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War and Wilderness from David Treuer

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Posted by Mary Ann

David Treuer has written several books, including several novels – Little, The Hiawatha, and The Translation of Dr. Apelles. But based on Terry’s conversation with him on Well Read, I thought a couple of his nonfiction books might be of even more interest to readers.

Rez Life is Treuer’s 2012 book about growing up on the Lake Leech Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. Part journalism, part history and part memoir, Treuer uses his own experiences as a launching pad of sorts, to look at reservation life for Native Americans today.

He profiles the people of the modern reservation, from tribal police officers to fisherman, from elders to younger rez residents. Treuer feels strongly that the Native American story should not be told just in terms of tragedy, and Rez Life contains some hopeful material, such as the return to Native traditions that has inspired a lot of Native American thought today. He documents the relative growth of the Indian population from a low point of about 240,000 Indians in 1911 to more than two million today.

But he’s not shy about confronting enduring problems, from corruption in tribal governments to alcoholism. One chapter in Rez Life features his mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer. The chapter opens with a photograph of her wearing her judicial robe; she presides over a Tribal Court. Her son accompanies her to court one day on the Bois Forte Reservation in far northeastern Minnesota, and recounts the cases she hears. I couldn’t help but think of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House – as Treuer and Erdrich come from the same tribe, and a tribal court judge is a key character in that book.

His critique of Native American literature, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, is the 2006 book in which he argues that Native American writing should be judged as literature, not as some kind of cultural artifact. A Louise Erdrich novel is great literature, he says, but it’s not, nor is it meant to be, a documentary-style portrayal of Native American life.

Moving on, I came across a list of “David Treuer’s Six Favorite Books”  and I thought it was fascinating in the way it reflected some of the themes and settings in Prudence. Here are four on Treuer’s list that I am going to second the motion on – all classics.

The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway. This collection of stories was published after Hemingway’s death, in 1972. It’s noteworthy for its settings – many are set in the Great North Woods, the setting of Prudence. It’s got similar kinds of characters, including Native Americans, and its challenges, which include man’s participation in and response to war. Treuer said of this book: “Hemingway — who’s so often been seen as the author of toughness and bravery — explores the aftermath of war and the tender recesses of the mortal heart in these short stories, set in Michigan both before and after World War I.” This collection was criticized for perhaps including some material that Hemingway never intended to publish, but it contains some classics, such as Big Two-Hearted River, about a man trying to recover from the ravages of war on a wilderness fishing trip.

Atonement by Ian McEwan (Anchor, $16). Treuer says Prudence owes a big debt to Atonement, a gripping novel about a young English girls’ misreading of events around her that changes  her life and that of several others. It’s about guilt, about what we see vs. what we tell each other we’ve seen, and about war. Treuer said “It would be hard to find a more perfect 60 pages in all of Western literature than the opening suite of this astonishing novel.”

The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson. Rick Atkinson was a military brat who grew up on military bases around the world. He started out life as a newspaper reporter.  When I was a young cub reporter at a small newspaper in Missouri, Atkinson, was working for the Kansas City Times at the time, was regarded as a giant of the form, a journalist who could both write and report. He went on to work at the Washington Post, covering the military and defense.

Atkinson eventually wrote three books that cover the whole of World War II.  An Army at Dawn begins with the allied invasion of North Africa. Then came The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944, published in 2007, and The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945.

Treuer said that Atkinson’s “combination of detail (German soldiers waving live chickens in surrender) and sweep (executive bumbling on the part of Montgomery and Patton) is unparalleled.”

Finally, Treuer called out A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. White is a very talented author who wrote about gay life in an age when it was not particularly popular to do so. A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel set in the 1950s in Ohio and Michigan. Treuer said that “White explores how the illicit nature of gay love in that time and place can corrupt the very nature and quality of that love and deform the heart that produces it. Comic and devastating.”

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