READ Books book club has existed for almost 10 years. At our end of summer meeting in September, one of our original members, Sarah, told us about her recent vacation to Chief Joseph/Nez Perce country in Oregon & Idaho. Chief Joseph, I gushed, was the hero of my childhood. His dignified life combining intellect, benevolence, and fierceness—as related to me in books I’d read—formed my model of manhood that on occasion I try to remember to possibly emulate, if I ain’t too busy. I told Sarah and the other book clubbers about a germane vacation of my youth.
On a summer morning between 6th & 7th grades, I climbed into the back of my father’s blue ’72 Dodge Sportsvan to commence a cross-country journey from Illinois to Los Angeles via the northern route. Driving with my father always had the potential to be exciting/terrifying, as his foot was the bitter avenger crushing his nemesis the gas pedal. The man attached to that foot had recently presented me with his dilapidated mass market copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book that partially explained the feelings of his right foot. “Read this,” he’d said. “It’ll tell you a lot about the land we’re about to see, the decent people who once lived there, and the bastards who stole it from them.”
It’s a profound gulf one crosses to travel from a place where you vaguely know something awful happened, to a place where someone shows you the details of who, what, and where. With Dee Brown as narrator and dad the aggressive chauffeur, I gazed at the Badlands and might have thought I was on the moon, except that I now knew that this was where Crazy Horse had ridden, the Ghost Dance had evolved, and that U.S. soldiers had slaughtered Chief Big Foot and his band of Miniconjou nearby on this Pine Ridge Reservation. At a gift store, dad purchased a poster of Red Cloud that hung in his office until the day he retired, and for me a poster of Chief Joseph that has graced the wall of every home I’ve since lived in.
Late afternoon the following day, driving way too fast up the narrow, precipitous Black Hills road, I alternated between wondering if I was the recipient of the same view Red Cloud once admired, and if my father meant to drive us off a guardrail-less cliff so as to join the great chief. Was his reckless navigation the final manifestation of white guilt?
At the age of twelve, I was being told the greatest, saddest story ever told whilst simultaneously moving through the bona fide setting. No greater virtual reality game has ever been invented; in fact, 12-year-olds travelling those roads today would likely miss the experience in order to play a game on the phone their parent bought them. My parent gave me his copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and it made all the difference.
Subsequent to 2 other book-clubbers recalling the book as being intrinsically influential in their life, Sarah nominated it for our first autumn selection. Everyone was enthusiastic, but I felt something more than ardor. In my mind, I reasoned with the great arbitrator of existence that, perhaps, my father could somehow make it to our late October meeting. Imagine that; the university professor, who began me on the journey, gracing our group discussion at the end of his journey. But I couldn’t simply invite him & assume he’d come. Dad was more than half-a-year into a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
If emotional risks interest you, pick up one of your favorite childhood books some 20-40 years later and see what the fuck happens. See whether or not the Holden Caulfield you always wanted to be has morphed into the Holden Caulfield you’d like to slap upside the noggin. When I’ve said that Bury My Heart… is the most influential book I’ve ever read, I never meant it was the best written; what the hell did 12-year-old me know about literature & technique? It was the concepts discerned from the book—injustice and the necessity of knowing the truth; social justice & the importance of fighting the good fight; the inevitable futility of fighting too far out of one’s weight class; the falseness of the good always prevails narrative—which formed the foundation of me, as it once had similarly forged the spirit of my father. He was atypically animated when I told him that I was re-reading the book.
36 years after my initial reading, the book remains as compelling as the first time and for many of the same reasons. One still staggers from event-to-event, paragraph-to-paragraph, wondering “How the hell…” while imagining yourself alive in the story, and feeling some degree of the futility that the Native Americans (and decent white men) felt. But my adult brain is now better equipped to recognize the political/economic stimulus that pushed America’s policy of genocide (Indians don’t vote; all that money to be made through our Indian Reservation Industrial Complex) and the potential political solutions that came closest to halting it (legal intervention by several decent Americans through the U.S. court system; i.e. Standing Bear v. Crook). And making the connections to our current political climate—the industrial complexes that drive us towards war & rewards mass imprisonment; the pertinence of court appointments & enforcement of existing laws; voting—is not especially complicated.
With the first side of Neil Young’s Native American inspired Rust Never Sleeps playing quietly in the background, these were some of the things we talked about at the book club meeting on Saturday. We ate buffalo meat, as I had done with my father 36 years ago at Wall Drug. The Chief Joseph & Red Cloud posters, now worn but laminated, hung on the wall behind the cash register. My father died on October 5th. Death is a hell of a thing, and cancer is rough, but thankfully it was no Wounded Knee massacre. Dad spent some of his final moments coughing blood, but not on a frozen field. He was surrounded by his people, in his home, but instead of watching them be shot dead by soldiers, he saw his wife & children accorded the privilege of holding him. All through that book club meeting, I wanted to tell him. Everything. Now I will give my dilapidated mass market copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to my son. But I have two sons, and only one book. I will have to locate a decent used bookstore and buy a second, dilapidated copy.