The orchestra was warming up in some distant pit, the crowd murmuring as they found their seats, nodding and waving to friends across the aisle. This was the holiday event of the season, the one everyone talked about and speculated on and waited for. This was the Men’s Book Group Book of the Year!
OK, it wasn’t quite that dramatic. There was small crowd at The Rivers, and none of them were paying attention to us. Well, one guy did, but he wanted to know if we were going to use the whole big table, or could he use the other end.
There were six of us at Thursday’s meeting, and for the second month in a row we had two new people join us for the discussion. Welcome Scott and George! (Though George did say he was moving to Arizona next month. No word on whether that had anything to do with his first experience with the group.) Though they had not read any of the books we were about to discuss (George had read Shadow Divers), they were keenly interested in the discussion that was about to unfold.
We were a little slow getting started. I, for one, felt the weight of responsibility that we were about to wield––the making or breaking of some hopeful author with our weighty deliberation and selection. I went down the list of books we had read over the past 12 months––eight in all. Then we went around the table, and everyone threw out their contenders. That discussion eliminated two from the pack. However, we agreed that Peter Geye’s Safe From the Sea, while not a contender, deserved to be in the “Good Book” category. With six titles left in the running, the scrutiny and the high-minded thinking kicked into gear. They don’t call us the “Smarty Pants Group” for nothing.
“OK, now let me have your top 2, in order of priority,” Ted said.
Angelo went first, confidently casting his votes for The Warmth of Other Suns and Shadow Divers.
Irv was clearly conflicted. “Shadow Divers is my second choice, but I’m torn between Beast in the Garden and The Warmth of Other Suns for number one,” he said.
Then he hit upon a wonderful tie-breaker. “I couldn’t put down Beast in the Garden or Shadow Divers,” he began slowly, “And Warmth of Other Suns was definitely more difficult to read (for its context, not the way it was written), but it is a more important book. That is the one I think everyone should read. So I’m going to say Warmth of Other Suns for my first pick, and I’m going to split my second place vote between Beast in the Garden and Shadow Divers.”
We all sat there looking at him, awe-struck. Such brilliant logic, such an eloquent decision. If we weren’t guys, we might have wiped discrete little tears from our eyes and touched Irv’s arm knowingly. But we are guys, so we didn’t do that. In fact, no one probably even thought of it. We just nodded our heads, sipped our beers, Ted wrote it down, and we looked at Adrian to go next.
Adrian agreed with Irv that The Warmth of Other Suns is an important book, so he too made it his first pick and Beast in the Garden his second choice.
It came down to Ted, who first shared Jack's choice with the group, which Jack had emailed to Ted earlier. He, too, had liked Beast in the Garden, but his highest praise went to The Warmth of Other Suns. “I agree with that,” said Ted, casting his vote for The Warmth of Other Suns and Rez Life as his runner-up.
Now, the non-existent crowd was buzzing (well, in my head they were buzzing...or maybe a phone was ringing). Anyway, people were tallying up the scores in their heads, trying to anticipate the formal announcement. Ted was feverishly doing the same. But it didn’t take that much work. The choice was very clear. The Men’s Book Group 2013 Book of the Year is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns!
The closest runners-up were The Beast in the Garden and Shadow Divers, but even they were a full six-and-a-half points behind Warmth.
In addition to the importance of the book, Angelo added that part of what made the book so good was its historical interest and the fact that it was so well-written. “She does a great job of weaving the stories of three separate people’s experiences,” he said.
Irv mentioned that there was something about the Great Migration on a PBS special, which can be watched online. I looked for this, and found an excerpt about the Migration from an episode of "The American Experience."
The Great Migration: From Mississippi to Chicago (clip from “The American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till”)
Adrian said that Isabel Wilkerson was interviewed on the Wisconsin Public Radio program “To The Best of Our Knowledge.” That I was able to find easily–– http://www.ttbook.org/book/isabel-wilkerson-warmth-other-suns.
Having made our choice, the group sat back and basked in the glow of another year well-read. Conversation shifted from books to snow and skiing and bears still wandering about the nearly winter-woods. George told us about going to Arizona for the winter, but that he would be back and would join us again when the weather here turned more agreeable. We gave him an assignment to prepare book reports about next year’s selections and send those to us. We’re sure he will comply.
Our next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 16 January 2014, 6:30. We will discuss Stephen King’s 11/22/63….unless we can’t make it through the book in time (it’s just one page shy of 850). But Bill Bauer and new-guy Scott suggested that it may be pretty easy reading. We’ll see.
Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Book!
I cannot remember reading a book faster than I read this one––286 pages in two-and-a-half days. And what a book.
I think I first heard of Detroit: An American Autopsy when I saw a review of it on National Public Radio. I have been interested in the state of Detroit and where it’s going, so I made a note to read the book. Now I’ve read it and I am both depressed by Detroit and amazed at the people who continue to live there, which includes most of my family.
I don’t know why I’ve taken such an interest in Detroit in recent years. I have never really considered myself to be from there, and I have never felt an urge to go back. But the fact is I was born there, and I have clear memories of my early childhood there. We moved away when I was nine, and I grew up in the northwestern suburbs, but my dad taught in the Detroit Public School system and continued to commute back and forth to the city every day for 30 years. Growing up, we often went into the city to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. As a teenager, I went downtown to see concerts or go to the Detroit Auto Show. So Detroit is a part of me. It was an influence on and a backdrop to my life. By blood and history, I have an interest in the city’s present and its future. It is perhaps all very superficial, and to be sure, I am a very safe distance away from there now, but even from here, I am watching.
This book is both memoir and journalism. LeDuff moves back to Detroit after 20 years away, and he’s shocked by what he finds. So he takes a job as a reporter for The Detroit News, and he sets out to uncover what has happened and why, using his connections with firemen and police and family to tell stories about the neglect, desperation, vanity, and violence that run through the city’s broken infrastructure and shattered lives. Though LeDuff’s style is very engaging, the subject matter is hard to read, and it is not for children. The first chapter ("Gra-shit," a phonetic but descriptive spelling of a major thoroughfare––Gratiot Avenue––on Detroit’s east side) is LeDuff’s recounting of the time he pulled into an empty gas station on that street and was nearly mugged while filling his gas tank.
In Detroit, if possible, you don’t get your gas on the east side, not even at high noon. Because the east side of Motown is Dodge City––semi-lawless and crazy. Many times citizens don’t bother phoning the cops. And as if to return the favor, many times cops don’t bother to come. …Now here I was on the grubby east side––a war zone in its own right. A place of Used-to-Haves. And a Used-to-Have is an infinitely more dangerous type of man than the habitual Have-Not.
The muggers have no weapons, but there are two of them, and they have the jump on LeDuff. Fortunately LeDuff is allowed to reach into his car to get the money they are demanding from him. Instead, he pulls a gun from the glove box.
I emerged from the car and pointed the barrel square toward the man’s face. I said nothing. No Dirty Harry line. No crime novel metaphor. I didn’t even know where the safety was or if there was a safety or ammunition in it. I pissed myself a little.
It’s only after the muggers are gone that the gas station attendant pokes his head out the door to ask LeDuff if he’s OK. That’s the beginning, and it gets worse from there.
Death and mayhem are rampant in Detroit. And among that sea of hopelessness, people are drowning, adrift, or valiantly fighting the tide. It can be inspiring, but mostly it’s heart-breaking. LeDuff investigates the city’s mayor and the allegation that he arranged for the murder of a stripper who performed at a party in his home because she could name the high-powered people who were there. He investigates the mayor’s illicit affair with this chief of staff. He takes on the corrupt, violent, and petty President Pro Tem of the Detroit City Council. He embeds himself with a fire company as they race around extinguishing burning homes that have long been abandoned, but which people set on fire for the entertainment value of watching the firemen come to put them out–– "it’s cheaper than a movie." The firemen, though, are working with outdated and malfunctioning equipment, and as one man predicts, it eventually leads to an unnecessary death.
LeDuff also navigates the tragedies in his own family. One brother is laid off, another is working in a low-paying job at a screw-making factory, his sister is dead––a victim of drugs and the city’s violence. Her daughter, LeDuff’s niece, isn’t far behind. After a friend dies fighting yet another arsonist’s fire in yet another abandoned home, he has to convince the other fire fighters to not burn the rest of it down, to not become one of the no-name arsonists, even though their reasons are different––they don’t want the memory of their friend’s death left standing. LeDuff persuades the city to demolish the house instead. When they do, the firemen and the neighbors thank him, but a man living across the street from the now-gone abandoned home "[sweeps] his hands across the calamity of his neighborhood and the half dozen or so other rotting houses [and asks,] "But what about the rest of it?" The endlessness of the city’s troubles begins to weigh on LeDuff.
Detroit was beginning to wear my [a**] out. I didn’t have the usual reportorial detachment anymore. This was home. This was where I lived. This was where I was raising my kid, and my sister’s kid dies in some dark basement not six weeks after I arrive. And this morning I’m watching grown men cheer the demolition of a [s**t] box as though it were the Berlin Wall coming down. I looked out the window realizing that Detroit was doing something to me that a story’s never done to me before. It was hurting.
This book is both memoir and journalism. It is a report on the neglect, desperation, vanity, and violence that runs through a city’s broken infrastructure and shattered lives. It is "an American autopsy," a look at the future of our country.
Americans are swimming in debt, and the prospects of servicing that debt grow slimmer by the day as good-paying jobs continue to evaporate or relocate to foreign lands. Economics talk about the inevitable turnaround. But standing here in Michigan, it seems to me that the fundamentals are no longer there to make the good life.
LeDuff is hard-edged and cold-eyed, but he has a great deal of heart. This book is his way of bearing witness but also of advocating for justice. It is the best anyone can do.
Buy the book here.
Before our meeting ended last Thursday, Ron suggested we recognize three members of our group for their achievements.
At their annual meeting in Milwaukee this past October, The Wildlife Society presented Adrian with the Jim McDonough Award for his work as a mammalian ecologist and Director of the Wisconsin Wolf Recovery and Management Program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In part, the award recognized Adrian for “outstanding contributions to wolf management through his intense monitoring of the state wolf population, educating the public about wolves, working closely on wolf depredation management, and interacting with wolf specialists across North America and Europe.” Through these efforts, he “has been instrumental in wolf restoration in Wisconsin, a truly remarkable wildlife success story.” Congratulations, Adrian!
We also took a moment to recognize and thank the two veterans in our group. John joined the U.S. Navy with the goal of being a fighter pilot. It turned out he didn’t have the required 20/20 vision required of pilots, so he instead became a Radar Intercept Officer (the one who flies in the back seat of a fighter jet; think Goose in “Top Gun”). He spent 17 years at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego except when he was, as he says, “yachting” on the USS CONSTELLATION, RANGER, ENTERPRISE, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, or KITTYHAWK.
Jack joined the U.S. Marines straight out of high school, avoiding the draft by simply enlisting. He served in Vietnam for almost two years with an infantry company whose main weaponry were Ontos, small tank-like vehicles armed with 106mm rifles. He “typically set up communications for our unit in the field. I was also an interpreter and did field intelligence work for our unit.”
Though we haven't seen him in a while, I recall that Barry was also a veteran, though I do not recall in what branch of the military he served.
Thank you to John, Jack, and Barry for their service!
Eight of us (including two new members!) gathered on Thursday evening to discuss Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which is a documentary of the 60-plus-year migration of southern blacks to the north and west of the country, escaping discriminatory oppression for what they hoped would be greater freedom and a better life.
One of the most interesting points to come out of our discussion was the fact that few of us had any idea this migration was happening, despite the fact that it extended well into the early 1970s. As Angelo noted, “people who lived in the cities probably knew this was happening, but those of us who lived in the hinterlands did not.” And perhaps not just the hinterlands, but also those places that were not either in the south or in the destination towns. John, who grew up in Montana, also did not know of this migration, even when he was in college. He became a little more aware of it in the Navy, but there was a forced integration on an aircraft carrier. As he told us, there was no room for “this is your space and this is mine; you got along, or you went to the brig.” Even Ted, who was born in Detroit but moved to the suburbs when he was 9 years old, remembers hearing from his parents and grandparents about the city’s changing demography, but never thought to wonder where the people were coming from who were moving into those neighborhoods. “I didn’t know it as a migration, just a change in the neighborhood,” he said.
This is an interesting revelation because it points to the preponderance of history being told from a white person’s perspective. Even when John compared this migration to that of the early “pioneers,” we realized that those stories of the settling of the West failed to mention the impacts to Native American tribes and cultures. History also does not emphasize the presence or role of blacks outside of slavery. As Adrian mentioned, black Americans are known to have been among the pioneers who settled Wisconsin towns such as Parks Falls, Shawano, and Merrill. Similarly, Irv said, a black family was a prominent neighbor of the Swedish Settlement south of Grand View.
Blacks leaving the south were pioneers, too, in the very basic sense of the word. They were pulling up their familial roots and leaving a place they knew for a place that held all sorts of uncertainty and fear, but also hope and a certain amount of “glitter,” especially in the case of places like Los Angeles that at least one of the book’s protagonists knew from what he had seen in the movies. It may be because of this one-sided view of history that Wilkerson’s book is such an eye-opener. She, in fact, states that what historians call the Great Migration is “perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century.”
The numbers alone are awe-inspiring. Over a period of more than 60 years (roughly 1915–1970), six million black southerners left the Jim Crow south to begin new lives in cities and towns of the northern and western United Cites, cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York. “At one point,” writes Wilkerson, “10,000 [people] were arriving every month in Chicago.” The migration caused what must be the largest demographic shift in American history. Prior to the migration, only 10% of all black Americans lived outside the southern states. By the time the migration ended in the 1970s, that proportion had grown to 47%.
By the time it was over, no northern or western city would be the same. In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.
Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people to tell this story, but she alternates the larger historical account with the personal experiences of three main characters, one woman and two men, each of whom left the south in different decades. The woman, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1930s. George Swanson Starling fled an increasingly dangerous life in Florida in the 1940s, taking up residence in New York. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was a surgeon who drove out of Louisiana in the 1950s with a plan of opening his own medical practice in Los Angeles. Wilkerson occasionally injects personal anecdotes from her own past, as she is the daughter of parents who made the trip north in search of a better life.
Each of the protagonists found what they were looking for, but the struggles they faced to do it are tales of courage and fortitude. The leaving itself was a delicate affair, as white southerners employed a variety of tactics to keep blacks from heading north (they were losing their cheap labor; who would pick the cotton or the oranges?). Many men left first, going north to find work and place to live, then sending for their wives and children. Amazingly, even when they were out of the south, migrants faced a more subtle form of racism (what once historian has termed “James Crow”) embedded in the communities where they hoped to live. It was perhaps less violent, but no less overt. It was a back-handed sort of racism. Few employers would hire them. Certain neighborhoods were off limits. Those who were able to cross into those neighborhoods may have had to move in under cover of darkness. Once settled, they sometimes found themselves at the heart of another migration, only this time it was all the whites who left the neighborhood. Some found the north to be too big, too loud, or just too intimidating, and they returned home to what was familiar. What sort of pride-swallowing courage would that have required?
Our group began reading this book just before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered what has become known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. That milestone gave this book a poignancy that I may have missed otherwise. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it gave the book more context. This migration was happening before and after Dr. King’s time. It was a precursor to the civil rights movement as well as an expression of and a product of it.
All agreed that The Warmth of Other Suns could be difficult to read because of the stories about how blacks were treated, both in the south and in the north. They are, in some ways, stories we knew about in a general sense, but they are never easy to revisit. Racism in any form is disgusting, but when it becomes violent and lethal, it is especially repulsive. How can people think and act in such a way? Never the less, we all found the book to be a compelling one. Ron said he couldn’t put it down once he started. The average score for both Interest and Readability was 4.5 out of 5, and most said they would read something by Isabel Wilkerson again. (One person abstained from expressing an opinion, and another said––tongue in cheek––he would probably weigh the book first.)
Though the Great Migration is what some might consider history, we could view the contemporary debate about immigration reform as a modern manifestation of a similar problem. Today’s migrants may not be escaping the sort of violent oppression that blacks faced in the south, but the oppression brought on by poverty is no less debilitating, and those who come the United States are doing so in search of a better life for themselves and for their families. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said the philosopher and writer, George Santayana. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is one of those books that no one should ignore.
“Sorry, I am late reporting on Shadow Divers.”
That’s the opening line in Adrian’s email to me relaying our group's review of the book (I missed the meeting). Trouble is he sent that message to me on September 1st. I just rediscovered it sitting in my email box. I forgot to post it here on our blog.
So, let me start with a similar apology: Sorry I’m late in posting our review of Shadow Divers. Here’s Adrian’s report.
John Sills, Angelo Bollero, and I got together on August 15th to discuss Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. John and Angelo had finished the book and liked it. I had not finished it, but enjoyed it as well. It was a great adventure and fascinating story. We were also very interested in the history of submarine warfare during World War II. John with his Navy background did have some experience with subs, but mostly liked staying above the water.
As far as rating readability:
• John gave it a 4.0, said it was good with detailed research, but does bounce around some.
• Angelo gave it a 4.5, and admired the detailed scientific research.
• I gave it a 4.0.
As far as interest level:
• John gave it a 5.0 and said it was a great story.
• Angelo also gave it a 5.0 and really enjoyed it.
• I gave it a 4.5 and was fascinated by the methods of how these dives occur as well as the history of German submarines during world War II
Would we read another story by this author?
• John, Yes
• Angelo, Yes
• Adrian, maybe, depending on subject matter, but the author did seem to do very thorough research which would likely make me interested.
In general Shadow Divers is a good read, great adventure story, interesting look into the lives of hard core divers, and fascinating historical research.
Woe to the person who, without reading a word, pigeon-holes this book as a travelogue, another outdoors story filled with wind and mosquitoes, sunsets and silence. Paddling to Winter is about more than just a canoe trip. It is about a way of living that is rare and very special.
In 1999, Julie Buckles and her husband Charly Ray paddled away from a Lake Superior beach in northern Wisconsin and headed north on what they had long-called “The Trip.” It was a dream trip for Charly that he was now sharing with Julie as their honeymoon. Julie, being a reporter for the Ashland Daily Press, wrote articles about their travels that were published in the paper. We were all following them north to winter that year. I remember reading those stories in the newspaper. I think I sent them a Christmas card that winter. Their trip was one I hoped to emulate someday, and years later, my canoe partner and I would follow some of the same route, even borrowing maps from Julie and Charly to help us navigate the Winnipeg River.
Their plan was to paddle west from the Bayfield Peninsula to Duluth, then north up the Lake Superior shore to where they would carry over into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and thread their way along a series of lakes and rivers that would take them 1,700 miles to Wollaston Lake in northeast Saskatchewan. They would spend the winter at Wollaston Lake, then continue north the next spring––first by snowshoe, then by canoe––1,300 miles to the Arctic Ocean. An ambitious expedition that any canoeist will envy.
What’s interesting about this book is that paddling is only half the story. Buckles goes beyond the trip details all paddlers love, and shows what else canoe travel can be––a distillation of life to its common essentials: food, water, and shelter; the raising of one’s awareness––you pay attention to wind, to clouds, and to sounds. In the midst of this nomadic life, one realizes that all the “stuff” society holds as important is, in reality, almost entirely unnecessary.
The other half of the story is about spending the winter in Wollaston Post, Saskatchewan––28 miles from the end of the nearest road, which then runs 260 miles to the next town. Actually, they lived nearly 15 miles from town, on Estevan Island in Wollaston Lake, using a cabin that had been offered to them by a couple who went south in the winter.
As the name implies, Wollaston Post is really an outpost. An enclave of 1,200 people, “80% of them Dene and 10–15% Cree.” It is a place of sublime beauty where the weather dictates what a person will do on any given day. “That’s the way the North worked, I was learning. There was a respect for weather. If it turned bad, people sat it out. Travel meant taking chances. Work mattered less than being alive, warm, fed, and comfortable.” Days are spent reading and writing, visiting with friends, chopping and hauling fire wood, and listening to the chatter of a “trapper radio”––a ham radio people used to communicate with one another across the great expanses of forest and water. These are simple pleasures that a slower life brings.
Being fortunate enough to spend a winter in such a place, though, is not always the paradise one might imagine. Solitude is both a gift and a challenge for active people like Julie and Charly because there is, as Buckles writes, a “great pressure that goes along with the gift of time.” Once those who dream of endless days in a beautiful place actually achieve that dream, they often come up against an insistent sense of needing to do something wonderful with the gift they have been given––write a great novel perhaps, or create a master piece of art. Julie and Charly struggled with this, but they came through in shining fashion. This book is proof of that.
Buckles has a great talent for paring down details to their finest points. In stories of winter camping, visits from family and friends, snowmobiling in search of caribou, being lost out on the ice, and the great anticipation for spring and the push further north, there are no slow-moving passages in this book. It is a compelling narrative that absorbs and moves the reader. Paddling to Winter is a story of two people living life close to the bone. They are fully engaged in the act of simply living. This is a story about chasing and capturing a dream, then having to let it go when the “outside world” presses in, as it always does. But that doesn’t mean the dream is lost. It simply means the story continues. I hope Julie will share with us what happens next.
When a friend and I set out to harvest wild rice from nearby lakes this year, we were taking part in a centuries-old tradition that in Ojibwe society was originally the responsibility of women. Men would help with traveling to and setting up the rice camp, but then they would go hunt or fish while women moved slowly through the rice beds, knocking the ripe grains into the bottoms of their canoes. In fact, Brenda Childs states that, “the wild rice harvest was the most visible expression of women’s autonomy in Ojibwe society.” It wasn’t until the late 1930s, during the Depression, that the federal government, seeking to make the rice harvest part of the emergency relief effort, employed Ojibwe men to do the work. It was unimaginable to white men in government that such physical outdoor work would be done by women. This was also the time in which non-Native white-folks like my friend and I started ricing.
The coincidence of my finding this book just as we were coming into manoominike-giizis, or “the ricing moon,” as the Ojibwe refer to the month of August, only reinforced my great interest in what there was to learn. I originally bought it because it has a chapter on Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, which is where I went to college and then stayed to live for a while; it is my wife’s hometown; and it is the setting for Child’s discussion of Indian boarding schools that were set up in the 1870s to “assist” in the cultural assimilation of Native children. This shameful period in U.S. history extended into the 1940s. It was a time when government agents threatened parents and downright stole children from their families in order to make them into what white society thought was the ideal for Native people.
Holding Our World Together is both a brief history of the Great Lakes Ojibwe and a detailed examination of the important roles of women in that culture. Those roles have changed over time, but most of that change is in how the roles are perceived or acknowledged. The responsibilities women held in Ojibwe society and the ways in which they learned from one another and passed on traditions and information to younger generations is the theme that runs through each of these stories about Ojibwe life. Women’s roles in the fur trade are portrayed through the life of Traveling Woman, or the one we in northern Wisconsin know as the namesake of Madeline Island in Lake Superior. Madeline married the fur trader Michel Cadotte, and the influence of their pairing still reverberates through the region today. In discussing the reservation era, we learn the Ojibwe word for a female elder, mindimooyenh, which literally translates as “one who holds things together.” It is a word that “best embodies how Ojibwe society has traditionally perceived women’s power … and it is a category of distinction that honors the pivotal role occupied by fully mature women in the social order.” This ability to hold things together served women––and all Ojibwe people––well during the time in which the government was forcing the people off their land and onto reservations. Wild Rice and the Great Depression share a history that Child conveys through a discussion about Nett Lake on the Bois Forte reservation in northern Minnesota.
The contemporary role of Ojibwe women and the urban nature of Native culture is the focus of the final chapter, in which Child discusses the movement of Native people from reservations into large cities of the region during and after World War II. This exodus to the cities coincided with the federal government’s plan to relieve itself of its responsibilities to tribal nations in the postwar years, and with its attempts to take back land that had been given to tribes. Eighty percent of the American Indian population would migrate to cities by the end of the 20th century, with many Ojibwe taking up residence in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or Duluth. [NOTE: this parallels a similar migration of blacks out of the Jim Crow South, which our group is currently reading about in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Stay tuned for a forthcoming review of that book.] Here, women would excel in organizing and mobilizing the Native-dominated neighborhoods. They would find jobs to support themselves and their relatives. They would work to protect children against displacement during the “adoption era,” during which social workers used boarding school-like tactics of removing Native children from families and placing them with white families to ostensibly give them a better life than the one they faced with their poverty-stricken Native parents. This work would bring about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Women founded support organizations such as the Upper Midwest American Indian Center in 1961 and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in 1984, both headquartered in Minneapolis. They would also play a major, but underappreciated, role in the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. While the men in AIM attempted to raise awareness of Native issues through confrontational and high profile takeovers of places like Alcatraz Island, or were defending themselves against a violent federal siege on the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota (an event our group read about in Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse), women were using “their skills, creativity, labor, and leadership to [educate] urban Indian children … [and to] create culturally and historically meaningful curricula [that] influenced a new generation of charter schools, language-immersion schools, and more mainstream institutions throughout Minnesota.”
The old adage “behind every great man is an even better woman” is probably sexist and paternalistic. It should be recast as “alongside every great man is an even better woman.” If the women are not the ones who are actually out front, they are most definitely not at the back. Brenda Child highlights this truism in Holding Our World Together. For all the discrimination, fear, and inequality that non-white men are faced with in contemporary society, women probably have it worse because they often face the discrimination both from outside their culture and from the men within it. This look into the powerful and important role of Ojibwe women is just a glimpse of what else we might learn if we lower our preconceptions and really try to see and understand other cultures besides our own.
Let me start by saying I am not a fan of those people who go into the field ostensibly in the name of science (but who often have no science background) and make a name for themselves by “getting closer to <insert animal here> than anyone ever has before.” Timothy Treadwell, the infamous “Grizzly Man,” is the best example of this; a person who apparently wanted to raise public awareness about grizzlies, but seems to have disregarded all common sense about being safe around them. Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in 2003. The circumstances surrounding the attack are unknown (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grizzly_Man).
Then there are those who do have some sort of science background, but still choose to conduct their studies in very close contact with their subjects. Dian Fossey and mountain gorillas in Africa (see Gorillas in the Mist––the book or the movie––or Farley Mowat’s biography of Fossey, Woman in the Mists) and, more locally, Lynn Rogers and black bears in northern Minnesota are two examples. Though the information gleaned from these studies is sound, the methods used to collect it have been criticized.
Having said this, I am open to the insights people gain from these encounters (except for the “Grizzly Man” mentioned above). I am open to other ways of seeing the world and all that lives in it. As cultural anthropologist and writer Richard Nelson noted, “Certainty is for those who have learned and believed only one truth.” Strictly objective science is not the only path to knowledge about the natural world. It is from this perspective, then, that I read Shaun Ellis’s book, The Man Who Lives With Wolves. It is not a book I would even consider buying on my own, but my aunt gave it to me as a Christmas gift, so with an interest in wolves, I started into it. Incredibly, I found it to be a well-written story with intriguing insights to wolf behavior.
Shaun Ellis is an Englishman who at an early age found he had a special way with animals, particularly dogs. He is humble, and the tenor of his story reflects graceful acknowledgement of his gift. That humility is what made it possible for me to continue reading the book. Often, a person tells these types of stories in a sort of carefree manner, building up the suspense or the danger when it suits their delusion of grandeur. Ellis does not do that.
After a stint in the military, Ellis goes to work as a volunteer for a wildlife park, and it is here that his relationship with wolves begins to flourish. He pursues this fascination in an unconventional way, but it achieves incredible results.
Curiosity soon got the better of me. I wanted to get close to those animals and to know more about them and so I started sitting quietly inside the enclosure … hoping the wolves might take an interest and investigate me. They didn’t. Then I realized what I was doing wrong. I was invading their territory in daylight, when I felt comfortable. What would happen, I wondered, if I switched the odds and approached them … at night when they had the upper hand? Might I then get a truer understanding of what those creatures were really about?
And so he does just that, he enters the wolf enclosure at night, sitting quietly and waiting to see what happens. Something does, and eventually the wolves begin to accept his presence. Here again, it is Ellis’s humility that sets him apart.
Over time, Ellis feels a need to get close to wild wolves and learn about them in their natural setting. So he takes a chance on a low-paying internship at a Wolf Education and Research Center run by a member of the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho. This leads to an incredible journey that includes two years living alone in the Idaho mountains with a wolf pack. The pack actually adopts him, and he becomes something of an integral member of the pack. In one instance, he relates how a young male actually saves his life.
It was late afternoon and yet again I felt an overwhelming desire for water. I got to my feet and started down the usual track in the direction of the valley. As I did so, the young male flew at me from the other side of the den area and knocked me to the ground. He was a big, strong wolf and I felt as if I had been rugby tackled by three players at once. I lay there, shocked and winded and unable to move. This was completely out of character but he meant business. He was standing over me growling and snarling, his eyes blazing, ears flat against his head, hackles raised, tail in the air, and teeth bared. … Looking as though me might rip my throat out, he backed me into the blackened hollow of a tree that had been struck by lightning some years before, I crouched, imprisoned, in this bowl of charcoal while he stood over me, and every time I tried to move he growled and snapped the air with his jaws…
I couldn’t work out what was going on, or what I had done to make him so hostile. I began to think that maybe he was planning to wait for the rest of the pack to come back before he killed me. …
Then suddenly, as dusk began to fall, his mood changed. The aggression vanished and he was balanced and calm once more. He looked at me with soft eyes and blinked. I didn’t trust him. I thought, here we go––he’s giving me a false sense of security; but he began to lick my face and all around my mouth, as though he were apologizing to me. This was no longer a wolf that wanted to kill me; this was the brother I had known and loved all this time.
Shaking, I ventured out of the hollowed tree, and he made no attempt to stop me. He then started to walk down the track that I had tried to take earlier toward the valley. After a few steps he stopped and looked back, which I knew meant he wanted me to follow him. So I went after him and the pups came, too, and about seventy or eighty meters from the den area, he stopped and scented a scratch mark on the ground. I looked down and there was the biggest pile of bear droppings that looked and smelled different from any I’d ever seen. There were deep scores on the ground and gouges in the bark of the surrounding trees, where a huge grizzly had scraped his claws and left his calling card. What I later learned from the Native Americans was that a bear will indicate his intentions by what he leaves on the ground, and this bear was out to kill a predator.
Suddenly it all became clear. The wolf hadn’t wanted to hurt me. On the contrary, if I had walked down that track three-quarters of an hour earlier, the bear would have had me. The wolf had saved me from certain death and prevented the bear from being alerted to the den and the young [pups]. I owed my life to him.
These types of stories are always a little hard to believe, but after all the time Ellis spent with the wolves up to this point, and based on the behavior he describes up to and including this incident, I think it’s plausible that this episode is exactly what he says.
Ellis returns to England and opens his own wildlife park, educating visitors about wolves and helping to change people’s attitudes about wolves. In many ways, this sort of education can only be achieved by the “non-scientist” who has a more subjective view of the non-human life around us. His work becomes more widely known, and he becomes the subject of a National Geographic documentary, A Man Among Wolves, and the star of a show on the cable TV channel Animal Planet––“Living With the Wolfman.” I haven’t seen either the documentary or the TV show, and I do not want to. I also do not recommend going online to see photos of him related to this show. They were clearly made to promote an image that I do not believe Shaun Ellis totally inhabits.
I am keenly interested in animal behavior, so I found this book to be fascinating. Ellis’s descriptions tend to match up with what I have read or learned from other more scholarly sources, so think there is truth to what he says. Despite being closely involved with his subjects, I think his work can be viewed more as learning than as true research. I also think his willingness to share what he has learned is a great gift to the reader.
The Man Who Lives With Wolves, by Shaun Ellis with Penny Junor. 2009. Harmony Books, New York.
I have been nurturing an interest in the prairie/savanna/plains for a while now. It’s not something I have always been interested in. I’m from Michigan, and my interest has always been in northern forests and waters. But something about the prairie has been seeping into my consciousness, so I’ve been reading quite a bit about the plains––Grass: In Search of Human Habitat by Joe Truett, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, A Geography of Blood by Candace Savage, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains by Josh Garrett-Davis; there were bits about the North Dakota plains in Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilderness Warrior; and, before any of these, Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year.
So it wasn’t terribly surprising that my wife and I decided to go to South Dakota for the fourth of July. Mostly it was to visit Mt. Rushmore, which she remembers as the most awe-inspiring of parks she visited as a child, but it was also to simply see the country. The flat prairie and the traditional Native American pipestone quarries around Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota, the rolling hills around the Missouri River, the Black Hills, and the badlands. It was a quick trip, but it was fascinating and fun and just an inkling of all I wanted to know and see.
Along the way, in the visitor center in Badlands National Park, I picked up Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, a book that was recommended to me by a friend a couple of years ago. Published in 1989, the book is Frazier’s ode to the open country that sprawls through 10 states from the Canadian border south to Texas. It is both a history and a contemporary view (albeit more than 20 years old now), and it is so well-written that even a slow reader like me can be caught up and move through it like wildfire on the prairie.
Frazier is a columnist for New Yorker magazine, and he’s a funny guy. In the 1980s, he traveled the Great Plains alone in his van, sleeping in truck stops and on road shoulders most of the way; meeting people, visiting historical places long since overgrown, and relating it all through the pages of this book. He relates the region’s Native American history with fascinating and thorough detail. He talks about Crazy Horse and General Custer with equal aplomb, and he meets a man claiming to be the grandson of Crazy Horse on the street in New York City. He tells about Bonnie and Clyde’s appearance in plains history, and he has a story about Lawrence Welk, the most famous export of Strasburg, North Dakota, being whacked on the head with a brick after playing at a dance. He describes ghost towns and MX missile silos. He provides a history of the Dust Bowl and a little-known episode called the “black exodus” from the Reconstructed south to the freedom of the north. Through it all, he paints the most beautiful picture of dust and grass and blue sky and baking heat and unbroken horizons that perhaps anyone before or since has been able to convey.
Frazier is a scholar and a humanist, but most of all he is an observer and a keen story teller. If a person wanted an overview of the history of this immense part of the nation’s mid-section, this is the place to start.
Next up, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes (edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.) and The Lakotas and the Black Hills: A Struggle for Sacred Ground by Jeffrey Ostler. Then I’ll probably go for another of Ian Frazier’s books, On the Rez, a book that sounds something like David Treuer’s Rez Life, but focuses on the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. More on all of those later.
While on vacation one summer many years ago, I was standing with my dad near a beach, talking to a local man who sat in his pick-up truck. We were looking out onto Lake Michigan at a fishing tug steaming out into the lake, probably to retrieve the nets that had been set out earlier in the day. It was late afternoon/early evening, maybe 5:00, and the sun was setting in the west. The man in the truck motioned toward the distant boat and grumbled something about “Indians” and fishing, suggesting they had some special rights that he did not.
It’s odd that I remember this so vividly. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but I was old enough to understand he was not happy about the situation, and I remember a general sense of animosity in his tone. Over the years, as my childhood fascination with Indians has grown into an abiding interest in Native Americans, I think back on that experience and realize that it was my first glimpse into the racial divide between whites and Native people. It is a perfect example of whites not understanding treaty rights––rights to hunt, fish, and gather that were negotiated by tribes and agreed to by the U.S. government many years ago. They are not “special rights,” they are fairly negotiated rights.
I suppose this experience often came to mind while reading David Treuer’s Rez Life because it is my most personal experience with the racism and injustices that Native Americans have endured since the arrival of Europeans. But that is just my view. Rez Life, on the other hand, is not a rant against those things, but instead is a balanced look at these problems through Treuer’s own experience growing up Ojibwe in central Minnesota.
The book was an eye-opener for our group. Some did not know the history of boarding schools in the attempts to assimilate Indians to Euro-American life. Some were unaware of how many tribes there are in our region. None of us could fathom how difficult it must be to grow up as a Native American and the sometimes brutal reality of life on the reservation. Clayton––a member of our group who was unable to attend––noted that Treuer’s “access to people and the gentle reminder of the history are well done. It’s a view we would seldom have access to and it might take a lifetime to make those connections and gather those insights on my own.”
The group did note Treuer’s equal treatment of who is to “blame” for what’s going on. Non-natives (whites) bear a large part of the responsibility, but Treuer also shows how Native people are not immune to shooting themselves in the foot. Perhaps the best example is in casinos and how some tribes will deny a person enrolled membership in the tribe, using blood quantum rules derived by the U.S. government to justify their claims but with the ulterior motive of limiting the number of people among whom casino profits will be divided. (Many, if not all, tribes use casino revenue to provide annual dividends to all registered tribal members.) Apparently, greed knows no boundaries. Indeed, we recognized the other side of that problem, as states have tried to tax tribal casino revenues, effectively trying to claim a portion of profits they do not deserve.
The only common criticism that arose was that the stories seemed to be disjointed. Treuer would raise one question, suggesting an answer would come later in the book but never materialized. It was recognized that this seeming disjointedness may reflect a cultural difference––Euro-Americans tend to be linear thinkers, perhaps more so than Native Americans.
There is a great deal about Rez Life that is troubling and sad, but Treuer suggests there are also examples of change for the better. Opportunities are growing for Native people to gain an education and to move beyond the violence and oppression that seem to be the all too common future for many on the rez. But even as individual futures may improve, the future of Native cultures is in question. Perhaps the biggest of the cultural losses is the language. Treuer writes: Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to North America, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken here. Today, there are only about 150. Of those languages, only twenty are spoken by children. Only three languages––Dakota, Dene, and Ojibwe––have a vibrant community of speakers. The loss of a language represents more than just how people speak; it represents the loss of a medium for expressing a world-view. Native words describe a world with colors and descriptions that non-Natives cannot know. The sad part is, the loss of those words also means the future generations of Native people will also never know that perspective. As my friend, Clayton writes in his comments about this book, “Language and culture are essential. What can I do, what can any of us do to promote the revitalization of language and the perpetuation of culture? Whatever we can do, we must do!”
The six of us in attendance, plus Ron, who could not attend but sent his comments by email, gave the book an average score of 4 out of 5 for both Interest and Readability. All but one of us would read another of Treuer’s book, and Chuck mentioned that his other books are fiction stories and quite good. [Bev noted back in May that Rez Life, Treuer’s first major work of nonfiction, was awarded the Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction.]
After finishing the book, Ron suggested “another good read is [Kent Nerburn’s] Neither Wolf Nor Dog, about rez life in North Dakota.” I would also suggest, as I did in my review on 20 April, Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a biography of photographer Edward Curtis, who set out to document the cultures and lifeways of all the living Native tribes in North America in the 1900s. In addition to being a fabulous story of Curtis, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th Century.
Our next book is Peter Geye’s Safe From the Sea. We will meet on Thursday, 18 July, to discuss it (6:30 at the Rivers), and Art is on the schedule to moderate the discussion.