A New Education

Returning from Colorado to Florida involves three and a half days of intense driving. We arrive weary-eyed, wobbly-legged and with bemused cats, yet often we’ve received an education en route. Our latest trip was no exception since we whiled away the miles listening to the audio version of William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Being lengthy and the tale of a journey, it proved an excellent choice for our travels. 

Soon, we were absorbed by the exploits of Odyseuss is O’Bannion and his three young companions who, escaping the privations and abuses of an Indian school, fled by kayak down the Gilead river in hopes of ultimately finding scant family in St Louis.

This is a multi-layered story. As you will have guessed from the narrator’s name, it is an odyssey of sorts, with echoes of Homer’s epic including a cyclops, a siren, and an enchantress. At another level, the tale is reminiscent of a “Huck Finn” folk story as the protagonists try to figure out whom to trust and who will thwart their bid for freedom. All of this is interwoven with the stories Odysseus himself tells to entertain or distract the others. He draws from fairy and fantasy tales characterizing himself and his friends as the imp, the wizard, the giant and the fairy princess, or  collectively, the “four vagabonds.”  Even though we were travel-worn, it was not lost on us that we too were “writing” the story of our own (mis)adventures.

This Tender Land is set during the depression with haunting descriptions of the “Hoovervilles” or shanty towns where destitute people tried to survive the ravages of poverty. With an extensive cast of characters, it’s inevitable that some are drawn as little more than one dimensional caricatures, but many are complex, surprising us with their tenacity, their willingness to embrace change, and their adherence to moral codes. It’s a book that considers moral codes and religious tenets with the author questioning how Christian, Jewish and native American spirituality sustains or diminishes his characters. Not surprisingly, the good are not inevitably good, nor the bad inexorably bad, we see nuance even in the worst actors.

A typical shantytown of the Great Depression
in the United States. Photo: WPA

As we were entranced by this multi-textured tapestry of a novel, we also  learned about native American cultures, especially the Indian boarding schools. One of the “vagabonds,” a Sioux, had his tongue cut out as a small child. I surmised that the author was trying to point out that indigenous Americans, for so long, have had no voice. Growing up in the UK, I knew nothing beyond the stereotypes of “red” Indians, and Texan Chris knew only a little more, though lately there have been a few documentaries addressing the subject. In a land grab, native Americans were confined to reservations. Some of the reservation land was appropriated for schools that aimed to “civilize” or, at least, assimilate Indian children into the Euro-American culture. Most likely, several of the religious groups that ran the schools, believed their actions were charitable and just. In a rather more enlightened age, we understand the denial of tribal cultures as deeply damaging. The children were isolated from their families, (where any family remained following the rout by white settlers.)  They were forced to speak only English, abandon their traditions, and enculturated as inferiors in a society controlled by white people. Inevitably there was emotional trauma and many were physically and sexually abused. Sadly, we now know that children died at the boarding schools, from neglect, unfamiliar diseases, or violence. Those who survived, carried with them the imprint of trauma, and passed it to future generations.  

Pipestone Indian Training School campus, Pipestone, Minnesota

Pipestone Indian Training School campus, Pipestone, Minnesota.
1893 – 1953. Pipestone County Historical Society.

When I reflect on my own privileged British education, I realize it was almost entirely from the perspective of white Europeans. Apparently things are changing as they are in many US school districts. I’m glad that I never stop learning (and that I no longer have to sit examinations,) and for books like This Tender Land that offer me a new education.

News Flash!

Look next month for a new excerpt from A Glass Darkly.
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Now it’s your turn to share Salt Spray & Aspens with a friend!

End Notes

Reading

Listening

Tragwyddoldeb
Carys  Hafana (playing the triple harp)

Let’s Twist Again
Chubby Checker

Poetry

The Bright Field
R.S. Thomas

 

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