uncle kissed her, to great shock and hilarity.  Of course, a kiss in those days was a puckered-up business flavored by a mustache, not the open-mouthed, tongue-tangling slippery experience of today’s movies. Even a peck was significant.

The Brave” is a book from the end of the Eighties, a time of social outrage and growing awareness of people pushed off the edge of the world.  The brave man of the title isn’t even sure whether he’s an Indian or Hispanic.  He has spent his life in a toxic dump where he was born and has produced a endangered family.  The author, Gregory Mcdonald, had by this time sold two successful detective serieses, informed by a Boston U education and years as a reporter.  He can write what he wants to, so he starts this story with a horrifying description of the crime: a snuff film.  The rest of the book is about the victim, why he would voluntarily do such a thing, and the slowly growing realization that this man is already essentially snuffed by society. 

Here’s a sample of the flat, dialogue-heavy, in-the-know writing:

“You get a good-looking male Indian, you get a really handsome boy. Man.”  The uncle looked inside a plastic coffee cup.  “You an Indian?”

Rafael did not know how to answer. . . 

“Alky’s your thing,” the uncle said.  “Trouble with you alkies is you ain’t got no asses.”

He took a quart bottle of vodka from his desk and poured into the two plastic cups.

Strangely, and this is the extraordinary dimension of the story, Rafael is released by his impending death and the book ends two ways: first in a spontaneous and instinctive night-long ceremony of cleansing and second by a ceremonial breakfast with his family.  Without them the book would be unbearable, and even with them it comes close.  Johnny Depp directed a movie of this story but I have not seen it.  It’s not on Netflix.  So these two books are an angel and a devil book. It’s clear that the devils are governing bodies who do not take action and do not care if people die.  But the Indian brave of the book has an angel’s name.

The Edwardian angelic book is more complex.  Clearly Helen, who was the daughter-in-law of Colonel W.F. Sanders and a Montana writer, was a diligent researcher.  Her other works include a three volume history of Montana.  “The White Quiver” is full of factoids, densely packed into elegantly jeweled language, always a half-bubble off plumb due to lack of true understanding.  She is clearly one of those people always scribbling notes so never looking up at the reality.  But mocking all her little stumbles and Edwardian conceits is too easy.  She’s dealing with actual historical events, until her blunders become a tip-off that she has left the people of the high prairie and begun drawing on European fairy tales.  Indigenous prairie people always refer to the number four, but Helen begins to cluster things in Trinities, influenced by Christianity.  She also become quite Shakespearean, indulging in three witches evidently transported from Macbeth.

A critical review of the time faults her for having no exciting action in the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper.  The language is beyond Cormac McCarthy or Deadwood in its rococo and extended nature descriptions -- this is very girly book.  Then it suddenly struck me that this book has survived in the vampire/werewolf context: it is science fiction romance.  “Twilight” is the direct descendant.   When the “Twilight” story morphs into “New Moon” which is a werewolf story with many Native American actors, it becomes a doorway for a new understanding of Native Americans, this time coastal and timber people, and reframes the idea of being an Indian.  Now they are not a social problem but an embodiment of the “other,” which is always a romantic lure.  Line up for the kissing -- or more, since we’re in a new century.

The spiritual, the superstitious, the magical, and the yearning to somehow escape life-traps whether economic (they are ALWAYS economic), environmental, or social is deep in all humans .  The young with all their eros and aspirations, their new generation vision of what should be and how to get there, are always the heroes and heroines of stories that cluster around escape from an impossible menace.  Pogo might point out that the menace is we mainstream, middle-class people, so determined to have things nice at whatever cost, whatever blindness, whatever devastation of resources, whatever the consequences to children.  So is it guilt that causes these white people, Helen Sanders and Gregory Mcdonald, to write such extremely different books?  Were they trying to please the people they had visited and therefore thought they knew?  Were they trying to explain the trash-pickers in a dump near the Mexican border or the mixed-blood educated woman in her cabin behind the Big Hotel in East Glacier?  

I think they were confronted with realities so unresolvable that the only reasonable response was a leap into the possibility of another world.  I prefer Mcdonald’s quiet ceremonies, but it’s hard to turn away from Sanders coruscating gorgeous mountain pageants.  I’m not prepared to scoff at either.  Nor do I scoff at “Twilight” or the “New Dawn.”  Doorways, stairways, starways -- whatever.  We need them.

No comments: