Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Last Hunter by Will Weaver

Dan Sinykin

In a harvest season long past, Moffet Weaver traveled from farm to Minnesota farm with a work crew and his Hart-Parr grain thresher. Moffet’s grandson, Will, imagines how his father might have fallen in love with his mother when the Weavers came to the Swenson farm. “Their eyes locked,” Will Weaver writes, “A lightning bolt” (21).

Weaver’s memoir, The Last Hunter, navigates between a hard-edged nostalgia and the stubborn facts of family history. He begins with his parents and ends with his children, telling along the way his own story of growing-up.

He remembers roaming the family farm, outside Park Rapids, with a slingshot and license to kill pigeons and sparrows. But his pastoral childhood rapidly encounters modern death when he asks his uncle how many Germans he’d killed in WWII. The “stricken” look on his uncle’s face gave him, as he puts it, “a vague but gloomy feeling that something large had changed in my life, and that there was no changing it back” (33).

Throughout the memoir, Weaver’s personal changes parallel America’s urbanization. His father had wanted to be a railroad engineer, but polio restrained him. By the time Will is old enough to join in the family deer hunts, his father’s dream of what-might-have-been has become an impossibility. Returning from the hunt, they come to the crossing. Weaver remembers how, “from habit, [my father] looked both ways down the tracks. I did, too, but we need not have. By that year, the trains had stopped running altogether” (69).

Weaver heads to college and falls in love with literature. His life becomes a tug-of-war between books and hunting, which is reflected in his writing. He may be the first person to deploy T.S. Eliot to describe mincemeat. He buries small treasures for the attentive reader, painting a blueberry pie “wine-dark,” an allusion to the color of Homer’s seas. He slyly nods to The Great Gatsby in his description of the homes on Big Sand Lake (124, 84).

Unsurprisingly, then, he becomes a writer and an English professor. His children grow up as town kids in Bemidji and refuse to take up hunting, deflecting his hopes. His relatives grow old and the annual hunting party disintegrates. Still, he persists, and learns to find joy when his son, a vegetarian in Austin, Texas, willingly eats his wild game, or when his vacuum-sealed venison reaches his daughter in Manhattan. Times change. Minnesota farmers no longer share Hart-Parr grain threshers. But Weaver, at least, takes some small solace in “food from home,” which, shared, remains, in his words, “a ritual that binds and knits us together no matter on what coast or in what decade we have landed” (167).

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holding Our World Together by Brenda J. Child

Dan Sinykin

What was life like for Ojibwe women in 1800? How has their experience across the past two centuries reflected the vast changes in Ojibwe society? These are enormous questions without simple answers. Yet these are the questions that have inspired scholar Brenda J. Child’s book, Holding Our World Together.

The story Child tells is not straight-forward. We find no easy moral, here. Rather, Child, herself an enrolled member of the Red Lake nation, winds her readers through the years, meandering, stopping to gather stories like a woman harvesting wild rice along a river. Wild rice has long played a crucial role in Ojibwe life. Child reminds us that “Indigenous people have harvested wild rice for a thousand years or more in the Great Lakes region, where it grows naturally in mineral-rich lakes and river headwaters. Ojibwe people call[] wild rice manoomin, ‘the good seed that grows in water,’ and the seasonal grain [is] sacred food as well as a dietary staple” (24).

For many years, ricing was a gendered practice, governed by women. The entire cultural organization of gender relations differed before Euro-American colonization. Child notes that, “In Ojibwe society, men did not gain the right to direct a woman’s life or resources after marriage, and she maintained separate clan identity” (15). The new settlers and the U.S. government brought their own ideas about private property and gender relations, which they imposed through the establishment of reservations and, later, the system of land allotment. In the process, the lives of Ojibwe women changed, and so did their place as sole harvesters of the manoomin.

As some traditions change, new ones form. In the early 20th century, “Field matrons, teachers, and medical professionals hired by the Indian Office . . . condemned the Ojibwe for using natural herbs and medicines” (93). Ojibwe concepts of wellness were, thus, in a time of flux when the devastating Spanish influenza epidemic arrived at the end of World War One. A father, caring for his sick daughter, created a unique dress and asked her “to dance a few springlike steps in which one foot was never to leave the ground” (94). So began the tradition of the Jingle Dress Dance, still practiced today.

Child gathers stories that lead us toward our present moment. She follows the postwar movement of many Indian men and women to urban centers, such as Minneapolis, and emphasizes the role women played in organizing the American Indian Movement. She asks us to recognize the breadth and depth of Ojibwe women’s experience, as vast and varied as it is. She writes, “Mindimooyenh, the Ojibwe term for a female elder, best embodies how Ojibwe society has traditionally perceived women’s power. In the Ojibwe language, it literally refers to ‘one who holds things together.’” (63)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My Mother Is Now Earth by Mark Anthony Rolo

Dan Sinykin

According to the CIA, the United States is among the bottom third of countries with the worst wealth inequality in the world, between Uruguay and Cameroon. I mention this at the beginning of a book review only because, especially in this election year, we continue to hear a great deal about America’s mythical middle class, on which, we are told, the fate of our nation depends. Seldom, though, do we hear about the increasing ranks of the country’s poor.

All the more welcome, then, is Mark Anthony Rolo’s memoir, My Mother Is Now Earth.

It is early 1971 in northwestern Minnesota, and the Rolo family is on the move from Milwaukee to, Big Falls, seventy-five miles northeast of Bemidji, where the father, Don, hopes to make a living as a farmer (15). Their new house is “a falling-down building with a crushed-in cement porch,” where, “Snow mounds cover the hardwood floors” (17). They live for the first few months in the garage. They spend whatever money remains after Don’s bouts of drinking on the most basic groceries.

The story is told through the eyes of Mark, who is in second-grade when the family arrives Big Falls. 

Marks' mother Corrine is a private woman who finds reprieve in the act of writing letters to her relatives in Wisconsin. She finds herself freed to document an inner life that her children rarely see. Mark reacts, at the end of 1971, by throwing the five-page draft of one of her letters that he has discovered into the fiery furnace, without reading it. Such are the quiet battles of their world.

The children struggle to understand their multiracial identities. Don is white, Corrine Indian, an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Mark’s brother Dennis faces racism from his teachers, one of whom “calls him Chief and another . . . says he should just drop out and move back to the reservation and live off the government” (40). On the other hand, Mark’s fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mattson, asks him to write a report on the American Indian Movement and its standoff at Wounded Knee. 

One of the book’s pleasures is watching Rolo reflect major historical events of the early seventies – including Vietnam, Watergate, and hippie counterculture – in the modest life of northwestern Minnesota. 

At crucial moments, Rolo ruptures what we normally consider the boundaries of reality. The line between waking and dreaming, between life and death, becomes unreadable. Or as Mark puts it, “I can’t see where the tops of pines disappear into the rising sky. I can’t see where the fields end and the forests begin” (209). These limits of vision, it turns out, are also the beginning of grace.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

BSU Election night coverage

Valica Boudry's News Reporting Class spent time in the KBXE studios this morning talking about their experiences at the DFL and Republican election night parties.  You can watch their video here!