Monthly Archives: August 2016

My Literary Discovery of the Year: Laughing Whitefish

For me, discovering an important book that I’ve overlooked is one of the most pleasurable parts of the reading life.  I used to use the classroom to share my findings with students–who, I’ll admit, for the most part didn’t really care about my discoveries–but now, since I’ve retired, I’m forced to use The Tabard Inn to record them for a posterity which probably doesn’t really exist. That’s ok, because I feel it’s my duty, if not my destiny, to read forgotten books, to encourage these literary wallflowers and buried masterpieces to take their place in the spotlight, so to speak, even if no one is in the audience.

I’ve discovered a number of fine books through having absolutely no discipline in my reading the last few years. But I count Laughing Whitefish, by Robert Traver  (McGraw Hill, 1965), among the most significant of my discoveries. My readers may recognize Robert Traver as the author of the book Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a racy film starring James Stewart in 1959: the star’s father, believing the film to be immoral, actually took out an advertisement in his paper to ask people not to see it. You can see the unusual trailer for the film below:

Much attention has been given to Anatomy of a Murder, but I’ve seen virtually nothing about Laughing Whitefish, which is actually a great deal more important than Traver’s earlier book. In fact, I will make the claim here that this novel is every bit as important in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published five years earlier. Laughing Whitefish is based on real events and is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on a lawsuit in which a Native American sues a mining company for breach of contract. Like Lee’s mythic condemnation of the inequalities between blacks and whites in the first half of the twentieth century, Traver’s book addresses the evils done to Native Americans during the settlement of the United States. And it does this in impassioned language. Take, for example, these words spoken by the first-person narrator:

It seems passing strange that we whites in our vast power and arrogance cannot now leave the vanishing remnants of these children of nature with the few things they have left….Can we not relent, for once halt the torment? Must we finally disinherit them from their past and rob them of everything? Can we not, in the name of the God we pray to, now let them alone in peace to live out their lives according to their ancient customs, to worship the gods of their choice, to marry as they will, to bring forth their children, and finally to die? Can we, who for centuries have treated the Indians as dogs, only now treat them as equals when they dare seek relief from injustice in our courts?….I am the first to concede that whatever you may decide here will be but a passing footnote in the long history of jurisprudence, that the pittance we are jousting over is but a minor backstairs pilfering in the grand larceny of a continent. (202)

These are difficult words for a white person to read, but I believe it is important for every American to read them, because they present the situation as clearly as Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. The question is, why is it that we know Lee’s work, but not Traver’s? I would suggest that Laughing Whitefish be made required reading in public schools, because it is just as important a book as To Kill a Mockingbird.

No one has a monopoly on misery in this country. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. The second step is exploring its origins. What a different world we might be living in today if, instead of making a film of Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger had made one of Laughing Whitefish.

 

 

 

 

 

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On Alleys and Why I Love Them

Resized_20160801_184237Alleys are half-wild places; they are the places where raccoons and skunks prowl at night, where kids hide their contraband items such as potato guns (and worse), where you might meet a resident stray cat you’d never see on a regular street. I like this illicit quality in alleys, just as I like the fact that people generally don’t walk through alleys. Everyone knows you’re supposed to stay on the street when you walk through town, not prowl through alleys like a hungry varmint searching for food. But when I walk through an alley, I get that frisson of excitement, similar to the one that comes from wading into a stream to fly-fish: there’s something illicit and transgressive–and thoroughly enjoyable–about violating a rule of civilized society. Pedestrians are most often found on streets, not in alleys, after all,  just as folks who fish belong on the banks of the stream, not thigh deep in it, looking back over at the trees that provide the watery shadows in which trout revel. This kind of transgression is alluring and exhilarating, and it’s one reason I love alleys.

mms_20160801_194453Houses, of course, look different from alleys. You can glimpse backyards and sheds, garages and decks, old bicycles and worn-out boats from the dust-covered alley. You can also see the vegetable gardens that go unnoticed by mere streetside walkers, the backyard window-boxes replete with petunias of all colors, and cute metal sculptures that play second-fiddle to people’s proudly manicured front lawns , those bastions of self-assurance. Walking through an alley, in short, is like looking at a real person who just woke up; walking down the street, on the other hand, is like looking at a public figure about to get his or her picture taken by a professional photographer. You can trust what you see when you walk through alleys.

To be honest, I’m not even sure whether an alley is a right of way; perhaps I’m breaking some kind of communal law when I walk down an alley. But that’s fine by me. It’s worth the risk to discover a hidden treasure that lies right beyond my own backyard.

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