Sunday, March 30, 2008


More Trickster, actually.

I was getting more and more fed up with Gary Cook’s split personality -- wanting to know things and then arguing with what I told him, being “Christian” and then denying that he was, complaining that I wasn’t describing the book he wrote. Finally I told him off. Then the light dawned for him. It seems that there are MANY Gary Cooks and SEVERAL of them write! “Wounded Moon” is by one of those other trickster dudes, somewhere back East. No wonder it was so different and no wonder that the earlier book by Gary Cook, “Graveyard Rules,” seemed more mature, even though it was earlier Gary J. Cook wrote the latter but not the former.

So. Another try. Anyway, why is this former Marine, former narc, expert on Asia, etc. asking me about Blackfeet? Unsolved. He’s part Cree or more Metis -- Blackfeet would say that explains a lot. (They consider the whole lot of them to be tricksters.) Gary’s got a character in the book he’s working on who’s supposed to be coming to terms with his Blackfeet heritage. (Being Canadian French Cree, Cook says “Blackfoot.”) He doesn’t seem to have read any of the Montana Blackfeet books, not even “Fool’s Crow” though he claims to be a friend of Jim Welch. No James Willard Schultz, no John Ewers, no McClintock, no Wissler. He just knows pop culture and anthro factoid stuff. At least that’s all he admits.

Why should an old lady with no Blackfeet genes -- and her own books to write -- help out Gary J. Cook? Why not refer him to Dave Powell, who consults on Blackfeet for the movie industry? (Of course, Dave has a fee schedule.) Or Darrell Norman, who also makes his living this way. Why have pity on this guy, to put it in Blackfeet terms? What if HE’s a trickster? (He should worry about whether I am!) I suppose it’s ego for me to help him. But why not? Part of the reason to help is that “Graveyard Rules” is a pretty good book. And part is that there's a certain satisfaction in being asked by one of those arrogant Missoula authors.

So what do I know about old-time warriors? My best story is still the one Jim Welch the Senior (father of the author) told me about when he was a little kid, about six or eight, and the Old-Time men would sit in front of Sherburne’s on a bench. In those days the sidewalks were boardwalks and the drop-off to the street made a kind of curb high enough to hide a kid, so Jim would lie alongside to eavesdrop on the old timers. They didn’t think he could understand “Indian” so they told about skirmishes from their youth. (There was worry about white vengeance, even in 1920 or so.) They’d say (Jim demonstrating how they pointed), “You were there, and you were there...” and they’d name others who were already dead. Then they’d review what had happened and why. Sometimes they made fun of each other. They laughed and laughed. Jim was Bob Scriver’s childhood buddy, the same age, born in 1914. If the Old Men were eighty in 1920, they would have been born in the 1850’s. (CM Russell was born in 1864. The last of the buffalo were 1879.) When I came in 1961, the very last Old Ones were slipping away, most notably Chewing Black Bone who was James Willard Schultz buddy, Ahku Pitsu, and who posed for Bob’s sculpture called “Transition.”

Jim said that these old guys wore “citizen’s clothes,” which means second-hand or government-issue whiteman suits, but in winter they would put on their capotes, made from Hudson’s Bay blankets, and would walk proudly up the sidewalks abreast while everyone stood back to admire them. They still had braids. These are the people in the Winold Reiss portraits.

Warriors in the old days weren’t like lone horsemen in Westerns, like McMurtry’s Blue Duck. They went at least in pairs and usually in a small group. Older men sponsored and mentored young relatives, vouching for them to come along to be horse-holders and cooks. Some men were always successful and so could muster up a small party with no trouble. Others were screw-ups, bad luck magnets, and no one wanted to go with them. Sometimes a man would start out with the others, see an omen, have a dream, and turn back. No one criticized. Sometimes when things went fubar, the men would remember omens they should have obeyed and kick themselves for not understanding.

There was always careful planning -- well, most of the time -- about strategy and how to use the terrain for surprise and ambush and shortcuts. The thing about prairie warfare is that a person can see what’s coming a long way off and there is usually room to retreat if things blow up -- like maybe they have guns and you don’t. There are long periods of time sitting up high and watching, when nothing is happening, when the war stories and memories are good prompters, a good way to get pumped up to be brave.

In those days people lived in bands, sub-groups bigger than a family (though mostly related) and smaller than a tribe. Sort of like a neighborhood today, though lately bonds can’t be formed easily because the tribal housing assigns people according to different criteria than affinity, common interests, which used to hold people together. People in Montana note where other people are all the time: “I saw your car at...” Clear across the state. Identity is noted and registered everywhere. Until recently, Montana plates told what county you lived in. Now they are “affinity” plates, extra paid to show something. Identity depends upon affinity. A good novelist shows these.

A certain kind of reader looks for info about weapons and paraphenalia, testing knowledge of trivia against that of the author. It’s a game. But I’d rather have a reader who looks for identity and affinity, so that’s what I talk about when I talk about warriors -- and tricksters. Now Gary J. Cook and I are getting closer to a real exchange of information, but it’s probably harder between two writers than between two readers or a reader and a writer. Mostly a matter of attitude, whether we choose to be tricksters or warriors and when.

I was considering linking to Amazon the two Gary Cook books -- the ones I confused -- but Amazon has gone “trickster” by eliminating all self-published books, so I will go “warrior” and shun them. To repeat: “Wounded Moon” is by Gary Cook, about a Kodiak bear transplanted to the Appalachians where it is trying to kill an angelic little girl but is prevented by an heroic tracker. It has “magic” parts. The author is not from Montana or in Montana.

Graveyard Rules” by Gary J. Cook is on the list of “ten greatest Montana noir novels” whether or not it is noir. It IS about two Vietnam vets now cops in Missoula and warring on drug dealers. No magic. “Graveyard” is a pun, about working the shift in the middle of the night when you can evade a lot of supervision -- like narcs. Like writers.


Anonymous said...

James Willard Schultz took great liberties with the realities of the Blackfeet in his delightful stories, and yet in some mysterious way, he may have caught the Blackfeet of that period better than any one else.

Richard Wheeler

Keir said...

Another good read. But again, if you're referring to the list of Montana crime novels on the Cold Lessons blog, I put Gary J. Cook's "Blood Trail" on the list, not "Graveyard Rules." And I didn't call them "noir" or "the greatest"--they're "great" and they're "crime novels" (maybe loosely or arguably, but with themes or instances of crime). Hate to be picky, but I don't want to be accused of hyperbole, either!

mscriver said...

Thanks for the corrections, Keir. I'm three-fourths of the way through "Blood Trail" and see what you and Gary are saying about the book. It's quite different from "Graveyard Rules." More later when I finish. These are not the genre I usually read, so I'll need to reflect a bit.

Prairie Mary