Larry Woiwode, the North Dakota novelist (I do not mean that in a diminishing way), has described his fiction as “a continuing spiritual exercise that any reader may join in on.” His fifth novel, Indian Affairs, is a fitfully satisfying workout.
Indian Affairs reintroduces us to Chris Van Eananam, a graduate student, and his wife Ellen; a brace of mopes whose honeymoon in her grandparents’ cabin in Northern Michigan was the pregnant centerpiece of Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going To Do, I Think (1969). It is now 1971; the couple returns to the cabin in the dead of winter so that Chris can finish a dissertation on another melancholy Midwesterner, Saginaw’s Theodore Roethke.
Chris hails from Rock Creek, “a Wisconsin backwater with families so inter related every relationship had the aura of incest.” His father “had a Blackfoot’s clear complexion” but claimed, incredibly, to be Dutch. Chris knows what’s in the woodpile; fumblingly, he tackles his own Indian problem. He has always kept his distance from Indians, especially the young hotspurs, whom he views with a mixture of fear and fascination, the way suburban teens regard black kids draped in L. A. Kings capes. To appease their demands (and to keep from get ting his bell rung) Chris reluctantly buys the underage boys beer; he tries to mollify them (in fine irony) by reading aloud from the fiery polemics of Vine Deloria, but these kids aren’t much interest ed in collegiate Native Americanism. They want beer and-Chris suspects-a poke at Ellen. At night, Chris hears noises, sees footsteps, catches glimpses of fleeting Indians.
As in What I’m Going To Do, I Think, Chris thinks a hell of a lot more than he does. But Indian Affairs is at its best when given over to Beau, an Indian who has traded the life of a coffeehouse intellectual for the woods. With his dog Ivan, Beau squats in a vacant house owned by absentee plutes from Grosse Pointe. He uses peyote, has visions, makes arrowheads with the facility of a brainy kid in shop class, and vainly tries to steer young ruffians toward the “real life.” He calls himself “a brother so beaten down by half-wits and whites that he has to split wood to cat.”
Chris starts playing Injun. Like so many decent kids of the day, he doesn’t want to get trapped “in the lockstep of a race entirely different not only from his but any that ever existed: Globalniks. The network of bureaucracy, whether Soviet or U.S., measured you by your willingness to bend to its standards, usually unwritten.” He knows that the counterculture is onto something, but finally comes to understand that for all its charming naiveté and exuberance, the Youth Movement, like historians who beat the bushes for a “usable past,” bent aboriginal life to fit its own needs. “Our generation interprets Indian life its own way, too: an ecological imperative fueled by drugs. Along with the tinge of a semi-Eastern mystical retreat into nature: the All.” The comic aspect of this confusion is mined by two hapless VISTA marplots-“paid by the government,” as Chris notes-who hatch harebrained schemes for Red Pow er, oblivious to the ridicule heaped upon them by deadpan Indian wits. (As Vine Deloria himself has said, “Whites want to take our images, they want to have their Indian jewelry; at the same time, they need our valley to flood for a dam. People are desperately trying to get some relationship to Earth, but it’s all in their heads.”)
The novel proceeds as a series of trespasses: Chris and Ellen winter in her grandparents’ summer place; Beau squats and cuts wood on a neighbor’s land; the young drunks smear mud on the couple’s cabin; Chris snoops around Beau’s place; a feminist harridan (of the sort unlikely to endear Woiwode to, say, May Sarton) spies upon the Van Eananams; and so on, until Chris feds “the sick sense of grief every tribe must have felt when others kept trespassing on home or sacred ground until they claimed it for their own.”
Only within the family—and not always then, as Beau learns—can Woiwode’s seekers find respite from these continual incursions. Chris, who is estranged from his parents, discovers, “If you haven’t got an actual family, your attachments pull things lopsided; you love others more than your own, or dogs more than people.” The miscarried child whose unplanned conception set in motion the events of What I’m Go ing To Do, I Think haunts the Van Eananams: “How are we bound without one?” Ellen asks Chris.
How indeed? Ellen, at least, has her grandparents (so what if they’re phlegmatic Germans; at least they’re flesh and blood) and Mary Baker Eddy (she is a Christian Scientist). Chris, a practical orphan without issue of his own, has only the phantom Indians of his imagination. Grasping for straw victories, he babbles to Beau, “When you figure Europeans came here for religious freedom, look at the religion they got-transcendentalism to pantheism down to the hippies right now. It’s animism, it’s Indian! On the important front, we won!”
Of course, they lost. The resurgence of interest in the old ways is fading. The American Indian Movement (AIM) has degenerated from a proud band of men demanding sovereignty to a spindly net work of professional tokens whining about the Atlanta Braves. The gentle transcendentalism of the hippies became a mere marketing strategy (“turning rebellion into money,” as The Clash had it).
As romantic lost causes go, the Indians make the Confederacy look like the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig. Yet Chris, a half-breed even if he never utters that invidious phrase, finally steps back from the precipice. He gives Beau (and Vine Deloria and AIM) a sympathetic ear, but insists of his white forefathers, of Longfellow’s Pilgrims and Roethke’s leathery crones: “No, Beau, there was something to them. It wasn’t all crap, though some of it might have been. They possessed a power that hasn’t been seen in this country before or since, or anywhere in the world. Only dozens arrived to begin with, and the force of their commitment to set a city on a hill was like uranium. Nothing could stand in its way, and it moved in waves across the continent, unstoppable, to the California coast. An entire country civilized, however you took that, with cities as stunning as any in Europe linked in net works of thousands of miles, in the space of two hundred years, when Canterbury Cathedral took four hundred just to build! It’s staggering. It’s a phenomenon no single mind can encompass. Much as I hate the depredations, I can’t dismiss that.”
Woiwode is a believer-epiphany was the subject of Poppa John (1981), a novella that confounded me but has en riched others-and faith, in its simplest and most sublime forms, suffuses his work. He is no stern and dour Upper Midwest Lutheran or Catholic, as the stereotype would have it; Woiwode’s Christianity is of the joyful (bedspring creaking) noise variety. Even Chris Van Eananam, his sylvan retreat besieged by Indians like a covered wagon in a Grade B Western, stumbles into the path of the white light of revelation: “He was as sure now as he was of the sun that he was one who believed in a resurrection from the dead. However it might hap pen, it had to happen for justice to be dealt to every person down through every century until the world went up.”
Amen to that.
[Indian Affairs: A Novel, by Larry Woiwode (New York: Atheneum) 320 pp., $19.95]