Tuesday, March 07, 2017

"THE NATIONS" by Thomas F. Sheehan

In spite of what the academics say, there is a whole community of Western writers who still spin traditional yarns and get them published.  For a while I was writing that kind of stories and sending them to Rope and Wire (www.ropeandwire.com) until I got a little too racy for them.  Scott Giese, whose spread this is, will accept violence but not sex.  Anyone can read the Western stories for free on the website.

In the process I discovered Thomas F. Sheehan.  Among the books I’ve boxed to give away is his book called “The Nations”.  But I keep pulling it back out.  It’s one-of-a-kind, an early Western anthology by him, so naive that he keeps saying “squaw, buck, papoose”, words that would get you punched out in a lot of places.  He calls a female sheep a “yew.”  All his stories are kind of dream fantasies, not just the ones about Native Americans.  But I can’t imagine what the Canadians who are breaking up friendships over Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda” would do with these stories.  They’re more like Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” than anything else I can think of, if Longfellow wrote pulp fiction.  They’re from a boys’ world.

In sonorous poetic prose the tales unwind from a main character with a remarkable name, the Euro ones as much as the supposedly Anglicized tribal ones.  Hides-Inside-Rocks meets Varden DeNoncoeurJed Bolyx and Adam Flinkfelt interact with Twisted Water, Broken Feather, Tall Answer and So Sioux Said.

Tom has a unique vision full of caves and turtles.  White men keep finding Indian babies to raise and Indian men capture white babies to raise.  The tales are plainly meant to be inspiring but sometimes they’re just corn-ball — then again, a few sentences later, they are transcendent.  They are outrageous clich├ęs and somehow unique.  I’ll use space to give a sort of sub-story which is inside a longer version.  The idea is that “I”, a first person narrator who is unaccountably omniscient, is about to be hung unjustly.  He is an “Indian.”

“But this man, this hangman, this stolid executioner, does not come pompous.  He does not wear his vestments the way some of the lawmen do that hold sway in the region.  Slowly he moves, patient, making no circus of his deed.  He must value life, this hangman, in the most obvious conflict of deed and duty.

And as I look down upon him, I am caused to lift my eyes and there lies my mountains rising against the great sky, green and white and fiery red and orange in a sunset, with red slashes in steep stone faces, and the lines of ridges showing where the trails and paths are secret to the Sioux and the black mouths of the caves where some of the gods take to rest, where I chased my puma and met my maiden and high above, past the tree lines I see the snow lines where the sheep have tried in vain to hide from my arrows.

At this time, as the hangman rises slowly and somberly up the steps to reach me, I am visited by memories borne upon the mountains so sweet and so swift they rush through me like the wind in a long cave, and the sound of music comes along on that wind and quick breath cuts off corners like erosion itself is taking place at my ear.

His eyes are sad eyes as he looks at me.  They peer out from the slits in his black mask, so blue I think of a tarn up high on the mountain where I swam as a boy with Red Eagle and Chosen Hand who have gone on long before me in the wars.  A bit of hair sits on his face and his chin, some of it gray and some brown as yet, and the sadness also sits in the corners of his mouth where those lips say sadness is about us this day, as if he makes convert announcements at his tasks.

No hatred fills me about him or his task, but only the hurrying sense of innocence that rushes through me trying to be found, but I cannot cry it out or shed tears to gain an edge for my innocence.  His shirt is neat.  He wears no badge or sign of status, nothing to say what he is, what he has come to do.  But only the sadness in his eyes.

“Son,” he says to me, lightly, almost a whisper, “I don’t have any hate for you or any Indian who does me no harm, though I have been subject to great pain in my past.  I have forgiven all things done unto me and unto mine.  I don’t know if you did the deed or deeds they have said came of your hands, for I am not a judge.  I only come to finish the work of the trial.  It is the way we do things. . . .”

Then in an almost silent gesture, a bare whisper, he slipped a prairie flower inside my shirt and said, “I have brought you a part of the great grass, to carry with you, to know the odor of the plains.”:

There’s another page to the story, but the upshot is that when the hangman goes to adjust the narrator’s collar and fit the rope under it, he discovers a mark that reveals that the man being hanged is his son.  The hangman is white but his son was captured as a child and raised as an “Indian.”  All Sheehan’s stories end with this sort of twist.  They’re like a murder mystery in which one last clue makes all the others fall into place.

This sort of writing is almost like a child’s, or a conscious dream, or an internet fanfiction — the set of parameters is so personal it can’t really be considered a political pitch and yet it comes from a deep set of convictions — religious meaning, in fact.  Sheehan’s experience as a soldier in Korea taught him a lot about strategy, bushwhacking and shooting — he’s an American Sniper.  But he’s not a redneck fighting PTSD.  Instead he makes a quiet pitch for peace, using the Old West as a set of chess pieces and board.

I just don’t want to give the book away.  I want to keep it.

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