The Heart of the Monster
In 1991 we bought 50 acres in a northern corner of the Nez Perce reservation. For seven years we lived in a home that had begun in the early 1900’s as a rancher’s line shack. We bought the place because it was beautiful, and cheap, and we were ambitious and young and poor. Soon we noticed that all our neighbors were white, and the town of Orofino was white, and the town of Lewiston was white, and Lapwai and Kamiah were Indian. The populations didn’t really mix. The whole reservation was honeycombed with ranches and farms bought by homesteaders around the turn of the century. This, I knew, was the result of a piece of legislation passed in 1887, called the Dawes Act.
The stated aim of the Dawes act was to encourage the assimilation of American Indians into a homogenous Euro-American culture. Surveyors and Special Agents divided the reservation into individual homesteads. Along with land titles came fences and plows, bank accounts, boarding schools, jobs, debt, foreclosure, disease, disharmony. When everyone had a piece of land, there was quite a bit left over. The Agent’s last job was to persuade the tribe to sell this “surplus” to speculators and farmers.
When we lived in Idaho, I was writing A Sudden Country, a story about the first wave of contact and encroachment in the American west: fur traders, missionaries, pioneers. I wanted to explore my legacy as a westerner, to use old family stories to make sense of my childhood pride and my adult unease. It made perfect sense that the next book should move from stories of contact to stories of assimilation, in Idaho, in the 1880’s.
Thrilling facts: One of the main architects of the Dawes act wasn’t a man (Senator Henry Dawes) but a woman, Alice Fletcher. Estranged from her family at fifteen, and unwilling to marry (rumors of a “brute” stepfather), she supported herself by lecturing, became interested in archaeology, and then in the new field of anthropology. She went to live among the Omaha Indians, and at their request she found herself in politics, fighting for a way to help them keep their land.
Why thrilling? The Dawes or Allotment act, as it finally manifested, was a deliberate effort to appropriate Indian land and eradicate Indian culture. But Alice Fletcher, whose life work was to understand and preserve Indian culture, and who shared her home in Washington D.C. with an Indian man, was the person sent west to divide and allot the Nez Perce reservation. Alice Fletcher was the embodiment of conflict. I wanted to know her.
Not only that, but she arrived in Idaho in 1889 with a female companion, Jane Gay, a polymath, high society wit, writer, postal detective, photographer, and journalist. In words and pictures, Jane recorded the story of this astonishing assignment.
Not only that, but when they arrived, Alice hired one of the west’s most prolific and respected GLO surveyors, Edson Briggs, whose understanding of, and compassion for the Nez Perce surprised her. He is otherwise a mystery.
The incomprehensible job. The unusual people. The importance of the events. Its relevance to the ongoing struggle between the ancient and the new in the question of survival. I couldn’t not write this book.
And I wanted to tell both sides. After all, it’s impossible to understand the impact of cultural collision without being a passenger, so to speak, on both trains.
I knew that as miners and ranchers and farmers arrived, some Nez Perce had quietly adapted. And that others were pushed from ancestral lands, forced into a thousand mile flight, exiled into Canada or removed to Oklahoma, to run the gauntlet home again. Those who’d stayed had to make room for new arrivals, and into this turmoil came the U.S. Government with another idea about land ownership.
But facts can’t convey the deeper view, this other way of being, seeing, thinking, living. There was so much more I couldn’t reach or comprehend without the consent and help of people whose ancestors had lived this side of the story. What seems like history to me is the blink of an eye to those whose culture stood intact for twenty thousand years. I could easily talk horses and share a beer, but what I wanted, put simply, was to open fresh wounds. And what I heard was, “That’s done. We’re past it. We don’t need to talk about it.”
What I heard was that my idea to tell this story was just another imposition, another scheme to be endured, another way of taking more. I was Alice Fletcher all over again, arriving with my unwelcome agenda. What I didn’t hear, but what might have been meant, was forgiveness. Maybe because I thought I had to earn it. I’m sure I didn’t think it could be so simple. Either way, I felt discouraged.
Then suddenly my husband died and I lost the courage I needed. I was under contract, and couldn’t write, and couldn’t not write, and needed help from some source beyond me.
Alice Fletcher had a moment like this on the Omaha reservation. She’d been cursed by an old man, and then lightning struck outside her tent, and then she fell into a fever and would have died, she believed, but for the songs and prayers of those families who cared for her. They sang, and what had sounded crude to her classically trained ear began to sound like salvation. She found her way into Omaha belief through her sudden ability to really hear. The Omaha had a song for everything, they did nothing without singing. She began to understand that every act was spiritual, that life in such a culture was truly the human in continual conversation with the divine, not just deities, but ancestors and animals and the eternal elements and cycles. Everything spoke, and the Indian was attuned. Her Christian God had made her feel ashamed, unloved, alone. But Omaha music and Omaha prayer began to make her whole again.
As I kept writing, I felt the same thing happening. More and more I saw that I was writing my way toward a gentler, relationship with my place on earth, my days, my children, my animals, myself. Ambition and agendas fell away. I learned to forgive myself. I learned to hear better. And the more I heard, and the less I needed, the more seriously I questioned my reasons for writing this novel. And for writing this novel.
Fiction makes sense in a culture that embraces writing as an expressive art. But, until the practice of writing was forcibly imposed, the Nez Perce told stories. What I wanted to do had no parallel in a world where only individual stories, collectively agreed-upon histories, and myths are owned and passed down.
It started to seem presumptuous tell fictionalized stories—however useful, true, well-intentioned—about a culture that did not, as such, write or even have fiction.
Hearing differently means hearing new things. And then what?
I was approximately this far down the rabbit hole when my publisher decided the book was unmarketable and unsalvageable. They had more questions than answers as they read, and wanted a clear villain, and wanted it faster and more exciting, and I wanted it mysterious and ambiguous and complex, and they had none of the concerns I had, no worries about truth or appropriation. It seems we’d come to occupy two very different cultures.
So now I’m feeling my way more freely toward something, I’m not sure what. All I know is that I write to discover, and I’ve discovered much more than I ever expected. I’m a different person from writing this book, and that’s all I can say for now.
This evening I’ve stumbled on a lecture called “On Not Writing” by Stewart Lee. I like Lee’s humor—which is both better and worse than comedy, in that I appreciate rather than laugh out loud as he slowly corkscrews into metacomedy, deconstruction, an artful deadpan floundering and fumbling through the familiar stand-up landscape. He’s at a series in Oxford, here, trying to be more helpful than funny.
He says, “Nothing any good was ever written with a view to making money.”
Which I know, (sigh) but then there was this book contract, and bills to pay, and concerns about marketability.
He says, “As soon as people realize their approval is irrelevant to you, they relax and start to give it.” Which I also know. And occasionally remember: how everything important turns out to be counterintuitive.
As of July of 2015 I’ve started guiding my second group of students through some effort to write something book-sized, whatever that means, although I consider myself equally a student, and all of us equally in need of unlearning whatever it is we used to think constituted good writing. Anyway, we’re together for a year. Two of us are writing novels, the rest are writing something more like memoir.
During these years I’ve been writing novels, my kids have apologized. They don’t read anything I write. And I keep saying, “It’s okay. It’s not your fault. You’re not exactly my demographic.”
They say, “What’s demographic?”
I say, “I mean, people your age don’t really read these kinds of books.”
But more and more I’ve wondered why I’m writing another book that looks backwards, for a generation of readers older than me, rather than a book that looks forward, something that my increasingly adult children might pick up and find meaningful. They always want to know how we got here, why everything is so messed up, what’s going to happen. How to fix it. Lacking answers, I just tell them stories about asking those same questions, and my sequence of attempted answers. Why I’ve done what I’ve done. What I thought I knew, temporarily.
Then I was on the phone with my mom and said I was setting the novel aside and she said, “Oh, I just wish you’d write something in your own voice.” Through the years, she was also the one who’d say, “I can’t wait until you start writing about now.”
So I think, well, if my mom wants me to write about myself, well, okay. And then I remember how suspicious I always am of people who say they’re writing something because other people insisted they must, because their stories are SO interesting. Don’t give me that, I think. Just own it.
Well, it’s not really about me, they say. It’s about this time, this place, these people.
Look how, even when we’re writing about ourselves, we don’t want it to be about us.
Because there’s nothing more frightening than really writing about ourselves. In so many ways, we’re taught not to say or know or even wonder who we are. Because that’s self-involved.
Dave told Ellen once, when she was nine or ten, “Stop looking in the mirror. Stop that.”
It embarrassed her, and she went out. I asked him, “Why are you telling her to stop?”
“I’m afraid she’ll end up shallow,” he said. Dave was Scottish. They’re the worst. Those people are terrified of themselves. That’s really what all the swearing is about.
My daughter is not shallow. On our refrigerator is a little painting, just two wild blue eyes in a slice of yellow face, and:
HELLO NEW YEAR…
EAT BETTER. DRINK
LESS. FIGURE OUT SELF.
EXERCISE. LOVE ME.
WRITE DOWN SHIT.
She did that about four years ago. Two years after he died. She’s 22 now, and we still sit around drinking coffee, trying to figure out ourselves. She wants to know about us when she was small, about her dad, what we wanted when we were young, how we felt about the future. I want to know how she feels now, and what she thinks and remembers. We do this, and then wander off and write down shit. Through the day, if I’m working away from my desk, I’ll write little things on scraps of paper, or try to hold onto some fragment, and at night or in the morning I’ll sit and see if it turns into something. Not figuring out Self, though. Just figuring out everything else.
And then I was ranting in the kitchen, saying, “I don’t even care if I write a novel, I just want to say whatever it is I meant to say about what happened in that place and that time, and why I think it’s important.” And my son Grant (who is rarely listening) said, “Why is it important?”
So I started talking, and the words poured out and his eyes stayed on mine without glazing over, and when I was done he said, “I really want to read that book. And my friends would read that book.”
I was so excited. I sat down and tried to write it, but when I did, it sounded wrong. It sounded contrived and desperate. I found myself explaining. I’m always explaining.
Stewart Lee is saying how ambitious he used to be. He had all these big ideas, and things he thought were right, and important. Grand presentations, perfect shows with ideas all put together and he’d get up on stage and go off like a clockwork toy. But now he asks himself, “How can I take it down to one person talking?”
I know that clockwork toy. Ambition, importance, perfection. But what I really want to know, right here in the still center of mid-life, comes down to three questions:
Who am I? How did I get here? How can I get home?
Lee says, “Now…I go on with words written on my hands, you can see…and scraps of paper that may be the start of something, and gradually they coalesce. And eventually I transcribe it back…and it reads like someone else has done it, and I’m editing the work of this other person, quite useful, though I realize that it does sound like mental illness….So I begin to assemble a deliberate facsimile of a person’s ideas at the point of conception, rather than at the point of perfection. And this construct allows the audience to feel that they’re part of the process, rather than spectators at an exhibition…”
So I’m just going to write for a year. I’m going to try to find the true sound of one person, who lived, and is living, whether or not it means anything, whether or not it’s important.
Here we go.