Thursday, January 05, 2017

Not recommended: RUNS WITH COURAGE by Joan M. Wolf

I do not recommend Runs With Courage, published in 2016 by Sleeping Bear Press. Written by Joan M. Wolf, it has several kinds of problems in it.

Wolf created dialog for Lakota characters of 1880 that she thinks reflects how they would talk. I find it awkward. 

In the first pages, for example, characters are using "Great White Father" in an uncritical way. On page 2, Four Winds (the main character) is thinking that white people must be very tall and powerful. After all, 
It was the white's leader, the Great White Father, who had forced us to the Great Sioux Reservation.
She doesn't say that in a frightened way. She is talking with her cousin at the time. She uses the phrase, "Great White Father" in a matter-of-fact way. Because they go on to talk about how brave the whites are--brave like their own warriors--there is a reverent quality to their use of the term. On page 5, a woman uses the phrase, too. At that part of the story, whites have come to their council lodge. The woman is amongst those wondering what is going on. The woman says: 
"Has the Great White Father passed another law?" 
If you study historical documents, you'll see "Great White Father" or the idea it embodies in several places. Thomas Jefferson used the idea that he was a father to Native peoples and our nations. Here it is in 1808 in a letter to "My Children, the Miamis, Poutewatamies, Delawares & Chippaways" 
My Children, this is the last time I shall Speak to you as your Father
And here it is in 1809 in a letter to "My Children Depities of the Cherokees of the Upper & Lower Towns:
I requested my fellow Citizens to permit me to retire, to live with my family, & to chuse another President for themselves, and Father for you.
It is paternalistic. I doubt that, in their daily conversations, Native people anywhere spoke with reverence of "the Great White Father." Why would they? Why would Four Winds speak reverently about the person who is responsible for her peoples removal from their homelands? Later when Four Winds is at the boarding school, other characters use "Great White Father," too, and later still, the one Lakota boy at the school, William, challenges her use of the phrase.   

In her story, Wolf's characters think and speak in English, uses English words in ways that I find grating (p. 8):
We had not collected any for two seasons because we...
In that sentence and elsewhere, Wolf uses "seasons" for years, "moons" for months, and "suns" for days. I know it is meant to insert some sense of authenticity, but it doesn't work. Occasionally, she has her characters using a Lakota word. I find that jarring, too. Instead of "Black Hills", Four Winds thinks and speaks "He Sapa" like this (p. 8):
I felt a pang of sadness to know that Bear did not remember much of He Sapa.
In several places she uses "tiospaye" for family or band, maybe, but it, too, is jarring:
Elders came into the lodge, left, and came back with other members of our tiospaye.
All of that sounds very outsider-y to me. Soon, Four Winds is told she's being sent away to a white man's school for girls. When the wagon arrives to take her away, she looks at the white woman, who is wearing a long black dress (p. 15):
...and a matching headdress that ended in a small piece of ribbon a her chin.
Why did she call that a headdress? That is another instance in which one of Wolf's word choices pulls me out of the story she's trying to tell. Before she gets in the wagon, her mother gives her a "wotawe" -- a pouch to protect her and help her remember to (p. 16)
"... use your lightning helpers for strength and not anger."
After dark, they reach the school where another white woman is. Four Winds notices that she isn't wearing a headdress. Once inside in the dormitory, she sees a cross. This tells me she's at a mission school. The white woman wants her to put on a rough white dress but she doesn't want to. Then, she hears footsteps and voices. Several girls walk into the room. She realizes they are Lakota, like her. One tells her what to do and the story moves on as Four Winds learns how to eat off dishes, get up when bells go off, and eventually how to read. She's given an English name: Sarah. In one of her school books she sees a drawing of a bridge. Someone tells her what it is, and she starts to think of herself as a bridge between her tiospaye and the white people. 

On page 93 she's in a school office and sees a plaque on the wall that reads (p. 93):
Miss Margaret tells her that Colonel Pratt gave it to them. Sarah asks what it means. When Miss Margaret tells her it is about them becoming civilized, Sarah gets angry. She breaks the plaque in half and is beaten by the pastor. 

My thoughts on that? It is a dramatic scene (one of many) that reminds me of Smelcer's Stealing Indians. In his deeply flawed story of boarding schools, he made up things--including signs like that--that aren't factual. As far as I know, there were no plaques like the one Sarah breaks. The idea (kill the Indian and save the man), of course, was a driving force. The phrase and concept are well known. Much is written about it. But a plaque? It might seem a small thing but fictions like that plaque, in my opinion, inadvertently obscure the actual horrors of these schools. They create, in the reader, certain kinds of expectations---and when the real stories are brought forth, they don't measure up to the expectations. Because they don't, they aren't accepted as reality. 

In chapter ten, Four Winds/Sarah, beaten and bruised, runs away from the school. When she gets home, she learns that her family didn't choose to send her. The family needed more rations. If they sent her, they'd get more. Her return means a loss of those rations, again. Though they see her decision to run away as courageous, in the end, she goes back to the school when the pastor shows up. She sees this decision as a sacrifice on her part. 

She returns to the school. Time passes and she decides she wants to be a teacher, for her tiospaye, teaching them to read, write, and speak English. She talks with the pastor, who talks with someone else, and they decide she can do this, as an experiment, to see if the "savages" (the word appears several times in the story) can learn English. In the Epilogue, she's been teaching for several years and wondering about the friends she made at the school. The story ends with her, writing a letter to them.

Again--this feels very outsider-y to me. Earlier I said it reminds me of Smelcer's book. Parts of it remind me, too, of Rinaldi's My Heart Is On The Ground

In places, Wolf goes on and on about dancing, and about naming, and about hair in ways that are awkward. All the facts of what the boarding schools were like are in the story, but in ways that yank me out of the story, again and again and again. 

In the end, it was hard to finish reading Wolf's story. It was in the "Debbie--have you seen" series. I'm glad I finally made it to the end, and that I wrote this review. 

I do not recommend Runs With Courage

If you're looking for stories set in the boarding schools, you have some great alternatives! I know several, all by Native writers! My Name Is Seepeetza is superior in many ways to Runs With Courage, and so is I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis. 

No comments: