I think the idea of a book club is that you read books and talk about them, so I would like to apologise for not really fulfilling those criteria recently. In fact there has been just the one book so far! Trust me, I don’t need help with the guilt trip - I’m disappointed enough in myself (weeps). But rather than waste time apologising I thought I’d put aside my shortcomings and crack on with it. I have to say that it’s been pretty weird seeing people’s response to it - I never thought this many people would care, let alone respond. So may I first thank everyone who has engaged with this little idea, and those of you who have responded - your responses have not gone unnoticed, though they may have gone un-replied to for some time now… But seriously, thank you.
And so, as Sisyphus cried, “Onward! Upward!”. And I’ll ask to take you on a small journey with me, too. I’d like to take you back to November, after our first Book Club experience, to explain our imminent second.
So I’d just finished ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Mr McCarthy, and in my head I was in Horse Land. I was pretty deep into Horse Land, actually. So deep that I found myself in the ‘Animals and Pets’ section of a large book shop. I’ve never really done the whole horse thing (though I have been listening to Willie Nelson’s ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’), but after reading ‘All the Pretty Horses’ I was very close to quitting the band and leaving for El Paso with my pack and my chew and that’s-all-I-don’t-care-what-you-say. But I compromised by going to Waterstone’s in Nottingham, England (yes, that’s where Robin Hood is from, and yes he’s my favourite) and heading for the Animals and Pets section.
I bought ‘An Eyewitness Guide to Horse Riding’, though I didn’t technically have any plans for, or means with which, to actually go riding. Then as I was looking for a history of the American Horse I passed a book on display with an amazing cover showing a beautiful white speckled Appaloosa horse. And the horse had a big old Native American warrior sitting on it - head-dress and all - and I was intrigued. So I picked up the book, also because it had the coolest title in the world, (like the satisfaction of standing in line at HMV with a ‘Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’ album), and I thought - why the hell not, I don’t really know much about that.
So I ended up buying the ‘Horse Riding: Eyewitness Companions’ by Moira C. Harris and Lis Clegg (classic) and a book by a fella I’d never heard of called Dee Brown, called :
BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE
And so, by a rather convoluted trail, we come to BOOK CLUB NUMERO DOS.
As another aside, my soundtrack to this book report so far is ‘The Darkest Side’ by The Middle East.
I confess I had never heard of this book, nor of its author whom I thought was a woman for a while (turns out he’s 100% a dude), and it’s not very new either - first published in 1970. But for me this is brand new and quite exciting, really. And I won’t pretend to be an authority on it: again, this is just a report (not a review) on what I felt as I read it.
For those of you who hadn’t heard of it either, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ is: “An Indian History of the American West, 1860-1890”. It basically tells the story of the Native Americans’ persecution by the United States government and its citizens in that time period. But it’s written from the natives’ point of view, which makes it unique. As far as he could, Brown used historical documents and eye-witness accounts to show how the Indians were cheated, tribe after tribe, or driven off their land by white settlers.
I had heard of Sitting Bull and Geronimo but did not know their stories. I’d played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ when I was younger but always, honestly, thought the Cowboys were the good guys. Not that I now think all ‘cowboys’ are bad guys (I love you, Willie), or that I believe all ‘Indians’ are good guys - but what I have loved about this book is that it has unsettled my stereotypes. I’d never heard ANY side of the Indian peoples’ story, let alone this side.
“I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises…. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases… I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me.”
- Chief Joseph
And this happens again, and again, and again, in the book. It is a tragic book, and it hurts just to read it, to be honest. It becomes exhausting to read chapter after chapter of broken promises from the US government to a race of people being swept aside to make way for the American Dream. I think it’s supposed to seem relentless and repetitive, because that’s what it was like. You come to hate the bureaucracy, the deception and the innumerable number of injustices done to the people who were in the way of white progress. They were in the way of government-endorsed settlers moving West to claim land that wasn’t theirs to claim. It is the deliberate injustice inflicted on so many of the tribes that, as The Times said, “Make[s] the head pound, the heart ache and the blood boil”.
And I think this book is brilliantly written. Of course it is dense, it is repetitive and intense and factual, but there are stylistic touches that help make it an aesthetically satisfying read. Brown adopts a Native American style: Winter is referred to as ‘the cold moons’, where December is The Moon When the Deer Shed Their Horns. It helps you don an indigenous perspective quicker- it even romanticises the bias. And sometimes hearing the victims’ own words translated, in all their beauty and sadness, quite takes your breath away a bit.
“Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun.”
- Tecumseh of the Shawnees
Simple ideas like man’s relationship with the land are described so eloquently - it’s different from language I’ve read before, and it’s really pretty inspiring:
“I never want to leave this country; all my ancestors are lying here in the ground, and when I fall to pieces I am going to fall to pieces here.”
- Shunkaha Napin (Wolf Necklace)
I’ve seen some criticism that says Brown is too biased, but I like the fact that he’s not trying to be politically correct and ‘neutral’. Too often I think we tend to hear the winner’s story more than the loser’s. You can tell this book has an agenda, as it should have, to speak for the crushed peoples on whose destruction was built history’s largest superpower. Without being melodramatic, I have grown up in a Western World so heavily influenced by America, its foreign policy and its clothing companies, its food and its late night comedy, but I have known very little about where its journey began. And obviously it made me think about where my journey began; as a Brit, (albeit born in America), it was probably in the suppression of other races with the British Empire, and even earlier. Which is partly terrifying and partly reassuring. And it makes you think about what conquest looks like now, whether there is some ineradicable trend. I reckon it’s so easy to ignore where you come from, and I’m scared of the dangers of that. They say history repeats itself but I don’t know if it has to. I’m not really sure yet, but I’m glad to be considering it.
So I think this book is gloriously bold, and one of the most important books I’ve read.
“The earth was created by the assistance of the sun, and it should be left as it was… The country was made without lines of demarcation, and it is no man’s business to divide it… I see the whites all over the country gaining wealth, and see their desire to give us lands which are worthless… The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same. Say to us if you can say it, that you were sent by the Creative Power to talk to us. Perhaps you think the Creator sent you here to dispose of us as you see fit. If I thought you were sent by the Creator I might be induced to think you had a right to dispose of me. Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with it as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours.”
- Heinmot Tooyalaket (Chief Joseph) of the Nez Perces