Sunday, January 04, 2015

"SMALLPOX" by Sid Gustafson

Child with Smallpox

Here’s an interesting development in the world of writing and publishing.  Sid Gustafson, a race horse veterinarian and novelist, whose father was our veterinarian in the Sixties, has written a short story in which a version of Bob Scriver is a character.  Those who knew Bob will easily see he is the inspiration for "Stuf"and Bob himself would have been delighted with his sort-of portrait.  Sid, like Paul Wheeler (whose stories I sometimes publish here), was very impressed by Scriver Studio and the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.  They were little boys then.  

Bob Scriver and Dr. Keith Seele are standing at James Willard Schultz' gravesite.
They are overlooking the Gustafson summer ranch.

Here’s the story.  Then I’ll discuss.  

When my old best boss called for Christmas (He’s 87 now and going strong.) I told him about the men in midlife crisis who sometimes show up on my email and correspond for a while about the puzzles of writing.  His reaction was a big old Welsh guffaw.  He was one of the first: not that he wrote, but that he was making a transition between being a cop and being a manager and bounced his life off me.

Me in my Animal Control days.
I had a better mustache then.

Sid asks how this short story should be developed to become a novel.  You might tell him directly: where you will find reviews I wrote of his previous novels.  (He has never reviewed my bio of Bob Scriver nor have any of the other writers I’ve reviewed.  Clearly they think of me as their “book doctor” and not as a writer myself.)  

So -- back to “Smallpox.”  Sid is using actual events (Baker Massacre) but doing a bit of time-bending and character-altering, which will irritate the literalists, but not me.   His two “daughters of Malcolm Clarke” are nothing like the real persons, who were ladies educated back east -- I wrote a short story about them myself.  (  The daughters as he describes them remind me of the Bremner girls, Metis (in those days called “Cree”), funny vigorous hefty women who would relish having a walrus tusk artificial leg as in the story.  It would be easy for one of the anthro folks to pull this story apart over little details, so let's not do it.
Bob Scriver in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife
The rattlesnake was coin-operated.

But the idea of a little boy alone who is taken in by friendly strangers and shown a new world is a universal paradigm that crosses time and place.  Sid and I put animals in our stories, but he has the advantage of being a veterinarian.  He himself was loaned out to Bill Big Spring for the summer but hasn’t really told that tale.  I would caution him about using real people’s names like “Tailfeathers.”  It got Jimmy Welch into hot water.

Greg Keeler

Sid says he was given his boost into the novelist’s saddle by Greg Keeler, the poet/professor in Bozeman.  Certainly Sid’s strongest aspect is his poetic vision which sweeps the narrative along before you can compare dates or correct assumptions about practicalities.  The weakest skill is dialogue.  Too this, too that.  No ear. Leave it.

In spite of living on and near the rez and having many interactions with it all his life, he keeps his firm grip on the romantic and idealistic concept of compassion right through it all. (My focus is usually more on justice and evolution.)  To him whisky and casual violence do not exist, but authority figures are devils and the Baker Massacre was an atrocity.  (It was.)  For me, reading Sid is like reading sci-fi -- everything true and recognizable but a little bit skewed, not that I mind.  At least he doesn’t attack taxidermy as grotesque and gruesome.  And his version of Stuf lasted for me as a reality.

Sid sent me the little chapbook version of “Smallpox” produced by the Chicago Tribune as part of “Printer’s Row Journal.”  It’s also readable on devices and the claim is that it’s tightly curated, though I don't who there was an expert on the rez.  In a way it’s a return of an old pamphlet form, but with auxiliary incarnations for electronic readers.  Or maybe the pamphlet is the auxiliary. TribBooks is an integrated e-bookstore and e-book reader brought to you by the Chicago Tribune and its popular literary publication, Printers Row Journal. TribBooks features a complete digital bookstore stocked with more than one million titles, accessible from any device at any time — an e-book reader's paradise! Explore the world of Printers Row Journal, discover the best new books, and browse weekly features, seasonal picks, reviews and staff recommendations.”

The idea of short pieces in several mediums seems a happy one and the GF Tribune appears to have a large backlog of material. 
Sid at 15

One more thing:  Sid is sure to be accused of being a “wannabe Indian,” which he is, and somehow ripping off the Blackfeet enrolled people who write, which he isn’t doing from my point of view.  He knows the land and to my mind that's what makes an indigenous person more than legal descent.  Anyway, the more writing there is, the better it is for writers.  I hope Adrian Jawort sends in a story.  At one point in the past the Browning School District #9 was publishing this kind of small pamphlet books.  I nabbed as many as I could and they are invaluable.  They should be reprinted and more should be sought.  Time to make them into eBooks.

Now I’ll quote some of Sid's poetic language.  Here’s Stuf leading the boy back to his home/studio.  (The train tracks do not run through Browning -- they are a couple of miles to the south.  In the grain towns the trains run through town because they serve the elevators.  Browning is not a grain town.  It’s a wild grass town.)

“Stuf stopped at the Great Northern tracks bridging the world.  He looked east.  He looked west.  He listened.  Nothing.  He scanned the heaven for the meteor shower, the vapor of his emphysema catching the last light of a fallen moon.  The boy looked up and down the shiny ribbons of rail.  He observed Stuf gazing starward.  The old man moved his fingers along the constellations, as if to count them, making sure all were there.  He looked down at the boy, smiling.  The boy looked from Stuf to the stars.  He had his ideas why men looked up to them, and what might fall out of the sky.”

Sid asked where I thought this short story should go to be developed into a novel.  Given my recent reading, I think there are two ways that people write.  One is from the prefrontal cortex, with a plan and a developed goal or statement to make, maybe even an idea of step-by-step scenes and style.  The other is from what used to be called the "limbic system" -- much farther back and deeper in the brain, inaccessible to reflection and unresponsive to planning.  I think that Sid writes from out of a holy dream that grows in that place, a location where some writers feel they live and whence the story unfolds.  It will feel that the story is falling out of the sky.  That's pretty much how Bob Scriver sculpted.  Those who know the stars will see the pattern.

1 comment:

Sid Gustafson said...

Hello Prairie,
Another beautiful review. Who knows why we write the stories we do. As you suggest, my writing is limbic. Indians always fascinated me, their plight, their lost glory, their subjugation, and how they have persevered so beautifully. I never know what others are going to think of my stories, so I send them out there and see what happens. As it turned out with this story, two different publishers latched on to it simultaneously.
I am especially grateful to the Chicago Tribune for putting the story out in a pamphlet, something you could have in your hands to read. I thought about all those homes in Chicago land who have the little story on their coffee tables, and how tangible my writing can become.
I admired the name Scintilla, who published the story on-line, and am grateful to them, as well.
I don't know many Blackfeet anymore, but none have commented negatively on my writing, to me personally, at any rate. The ones who did read my novel Horses They Rode told me they admired the tale, my elegy to the Indians I have known. In that novel I did explore drinking and some of the other tribulations encountered on the reservation.
Trouble is nothing new to me. Much of my writing, especially my New York Times horseracing journalism, has garnered its share of scorn. If one writes, and puts things out there, let the writer beware.
I have read many of your stories. We have one of your books of Indian stories at our ranch on the Two Medicine. I read your blog when I can, but you are the most productive writer I have ever known, and it is hard to keep up with a writer as productive as you.
I still remember visiting you and Bob in his studio. My Dad, Rib, and I stopped by at my pleading. We entered the room and all the lights were off, and then you switched them on, and that was the scene in the story, and indeed, the boy was me.
Indians have always sheltered me from the white world I have been spit out of from time to time, and I will forever be grateful to the Blackfeet. Mary Mad Plume bestowed me with an iniskim for defending her children at a Two Medicine River party.
Billy Big Spring held me in a horseback trance for weeks, riding that the south fork of the Two Medicine where he was born. His skin was black.
Best wishes, and Happy New Year.