Book Review: Sorrow of the Earth: Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and the Tragedy of Show Business by Éric Vuillard (2017)

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

What did I just read?

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review. Trigger warning for violence against Native Americans, including genocide.)

However, the real spark was elsewhere. The central idea of the Wild West Show lay somewhere else. The aim was to astound the public with an intimation of suffering and death which would never lose its grip on them. They had to be drawn out of themselves, like little silver fish in a landing net. They had to be presented with human figures who shriek and collapse in a pool of blood. There had to be consternation and terror, hope, and a sort of clarity, an extreme truth cast across the whole of life. Yes, people had to shudder—a spectacle must send a shiver through everything we know, it must catapult us ahead of ourselves, it must strip us of our certainties and sear us. Yes, a spectacle sears us, despite what its detractors say. A spectacle steals from us, and lies to us, and intoxicates us, and gives us the world in every shape and form. And sometimes, the stage seems to exist more than the world, it is more present than our own lives, more moving and more persuasive than reality, more terrifying than our nightmares.

There’s no mistaking the sound of iniquity on the move.

Originally published in France in 2014 (under the title Tristesse de la terre), Sorrow of the Earth is the first of Éric Vuillard’s novels to be translated into English. A work of historical fiction, it tells the story of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, which traveled throughout the United States and Europe, under various names, for thirty years around the turn of the century (1883–1913).

While the show featured a number of performers and attractions – including Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler; trick shooter Lillian Smith; Calamity Jane; and reenactments of the riding of the Pony Express trail and stagecoach robberies, to name a few – Vuillard centers the narrative on Native Americans, to great effect. The Wild West show employed a number of Indigenous performers, most notably Sitting Bull, as well as survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Perversely, these last were hired in part to perform in a reenactment of their own victimization; only instead of a massacre, the audience witnessed a battle: “the Buffalo Bill interpretation of the facts,” to quote Vuillard. Likewise, in Cody’s reimaging of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, none other than Buffalo Bill himself swoops in at the last moment to avenge Custer and his men.

In other words, the show glorified its star and ringmaster, while rewriting history and vilifying the oppressed Native populations. To add insult to injury, Indigenous people were recruited to assist in their own denigration.

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Book Review: #Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy & Mary Beth Leatherdale (2017)

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

“We aren’t historic figures; we are modern women.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for allusions to violence against women, suicidal ideation, genocide, and racism and sexism.)

It’s strange to me how people always want me to be an “authentic Indian.” When I say I’m Haudenosaunee, they want me to look a certain way. Act a certain way. They’re disappointed when what they get is . . . just me. White-faced, red-haired. They spent hundreds of years trying to assimilate my ancestors, trying to create Indians who could blend in like me. But now they don’t want me either. I’m not Indian enough. They can’t make up their minds. They want buckskin and war paint, drumming, songs in languages they can’t understand recorded for them, but with English subtitles of course. They want educated, well-spoken, but not too smart. Christian, well-behaved, never questioning. They want to learn the history of the people, but not the ones who are here now, waving signs in their faces, asking them for clean drinking water, asking them why their women are going missing, asking them why their land is being ruined. They want fantastical stories of the Indians that used to roam this land. They want my culture behind glass in a museum. But they don’t want me. I’m not Indian enough.

(“The Invisible Indians,” Shelby Lisk)

Because history moves like a fevered heat down through the arteries of generations
Because PTSD to the family tree is like an ax Because colonization is the ghosts of buffalos with broken backs
Because today only burning flags could be found at the ghost dance of my people

(“Stereotype This,” Melanie Fey)

I feel like I should begin this review with a word of caution: If you see any complaints about formatting problems ahead of the pub date, disregard them. The Kindle version of this ARC is indeed a hot mess, but this is par for the course when it comes to books with a heavy graphic element. The acsm file, read on Adobe Digital Editions (which I loathe, but happily suffered for this book!), gives a much clearer picture of what the finished, physical copy is meant to look like. And, if Amazon’s listing is any indication, #Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women will only be released in print.

That said, #Notyourprincess is fierce, vibrant, and nicely organized. It feels a lot like an experimental art project, and I mean that in the best way possible. Within these here pages you’ll find an eclectic mix of personal essays, poems, quotes, photographs, line art, watercolors, comics, portraits of activists and athletes, and interviews with Native women. #LittleSalmonWoman (Lianne Charlie) even adopts the format of an Instagram page, while “More Than Meets the Eye” (Kelly Edzerza-Babty and Claire Anderson) profiles ReMatriate, which shares images of modern Native women on social media in order to reclaim their identities and broaden our ideas of what a “real” Native American woman looks like. (The quote in my review’s title comes from Claire Anderson, a founding member of ReMatriate.)

The topics touched upon run the gamut: genocide, colonization, forced assimilation, cultural appropriation, kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, mass incarceration, mental illness, sexuality, addiction, street harassment, homelessness, and intergenerational trauma.

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Book Review: Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie (2017)

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Read. This. Book. Today.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss, as well as a finished copy through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for violence against women and children, including sexual assault and rape, as well as racism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.)

At the 2004 National Coalition on Police Accountability conference, a man who identified himself as a former member of the Black Panther Party approached me at the end of the workshop. He said that his sister had been raped by a police officer “back in the day,” but he had never understood what happened to her as police brutality until he had heard it framed that way in the workshop. I asked him how he and his sister had described her experience. He answered, somewhat bewildered, that it was “just something bad that happened.” He then thanked me for opening his eyes as to how his sister’s experience fit into the work he had been doing all his life to challenge state violence against Black people.

Chances are, when you hear the words “police brutality,” you picture a young black man – armed with only a bag of Skittles or a cell phone – killed in the streets, either by gunfire or a Taser or with an officer’s bare fists: Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sean Bell. Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. (Although, at just twelve years old, this last could hardly be described as a man, even a young one.) Yet black women and women of color – including disabled women, trans women, and lesbian and bisexual women – also suffer from racialized police violence, compounded by gender and other axes of oppression.

Black women activists and scholars – such as Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the founders of #BlackLivesMatter – have begun to shift the conversation in recent years. From the #SayHerName hashtag – created in response to Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody – to the groundbreaking AAPF report “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected,” discussions of police violence are widening to include black women, people of color, people with physical and mental disabilities, LGBTQ and Two Spirit people, sex workers, children, and more.

Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color is an invaluable contribution to the literature. She tackles a difficult and admittedly wide-ranging topic with passion, insight, and a boatload of receipts. Ritchie pinpoints seven sites in which black women and women of color are vulnerable to police violence:

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Book Review: The Ship Beyond Time (The Girl from Everywhere #2) by Heidi Heilig (2017)

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Adventure, Romance, and Plenty of Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

“Our lives are before us, not behind.”
“That depends on where you’re standing on the timeline.”
“What of free will?”
“Some people don’t believe free will exists.”
“Some people don’t believe in demon octopus, either.”

“You might wish many things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come true. This doesn’t seem like that sort of fairy tale.”

Fresh off their escape from 1884 Hawaii, Nix, Kashmir, and the crew of the Temptation arrive in Slate’s timeline – present-day New York City. Here they hope to catch their collective breaths, but it’s not long before Nix is pulled into yet another mystery/adventure.

After discovering that her grandmother Joss left a prophecy about Nix on Slate’s back (“She said you’ll end up just like me … You’ll lose the one you love! … To the sea.”), Nix is approached by a mysterious stranger. Dahut promises Nix that her father, the sailor Donald Crowhurst, will show Nix that it’s possible to change the past – and future – but only if she meets him in the mythical city of Ker-Ys. Desperate to save Kashmir – for surely Kashmir is the loved one referenced in the prophecy, yes? – Nix reluctantly agrees. But in rescuing Kash from his destiny, will Nix erase her own past?

But what good was a warning if she had already seen it happen? Did she expect me to simply brace myself for the inevitable? Or did she want me to try to change it? The thought surfaced like a bloated body; bile burned on the back of my tongue. For years, I had watched my father try to do that very thing, dragging me in his wake, unsure whether each journey would be my last.

The Ship Beyond Time has so many of the elements that made me fall in love with The Girl from Everywhere: a cast that’s as diverse as it is interesting; a harmonious blend of fantasy and reality, mythology and history; and a really great romance. It was lovely watching the relationship between Nix and Kash develop, especially considering the many wrenches thrown at them via the inevitable wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. For example: if mythic worlds are willed into being by their Navigators, what does that make Kashmir? Nix’s literal dream guy? That’s got to muck with a guy’s sense of self, I tell you what.

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Book Review: ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker (2016)

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Belongs in high school libraries everywhere.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Non-Natives thus position themselves, either wittingly or unwittingly, as being the true experts about Indians and their histories—and it happens at all levels of society, from the uneducated all the way up to those with advanced college degrees, and even in the halls of Congress. […]

The result is the perpetual erasure of Indians from the US political and cultural landscape. In short, for five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.

Imagining huge fields of gold, which did not exist, Columbus instituted what later became known as the encomienda system, large estates run on forced labor for the purposes of extracting gold. Las Casas reported that when mining quotas were not met by the Indians excavating the gold, their hands were cut off and they bled to death. When they attempted to flee, they were hunted down with dogs and killed. So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field.

He [King George] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

—Declaration of Independence

— 4.5 stars —

Native Americans should be honored to have sports teams named after them.

The Indians lost the war, why can’t they move on already?

Indian casinos make everyone rich.

Whether your ancestors were indigenous to North America or not, no doubt you’re familiar with at least a few of these myths about Native Americans. Actually, that’s an understatement, given that our culture – right down to its founding documents – is steeped in such half-truths, contested theories, and outright lies. They’re taught in our high school history books (Columbus discovered America; the convoluted and decontextualized myth of Thanksgiving), trotted out for celebrations (Native American mascots; cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes), and have been used to strip Native tribes of their lands, power, and self-determination (“real” Indians live on reservations/meet blood quantum requirements/belong to a tribe/adhere to certain spiritual practices).

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Book Review: Pointing With Lips, Dana Lone Hill (2014)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

“Ain’t gotta lie to kick it.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free pdf copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape, violence, and drug and alcohol use.)

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Dana Lone Hill offers us a glimpse inside “a week in the life of a rez chick” with her debut novel Pointing With Lips. We meet 32-year-old Sincere Strongheart – “Sis” for short – the titular “rez chick,” just as she’s trying to sell some of her jewelry to the tourists who have flocked to town for the annual Oglala Nation Fair and Rodeo. (“People from all over America and the world are fascinated with us, maybe because we are still here after all the bullshit America put us through.”)

During the course of the week, we follow Sis as she spends time partying with her best friends Boogie and Zona; evading brother George, a cop who’s constantly throwing his siblings in the drunk tank; quits/is fired from her dead-end job at the Great Sioux Shopping Center, the one and only grocery store on the rez; rescues her sister Frieda’s kids from one of her drug-fueled sex parties; and flirts with friend Ricky and border town white guy Mason. There’s also the town parade (Planned Parenthood was banned for life when it handed out condoms instead of the more standard, diabetes-inducing candy) and brother Misun’s going-away BBQ, complete with plenty of family drama.

Against this backdrop, we see Sis slowly slide from social drinking into the bottomless pit of alcoholism, which has claimed the hopes, dreams, and lives of so many of her friends and family.

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Book Review: Sorceress, Celia Rees (2009)

Monday, February 25th, 2013

A satisfying conclusion to WITCH CHILD.

four out of five stars

Sorceress continues the story of Mary Nuttall/Newbury, a young Englishwoman who immigrated to the “New World” in 1659. Forced from her village after her grandmother is executed for practicing witchcraft, Mary’s mother sends her to America in the hopes that she’ll be safe from persecution. Stuck in the isolated settlement of Beulah, surrounded by Puritans so intractable in their beliefs that they proved unwelcome even in Salem, Mary’s existence grows increasingly perilous. Try as hard as she might to fit in, Mary is an outsider – and a young, intelligent, and independent female, at that – and when things start to go sideways, she proves the most convenient of scapegoats.

The story finds Mary where Witch Child left off: slowly dying of hypothermia and starvation in the forest surrounding Beulah, after having narrowly escaped the town’s religious authorities. A she-wolf comes to her in the middle of an especially harsh snowstorm, caring for Mary until the morning, when her friend Jaybird and his grandfather White Eagle come to her rescue. Thus begins a rather epic journey, beginning at The Cave of the Ancestors and ending many decades later, in Canada. Mary marries (Jaybird, in a terribly bittersweet romance) and gives birth to and adopts several children, one of whom she buries much too early; becomes a pupil to White Eagle and, in time, a respected healer in her own right; establishes a secret medicine society, still in existence to this day; and travels ever northward, trying in vain to stay ahead of the escalating tensions between indigenous peoples and the French and English settlers.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the colonialists she encounters who prove most threatening to Mary’s well-being: terrified of her skills and offended that she’d rather live with “savages” than her “own kind,” Mary is kidnapped not once, but twice. Whereas the French pirate Le Grand drugs, rapes, and threatens to sell or enslave her, the Mohawk warriors who seize her and her children adopt them into a village decimated by disease. Likewise, the English Captain Peterson attempts to “rescue” her from her Pennacook kin – by force.

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Book Review: The Enslavement of the American Indian in Colonial Times, Barbara Olexer (2005)

Monday, January 30th, 2006

An enlightening look at an oft-ignored subject!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

In THE ENSLAVEMENT OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN IN COLONIAL TIMES, author Barbara J. Olexer examines the subject of American Indian slavery. While she does trace the roots of American Indian slavery back as far as 1013, her discussion primarily focuses on the colonial period, particularly the 1600s and 1700s. THE ENSLAVEMENT OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN… offers an illuminating look at what, sadly, is a little-known subject. Given the dearth of books on this topic, Ms. Olexer’s tome makes a welcome addition to the existing literature.

Starting with the Norsemen’s “discovery” of America in the tenth century, THE ENSLAVEMENT OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN… explores the topic of American Indian slavery. What started as the kidnappings of individual American Indians eventually escalated into an American Indian slave trade, albeit on a smaller scale than the African slave trade. The trade reached its height during the 17th and 18th centuries, but had largely ceased by the 1780s. The reasons for the American Indian slave trade were many. Commonly, colonists instigated warfare between already unfriendly tribes, as a means of weakening their enemies as well as obtaining American Indian slaves “legally.” Additionally, trading in American Indian slaves was another tool with which to rob the Indians of their land. American Indians were often tricked into slavery, ambushed by unscrupulous colonists, or simply kidnapped and “exported.” By the end of the Revolutionary War, however, American Indian populations were decimated to such a degree that slavery was no longer necessary. Nor was it profitable; Africans were more plentiful and made for more obedient and resilient slaves.

THE ENSLAVEMENT OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN… covers both the scale of and the reasons underlying the American Indian slave trade. The book is divided into eleven chapters: It Began as Kidnapping; The Pilgrims and the Pequots; King Philip’s War; The French in Canada; The English and the Westo; The Traders and the Neophytes; The Tuscarora and Yamassee Wars; The End of the Trade in Carolina; The French in Louisiana; The French and the Natchez; and Conclusion.

As you can see from the chapter titles, Ms. Olexer looks at the French as well as the English settlers, and also examines Spanish-Indian relations. A number of American Indian groups make an appearance, including the Huron, Eskimo, Pequot, Narragansett, Saconnet, Nipmuc, Mohegan, Iroquois, Seneca, Tuscarora, Westo, Powhatan, Catawba, Chowan, Yamassee, Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Waccamaw, Natchez, Sauk and Fox tribes, as well as the Wampanoag Federation and the Five Nations. Geographically, the discussion concentrates on the north- and south-east of the United States. Several chapters are devoted to the Carolina region in particular.

Although schools and scholars are finally beginning to acknowledge our forbearers’ brutal treatment of the Americas’ original inhabitants, the subject of American Indian slavery still merits little attention. Indeed, I don’t recall learning of the topic at all during elementary, junior, or high school. Unfortunately, few books exist that tackle this significant topic. Barbara Olexer’s THE ENSLAVEMENT OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN… helps to fill this void, and makes a great addition to the history buff’s bookshelf. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the American Indian experience or the history of slavery. An added bonus: the author donates a portion of the proceeds to the National Museum of the American Indian.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)