TedG's blog

Review: "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson

  • Posted on: 9 November 2013
  • By: TedG

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.


Review: “Shadow Divers” by Robert Kurson

  • Posted on: 7 November 2013
  • By: TedG

“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.


Review: “Paddling to Winter” by Julie Buckles

  • Posted on: 28 October 2013
  • By: TedG

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.

Review: "Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community" by Brenda J. Child

  • Posted on: 3 October 2013
  • By: TedG

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.

Review: “The Man Who Lives With Wolves” by Shaun Ellis with Penny Junor

  • Posted on: 31 August 2013
  • By: TedG

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.

Review: “Great Plains” by Ian Frazier

  • Posted on: 26 July 2013
  • By: TedG

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.

REVIEW: “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life” by David Treuer

  • Posted on: 23 June 2013
  • By: TedG

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.

Review for Two: "Town of Watered-Down Whiskey" by Jim Geiwitz and "Beast in the Garden" by David Baron

  • Posted on: 12 May 2013
  • By: TedG

In a pair of unprecedented moves for our book group, we (a) met somewhere besides the Rivers, and (b) reviewed two books at the same meeting! Wow! A two-fer two-fer!

The change in venue came about because of a fundraiser event at the Rivers, so at the suggestion of Bev and the gracious hosting of Bill Brakken and his staff, we met at The Rookery. It was a nice change of pace––wonderful ambience, good food, and as usual, good conversation.

The review of two books was caused by a snowstorm in April that prevented everyone but Adrian making it to the Rivers on meeting night. Thus, at this meeting, Ron led the discussion about Jim Geiwitz’s Town of Watered-Down Whiskey, and Adrian led the group in discussing Beast in the Garden.

Ron has a personal affinity for The Town of Watered-Down Whiskey because Jim Geiwitz was Ron’s college roommate at St. Olaf. They started out studying chemistry together, which Ron continued while Jim moved on to psychology. He has since had a successful career in that field, writing a number of professional books on the subject. Town of Watered-Down Whiskey is Geiwitz’s first attempt at writing fiction.

The book, Ron explained, is a loose biography of Jim’s growing up in Minneota, Minnesota. At least some of the events in the book actually happened to Jim, though the story’s characters are fictional. Our group generally enjoyed the book, though all agreed it was sometimes difficult to know what character was speaking. Additionally, John noted that Rumplestiltskin keep popping up, either in the discussion between characters or in person. No one could figure out what that was supposed to mean. Though no one said they would read another of Geiwitz’s books (and Ron noted that Jim’s psychology books were not something the group would be interested in reading), The Town of Watered-Down Whiskey still ranked highly, scoring an average of 4.18 out of 5 for Readability (Adrian gave it a 3.75, giving the average its unique score) and 4.75 out of 5 for Interest.

Jim Baron’s Beast in the Garden was entirely different. “It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the Men’s group,” Ron said. In balanced fashion, John compared it to The Tiger––which our group read and discussed in May 2012––saying Beast in the Garden was “like The Tiger, but this story wasn’t as interesting.”

This is a true story of attacks made on people by mountain lions in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1990s. The increased presence of cougars in the area was precipitated by a ban on deer hunting around the city, which resulted in a burgeoning deer population. The lions came to where the food was. Unfortunately, the lions habituated to the presence of people and dogs and came to see them as prey, same as the deer.

The book “was very relevant to our area and the issues we have with wolves,” one person noted. In the end, though, Irv was impressed with how the people dealt with the “cougar problem,” and we agreed that it probably would not have been how a similar “wolf problem” in Wisconsin might have been handled.

The story brought on some very interesting discussion, because Adrian was formerly the Wisconsin DNR’s main wolf biologist and is familiar with large predators of all kinds, including cougars, which have also been seen in Wisconsin in recent years. In fact, Adrian, who first read this book when it came out, did not notice until this recent reading that he is listed in the author’s acknowledgements. He doesn’t think he’s ever met David Baron, “but he must have been in touch with me to ask some questions when he was researching the book,” Adrian mused.

The comparison to John Vaillant’s The Tiger a year ago followed through to the scores for this book. On our 1-to-5 scale for both Interest and Readability, everyone gave it 5s in both categories. In yet a third unprecedented move, Ron gave it a 6 for Interest, bringing the average score up to 5.2. Everyone agreed they would also read another book by Baron.

Our next meeting will be back at the Rivers on June 20th to discuss David Treuer’s Rez Life.

Thanks to Bill Brakken and our wonderfully patient server, Jenny, for their hospitality at The Rookery.


Post-Script. Based on the discussion about the current state of cougars, both in this region (Minnesota, specifically) and in Boulder, where Beast in the Garden is set, Irv and Ted did some research after the meeting. First Irv...

I did a little research myself to try and find out if the city of Boulder was allowing a deer hunt in the city limits. I could not determine for sure if they do or do not but I did come across a couple of items I found interesting. First I found a report that stated that Boulder County was #1 in the state in incidence of CWD in the deer population (overcrowding?)   

Secondly I found the following link to FAQ about mountain lions in Boulder  http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/index.php?option=com_content&id=13141&Itemid=1410#AAAA

I found the answers interesting and #13 somewhat surprising – somewhat contrary to what I thought the book concluded. 

And Ted's look into the state of things in Minnesota...

Just to be sure there's some closure to last night's discussion about the status of cougars in MN, here's the MN DNR's cougar website: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/cougar/index.html


According to this website, "There is no evidence that Minnesota has a self-sustaining, breeding population."


"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis" by Timothy Egan

  • Posted on: 20 April 2013
  • By: TedG

Visionary: (1) Characterized by vision or foresight. (4) Not practicable; utopian.

These are two of the definitions given in my American Heritage Dictionary. It is odd that a word filled with such intangible greatness can also refer to very measurable paucity. It is perhaps the equivalent of bipolarity –– fantastic heights matched by debilitating lows.

In some ways, this is an apt description of Edward Curtis’s life. The rising star of Seattle society at the turn of the 20th century was a photographer without equal, a maker of art whose eye and skill were sought after by all the elite who wished to record their visage for posterity. Then, a chance encounter on Mt. Rainier, in which Curtis helped a lost party of climbers find their off the mountain, led to the conception of a grand idea to record on film and in words the fast-fading cultures of the North American Indians. It was an idea nurtured by no less than George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt, and financed by J. P. Morgan, but the project that was lauded by newspapers and dignitaries across the country and around the world, consumed 30 years and every last material possession Curtis owned. As with so many biographies of artists, writers, and activists, Curtis’s ends with the words “penniless and alone.” It is a heartbreaking coda for a life lived so fully and for a talent given so freely to the completion of a project of legendary historical import. This is the story Timothy Egan tells in his superbly written biography of Edward S. Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. It is a fascinating story of rising from humble beginnings to becoming a self-made man through chance moments and undeniable talent.

Edward Curtis was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, raised in Le Sueur, Minnesota, and moved with his parents and three siblings to the Puget Sound region in 1887 when the Midwest was proving to be a dead end for a struggling preacher who was “trying to turn the ground for food or a soul for Jesus.” Curtis dropped out of school after sixth grade to help provide food and a place his family to live. Curtis first took a chance on a dream when he moved across the Sound to Seattle in 1891, in response to an ad for a photography studio looking for a partner. He was a natural, and his wealth and fame grew. One day, he sees “Angeline,” an old woman living in a squalid shack near Puget Sound, walking the shoreline. She is the daughter of Chief See-ahlsh (Anglicized to “Seattle”), but she is forbidden by law to live in the city named after her father. She is both despised by the citizenry and used as a tourist attraction. But in her Edward Curtis sees history walking in stark contrast to the city growing up around her.

There against the deep waters of Puget Sound, there with the snow-mantled Olympic Mountains framed behind her, there with the growl of earth-digging machines and the snorts of steamships and loading crews and the clatter of streetcars and trolleys –– with all of that, Curtis saw a moment from a time before any white man had looked upon these shores. He saw a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged. A frozen image of a lost time: he must take that picture before she passed.

After a time, Curtis did take that picture, convincing Angeline to sit for a portrait for which he paid her $1.00. From this experience, Curtis learns that what crosses cultural boundaries and language barriers is kindness, respect, and an equal exchange –– to give as well as to receive.

Two years later, while hiking on Mt. Rainier, Curtis comes across a hiking party that has lost their way. He invites them into his camp for the night, and then guides them down the mountain the next day. Later, he is asked by one of the members of that party –– C. Hart Merriam, co-founder of the National Geographic Society and director of the U.S. Biological Survey –– to join a scientific expedition to the Alaska Territory as the official photographer. It is a life-changing experience, and his grand idea is hatched soon after that in conversations with another member of that lost hiking party, George Bird Grinnell, found of the Audubon Society and editor of Field and Stream magazine. Grinnell shares Curtis’s philosophy of treating native people as equals, of coming into their society as an observer, not to make demands or push them around. This philosophy will guide Curtis for the next 30 years as he creates the 20-volume masterpiece, The North American Indian.

Egan’s storytelling is phenomenal. His subject needs no decoration; Curtis lived, in the words on the book jacket, as “an Indiana Jones with a camera.” But even with such rich material, Egan is masterful in creating a sense of excitement and in crafting a rich tapestry of images in the reader’s mind. There are so few books that I sit and read for pages on-end, but this book held my attention as so few have in recent months. This is an amazing story, with startling revelations about moments in American history that have been incorrectly portrayed for more than a century. It also tells the story of Indian dispossession and assimilation, and the contradictory ways in which those policies were carried out, but it does so in the context of how Curtis’s grand idea is a race against time. Native cultures are fading as quickly, if not faster, than Curtis can preserve them to the page.

As the project continues into the 1920s, the story becomes more than a little dispiriting. Curtis is disparaged by the institutions and people who are threatened by this uneducated man’s anthropological prowess. Also, his grand idea is losing ground to changing social interests, and completion of the project is threatened by a lack of money. In the end, it is Curtis’s single-minded pursuit, his sense of duty to complete that which he has started, that drives him deep into debt. He is estranged from his brother and he loses his wife, his savings, his photography business, and in the end, the rights to his life’s work that he selflessly brought to completion in 1929. For all the cutting-edge artistry, keen insights, unprecedented access, and big-named support he had, Curtis dies in 1952, at the age of 84, penniless and alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles, cared for by one of his daughters who lived nearby.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is an incredible story of vision, adventure, commitment, and loss. It is a unique glimpse into native America as 20th century Manifest Destiny drove it to the edges of society. It is a book I recommend to anyone.


The photographs from all 20 volumes of The North American Indian can be found on the Library of Congress website, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/, and the photographs and full text can be found at http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/.

A Different Look at Mental Health

  • Posted on: 9 April 2013
  • By: TedG

Two books I’ve read recently have dealt with mental health from an “inside” perspective—through the eyes of those who are mentally ill, or at least diagnosed as such. First was Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which a friend loaned to me, saying, “it really is a fascinating story.” He was right.

After being drawn into a strange hoax, Ronson, a freelance writer, is looking through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known simply as “the DSM”). Of course he is able to diagnose himself with a few things, but after looking through it, he begins to wonder how many important politicians and business leaders could actually be diagnosed as psychopaths. Along the way, he meets Tony who, in order to avoid a prison sentence, faked mental illness and was summarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Twelve years later, he is still stuck there, unable to convince his therapists and doctors that he is in fact sane. Ronson draws on other examples in the history of treatment for the mentally ill, not all of which are pretty. He raises questions about the validity of what is done in the name of “treatment” and whether that treatment makes things worse.

Ronson attends a workshop led by Bob Hare, creator of the PCL-R checklist, which is used to identify and diagnose psycopathy. The PCL-R checklist is a list of 20 behavioral traits such as superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, parasitic lifestyle, lack of remorse or guilt, and irresponsibility. Here again, Ronson is able to identify some of these traits in himself. He then arranges to meet people like the former head of a Haitian paramilitary group and a former CEO who seemed to enjoy firing people. He listens to their stories, mentally armed with the PCL-R checklist, looking for proof that those in power are indeed psychopaths at some level. The stories are fascinating, and the people even more so, but they are frightening as well. By the end of the book, Ronson concludes that there is a fine line between the sane and the psychopath and that the people are as nuanced as the science used to diagnose and treat them. He asks Bob Hare as much about the man who faked mental illness to avoid prison: “should we define him by his psychopathy or his sanity?” This is the question that stuck with me long after I finished The Psychopath Test, and especially as I read Paul Gruchow’s Letters To a Young Madman.

When I first learned of it, Letters To a Young Madman was expected to be published in April of 2009; I have been watching for it with anticipation ever since. It finally came out in 2012, and I found it in a bookstore in Duluth this past February, the same month in which Gruchow died of a self-induced prescription drug overdose in 2004.

Gruchow suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, and this book is his memoir of “childhood trauma, the stigma of psychiatric diagnosis, and how the treatment system infantilizes patients.” It is a collection of dozens of short essays—some just a paragraph or even two sentences—in which Gruchow writes under the headings of Grief, Love, Diagnosis, Work, The Hospital, Boredom, Suicide, and others. He, like Ronson, shows the very fine line that exists between sanity and mental illness and how the system that is supposed to help patients instead drives them deeper into their illness.

I was going to write about the year I spent getting my character adjusted in twice-a-week therapy sessions, but I realize now that the experience can adequately be summarized in a sentence or two. The therapy utterly failed because I never believed in it. And I did not believe in it because I knew that I was grieving half a dozen substantial losses, all of them unresolved. Any one of them might have explained my despair. I didn’t need to be defective in character to be unhappy. But I did need to acknowledge my grief, to feel it, and to find a way through it. I didn’t need somebody to explain me to myself, or fix me or teach me how to manage myself in six easy steps. I need somebody to listen. And because I didn’t get that, I lost an entire year of my life.

Gruchow’s book can be difficult to read. Like Ronson’s, it casts a light on the nature of mental illness and how it is addressed by health professionals, and in that way, both books are troubling. But unlike Ronson, Paul Gruchow does not go home in the end with a note wishing him “good luck.” We know what happens before we start the book, but it is somehow more personal.

Before his illness became so debilitating, Paul Gruchow was a newspaper reporter, a teacher, and an author. He wrote seven books and collaborated on or contributed to numerous others. He was one of the humblest writers I have ever read, which is why I like his books immensely. The joy he expressed in writing about canoeing in Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild or the subtle beauty of the prairie in Journal of a Prairie Year is equally balanced with his clear-eyed and sharp assessment of mental health treatment programs in this book. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that my mind and soul are lifted to great heights in reading the former and fall to equally great depths while reading the latter. Never the less, both are necessary reading.