The Big Oakland Powwow

There, There

By Tommy Orange

Published 2017

Read Nov 2018

This debut novel is really quite impressive.  Orange opens the book with a Prologue that gets and keeps your attention.  It is a powerful indictment of the White Man for his intended impact on the Native population.   I use the word intended here because it’s hard not to when the US uses the term “Indian Termination Policy” to describe its policy regarding Native Americans in the 1940s through mid-1960s.  A “positive” attribute of the policy was to grant Native Americans the rights and privileges associated with US citizenship (something denied anyone with more than 50% Native blood since the 1600’s).  But it also meant that the US ended its recognition of the sovereignty of tribes.  The intent was that Native Americans abandon their traditional lives, become civilized, and just plain assimilate.    In the Prologue and Interlude later in the book Orange writes a number of short essays informing the reader of facts and figures that are difficult to digest and to which you want to hide.  We also learn that Urban Native is a term describing Natives that have been born in urban environments vs those that were moved there or moved there themselves.

This book is about 13 characters who live in Oakland, CA, whose varied paths take them to the Big Oakland Powwow, and what happens to them at that fictional event.  The characters are rather diverse.  Single mothers; offspring of single mothers with various degrees of problems; offspring of two parent households with a variety of issues; a daughter of two Natives who is given up for adoption and raised White while knowing she isn’t; offspring from one Native and one White parent; offspring of wholly Native or part-Native who have some connection with some of their Native customs; offspring of wholly Native or part-Natives whose parents or grandparents have suppressed their connection to their Native background; significant others of Natives.  Some of the characters are family members.  Some of the characters meet through their involvement in planning the Big Oakland Powwow.  Some of the characters know each other through drug dealing or using.  There are many interesting characters with a range of connections and a range of experiences.

Each chapter is titled for a character and is told by or tells about that specific character and some part of the overall plot.  Each character has at least one and usually several chapters titled for them but many appear in other chapters as well.   The point of view in these character titled chapters is not constant.  For instance Tony Loneman’s first chapter is in in first person but a later Tony Loneman chapter is in future tense told by a third person.  One chapter has a long email written by the title person to his brother, another significant character who never has his own titled chapter.   The language is straightforward and it’s clear who the chapter is discussing and what is happening in that chapter.  What takes a bit of work understanding  the various connections between characters and the interleaving circumstances.  I eventually succumbed to re-reading and taking notes to which I could refer to more fully tease out  he various characters’ situations and  interleaving story lines that all press them towards the day of the Big Oakland Powwow.

So this is a book with a simple structure that is actually a fairly complex product which is about complex characters that represent a very complex situation of Urban Natives which is but one type of Natives in this very complex and complicated county that has always dealt poorly with how to interact with people of different blood (even when everyone is “All White”).

This book demands you work at reading it and listening to the many kinds of things it is sharing with you.  It is well worth all the energy required to take it in. You will be changed.

The Scarlet Pimpernel—An Early Batman?

The Scarlet Pimpernel

By Baroness Orczy

Published 1905

Read Nov 2018

Using the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, when any French aristocrat could be accused and sent to the guillotine in a matter of hours, Baroness Orczy crafts a tale of romance, intrigue, and adventure.  She creates a character that is a major irritant to the French police as he routinely rescues French nobility from their death sentences and lands them safely on British soil.  His true identity is known to only his few co-conspirators and even his beautiful French-born wife is unaware that her foppish husband is actually capable of repeatedly tricking the French police.

Orczy provides the reader much adventure, which we conveniently experience through the eyes of the wife who races after her husband.  She seeks to somehow save him after she mistakenly revealed to Citizen Chauvelin the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel who Chauvelin seeks to arrest and behead.   Orczy exposes the wife as a self-absorbed and actually cruel woman who feels she is trapped in a loveless marriage to a dolt she expected to adore her forever as he did before their marriage.  She eventually realizes her short-sightedness and seeks to be redeemed by preventing Chauvelin from succeeding to arrest her husband.  In contrast to her husband, she has no plan of any merit but the reader is glad she pursues this lack of plan so that we can follow Chauvelin’s hunt with a first row seat.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel is a forerunner of the Batman/Bruce Wayne and Superman/Clark Kent.  The allure of a person who can successfully battle “the bad guy” who is actually a “regular guy” in real life remains popular.  The format for this new (?) type of story in 1905 was live theater (The Scarlet Pimpernel was first a play written by Orczy and her husband) which was then turned into a published book.  Orczy provided her adoring public with a series of books about the Scarlet Pimpernel and his troop.   Various film, stage, and television adaptations followed.  Currently the format for this type of story is comics/graphic novels that get turned into cartoons, television shows, and “block-buster” movies.  Zooks!  (a word first used in about 1600!) What will the format be in the future?  Stay tuned….

Dinesen’s Africa

Out of Africa

By Isak Dinesen

Published 1938

Read Oct 2017

The “about the author” information provided in the Vintage International edition I read gave me useful but not excess information:  “Isak Dinesen is the pseudonym of Karen Blixen, born in Denmark in 1885.  After her marriage in 1914 to Baron Bror Blixen, she and her husband lived in British East Africa, where they owned a coffee plantation.  She was divorced from her husband in 1921 but continued to manage the plantation for another ten years, until the collapse of the coffee market forced her to sell the property and return to Denmark in 1931.  There she began to write in English under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen.”  I will refer to the author by the name she chose as author of this book.

The information was useful because it gave me a sense of how long Dinesen had been in Africa.  Most importantly, however, it told me that the language in Out of Africa is Dinesen’s and not a translator’s.   The language is marvelous.   That she used all her senses in living her life in Africa is clear on the second page of this book:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life it, was the air. …Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought:  Here I am, where I ought to be.”

The book is not an autobiography.  Instead, Dinesen tells us about her experience in Africa while she tried to succeed in the coffee growing business, which was difficult.  She tells us early on that the land was a little too high for coffee.  “But a coffee-plantation is a thing that gets hold of you and does not let you go, and there is always something to do on it:  you are generally just a little behind with your work.”

The opening chapter draws you into her experience quickly—her descriptions of the landscape, the sounds, the animals, coffee-growing, and the people.  Some aspects of her descriptions and comments on the Natives are somewhat surprising to us in 2018 but they reflect views of a European come to farm coffee in East Africa in 1914 as various European countries were continuing their conquest of Africa.  Her comments do, however, point out that the Natives were not homogenous but that her farm employed or interacted with persons from several tribes/communities with different cultures including customs, beliefs, approaches to economics, and more.  She claims, and we believe her claim, that she had genuine affection for them and it’s clear they respect and appreciate her.

Absent a viewing of the 1985 movie by the same name (which is more of a biography of Karen Blixen during her time in Africa), one would not know much about Dinesen’s relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton.  The first chapter she devotes to him is titled “Wings” as much of the chapter is about the flying they would do together in his small aircraft and the view of Africa from the sky.  The second chapter about Denys regards his death, funeral, and burial on her property and is part of the section called “Farewell to the Farm”.

The section “Farewell to the Farm” is some 60 pages and it has no parallel about her arrival to the farm.  She spends some effort relaying the various tasks associated with selling off the furniture and belongings, the house and land, separating from the people who lived and worked on the farm, and especially her efforts to resettle “the squatters” to new land elsewhere in East Africa so that they could remain together.  She provides much detail about her last days there and especially the day she left.  Clearly leaving Africa was extremely painful for her and she describes very well the sensation one has when one is making an end to a part of their life which must end but whose end is not fully chosen.  And then she is Out of Africa.