A Review of “The Wasp Factory”

Question: Are violence DVHPSL5IQ70and cruelty innate to human nature – or is man inherently civilised?

This is the question posed by that most controversial and loved/ hated novel, The Lord of the Flies. The same question is posed in this book too. However, whereas the canvas was a huge one there, in The Wasp Factory, the reader is viewing things under a microscope. Rather like watching bugs.

From chapter one onwards, Iain Banks invites us into the head of Frank Cauldhame, who is one seriously disturbed teenager. He has been blessed with a reclusive scientist father with an obsession for memorising the dimensions of various objects in the house: a mother who abandoned him: and a crazy elder brother who sets dogs on fire and stuffs maggots into children’s mouths for fun. Moreover, he has had an “accident” which has left him without a penis. To add to all this, Frank’s birth has never been registered with the authorities, making him officially non-existent. Talk about teen angst!

As the story opens, Frank’s elder brother, Eric, has escaped from the asylum where he had been incarcerated and is slowly making his way home. His father is hopeful that he will be picked up before he reaches there: but Frank has his doubts. He knows that Eric is clever enough to dodge his stalkers, and that he’ll eventually arrive.

Against this backdrop of Eric’s impending arrival, the novel unfolds as a sort of interior monologue of the protagonist. Frank is anything but your ordinary teenager. Just listen to some of his private musings:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year later I did for my young cousin Esmeralda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.

This callousness and lack of any empathy towards the world in general, accompanied by an astute brain and a technological bend of mind, and a strangely savage and ritualistic personal religion makes Frank Cauldhame an extremely interesting (though not likeable) protagonist. Frank kills animals and keeps their heads arranged on stakes on the beach, which he calls “The Sacrifice Poles”. He keeps the skull of the dog which mutilated him (subsequently killed by his father) in a disused World War II bunker, surrounded by the heads and skulls of his kills, and conducts strange rituals like burning wasps with a mixture of sugar and weed-killer. But his greatest achievement is the killing machine which he has devised, which he calls “The Wasp Factory”.

The Wasp Factory is made out of an old clock face, over which the wasp is left to wander at its will: it cannot fly away because the top is covered. Near each of the numerals, trapdoors have been created which will open if the wasp steps on it and dump it into a glass corridor, at the end of which is a method of death devised by its maker, which includes (to enumerate some) getting skewered, chopped up, eaten by a spider, drowned in urine, or burnt by petrol. The method of the wasp’s death gives information to Frank on a particular question posed to the Factory.

As the novel progresses, and Eric gets nearer and nearer to Frank, the story of who and what Frank is slowly unfolds. It is an eerie tale, with hardly any “normal” people in it: and towards the end, when the reason for Eric’s insanity is revealed, it is sufficiently disturbing, bordering on the disgusting. However, Frank’s big secret at the end fell flat for me, even though it proved impossible to guess.

The pluses of the novel are the narrative tone and curiously disturbing and nightmarish world created by the author. Even though the story is full of violent deaths, murder and mayhem, Banks uses a lot of wildly fantastic elements and overblown descriptions of bizarre deaths to distance us from the horror and focus more on the absurd: for example, Frank kills Esmeralda by tying her to a kite and making her float away over the sea! And Frank’s dispassionate narration is sometimes downright funny, as he uses the classic British understatement for his gruesome subject matter: so we find ourselves guiltily enjoying the colourful deaths of the members of the Cauldhame clan.

Banks uses the crazed brain of his protagonist to mock the sacred cows of the modern world: religion, technology and politics. See one of his political musings:

Often I’ve thought of myself as a state; a country or, at the very least, a city. It used to seem to me that the different ways I felt sometimes about ideas, courses of action and so on were like the different political moods countries go through. It has always seemed to me that people vote in a new government not because they actually agree with the politics but just because they want a change. Somehow they think that things will be better under the new lot. Well, people are stupid, but it all seems to have more to do with the mood, caprice and atmosphere than carefully thought-out arguments.

He has just described Indian democracy to a T!

Also, the similarities between religious and scientific rituals are made so disturbingly clear that we catch ourselves asking the question: have we become worshippers of a God of Technology? Is Frank’s ingenious contraption for killing wasps, and the elaborate rituals that go along with it, much different from the intercontinental ballistic missiles developed by nations and the “rituals” surrounding the launching of the same?

Ultimately, this is the biggest plus point of the book – its ability to make us think about the inherent nature of man and the whole insane and unholy relationship between his great pastimes: technology, religion and politics. It captures the “big” problems and scales them down to microscopic level, that of a crazed teenager on a lonely Scottish isle.

I would have rated it among one of the great books but for the ending, as I said earlier. The “big” secret was so pointless. I could not make out what Banks was trying to convey to the readers with this revelation.

But I would still recommend it to readers who are not very queasy about the subject matter of what they read. Though disturbing, the novel is powerful, and will stay with you after you have finished. One added advantage: it’s a quick and easy read.

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A Review of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

Lincoln’s doctor’s dog. An archaic reference in the publishing industry to the notion that the way to ensure a book is a bestseller is to write about Lincoln, dogs, or doctors. This prompted one author to title his book which is about publishing in the 1930s Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.

– From www.metaphordogs.org

Maybe Lincoln, doctors and dogs have gone out of fashion; but children, the Holocaust and friendship are still the rage. So the sure-fire formula for creating a bestseller is to write a story about children’s friendship during the Holocaust…
…even if you don’t know the first thing about it.

***

arbeitmachtfrei

The entrance to Auschwitz (courtesy: The Jewish Virtual Library)

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is the heart-warming (read “emotionally manipulative”) story of the doomed friendship between two pre-teen boys, born on the same day (one Jew and one the son of a Nazi) and its inevitable tragic conclusion. Yes, that’s right: get your handkerchiefs here, folks.

When I review a book, I look at both the medium and the content. Sometimes, you will find a great story which is badly written: at other times, a story which is only so-so will be made palatable through great prose. Sometimes you have both, and the book becomes really enjoyable. And when the medium and the content are so aptly intertwined to be inseparable, you have a truly great book.

Very rarely, you have the misfortune to encounter a really abominable story which is abysmally written into the bargain – this happened to me with this book. The only good thing I can say about it is that it is a very fast read.

Now for the analysis.

The Background

This book is historical fiction (yes, yes, I know that the author has claimed it is a fable situated in the time of the Holocaust: but unfortunately, the Holocaust is history) yet it pays no heed to historical accuracy. Auschwitz, according to my knowledge, had no children – they were sent to gas chambers the moment they arrived. Yet here we have a camp which is literally crawling with kids, almost like a kindergarten.

We also have a German child Bruno, who despite being the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer who is very close to Hitler, does not know about Aryans, Jews and the concentration camps. Agreed, he may not be aware of the atrocities going on in those places: but in the real world, he would have been inducted into the fairy tales about Aryan supremacy and the “Jewish problem”. In the book, Bruno remains blissfully ignorant about all until the end. He almost seems mentally challenged.

Child_survivors_of_AuschwitzMy knowledge about Auschwitz comes from reading history books only, but as far as I know, the camps were guarded by electrified fences and patrolled heavily across the clock. It would not have been easy for somebody just to lift up the barbed wire and crawl in. And how was Schmuel (the Jewish boy) able to constantly evade the guards and come to the same spot at the fence where it was loose at the bottom? (Yeah, it’s a fable, I know: maybe the exigencies of plot also had to do with the historical manipulation?)

Characterisation

Bruno is easily one of the most annoying protagonists ever created. Naiveté one can understand – it is difficult to understand outright stupidity. The boy simply refuses to see what happens in front of his eyes. Even if he has not been indoctrinated (impossible, as mentioned earlier, in Nazi Germany), he would have picked up much more. Children do.

Most of the other characters are pasteboard, including Schmuel, the Jewish kid, put there as props to support the plot and move it along. They are all one-dimensional other than the servant Maria and the Jewish doctor-turned-waiter Pavel. But they serve only to fill the space around Bruno.

The Writing

I could have forgiven Mr. Boyne for all these historical blunders and failures in characterisation, had he written good prose. But that is the most terrible part of the book – the prose is puerile.

First, the repetition. Bruno’s mouth forms an “O” and his hands stretch out at his sides whenever he is surprised, which is quite often: ultimately I started picturing him as a cartoon stick figure I used to draw as a kid. We are told that his sister Gretel is a Hopeless Case every time she is mentioned. The same with Father’s office being Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions… I could go on and on.

As a teen, I used to watch Hollywood war movies in which all Germans spoke English. While I could understand that this gimmick was required to avoid subtitles, sometimes they spoke English with a German accent… maybe to highlight their “German-ness” … this I found ridiculous. I had the same feeling about the puns Boyne used in this novel (“Fury” for Fuhrer and “Out-with” for Auschwitz). I don’t even know whether they will work in German.

However, the biggest problem was the child’s POV. It’s just idiotic… an adult talking baby talk and trying to imitate a child. Once in a while, the adult pops out from behind the visage (“we are all in the same boat, and it’s leaking”). It’s just tiresome.

Selection_Birkenau_rampThe narrative was problematic. Half the time, I was not sure whether the author was writing an adult’s novel with a child’s viewpoint, or a mature novel for children – it fails on both counts. As I said before, the child’s POV does not work, and even with all the toned-down violence it’s not a suitable novel for children.

And plot holes… don’t get me talking about them! From the loose fence under which one can crawl through, the story jumps from hole to hole till it drops into the biggest hole of them all, the tragic finale. By that time, Boyne is pushing all the emotional buttons, trying to bring the tears on at full throttle… but the real tragedy here is the death of literature.

I understand that this book is a bestseller, and I can understand the reasons. I regret to say that this seems to me like adroit marketing of human tragedy… successful in this case.

A Review of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

300x300When they teach you public speaking, there is a concept called “ho-hum”. This is a brief statement at the very starting point of the speech, sufficiently interesting so that the audience will immediately sit up and take notice. It is the “hook” with which the speaker snares them.

I have found that this works very well in narrative fiction too. If the first paragraph is sufficiently interesting, the reader continues long enough to get pulled into the story. While this is not essential, many great novels have great opening paragraphs (Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Jewel in the Crown… these are some examples which immediately come to mind). Now, I will add this novel also to the list.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, or “Merricat” as she is nicknamed, is the child-woman narrator of this extremely disturbing novel by Shirley Jackson. As the novel opens, only three members of the rich Blackwood family are surviving: Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing uncle Julian. The remaining members – Merricat’s father, mother, younger brother Thomas and Julian’s wife Dorothy are all dead of arsenic poisoning which happened six years ago. Constance, who cooked on the day, has been tried and acquitted. She survived because she did not take sugar on her blackberries, the medium in which the arsenic was administered: Merricat survived because she was sent to bed without supper in disgrace (something which happened quite often): and Julian survived, even though he was affected, because he took less of the sugar. Constance falls under suspicion because she was the cook, did not take the contaminated food, and washed the bowl in which it was kept before it could be forensically examined.

As a person who cut his milk-teeth on Agatha Christie, the identity of the murderer was evident to me after a few pages: and I don’t think Ms. Jackson’s aim was to write a mystery at all. For the duration of this short novel, we are forced to live in the mind of the seriously disturbed narrator, a child trapped inside a woman’s body. It is through her eyes that we see the other characters and the world in general. This is like seeing things in a “funny mirror” – it distorts and provides a weird sort of clarity at the same time, by emphasising certain aspects out of proportion.

Constance does not venture forth outside the house at all: and Uncle Julian is an invalid eccentric, who keeps on writing about that fateful day six years ago, over and over. The villagers, in true Shirley Jackson style, are frighteningly evil: they hate the Blackwoods – originally because of their privileged status, then more openly after the poisoning incident. Because they feel they can vent their anger openly now, they taunt Merricat mercilessly while she does her shopping. The Blackwoods’ “own set”, the moneyed people like the Clarkes and the Carringtons, show token sympathy for them; but when we look at them through the narrator’s distorted lens, we see only show and a morbid curiosity.

The family continues to live in their big house, cut off from the villagers, “protected” by the magical talismans installed at various places around the grounds by Merricat, when their peaceful life is shattered by the arrival of cousin Charles, the son of Merricat’s father’s elder brother, who disowned them after the incident. Charles is ostensibly there to help them reintegrate into society: the real reason is money, which the Blackwoods have in plenty. Constance is charmed by Charles but the eccentric Julian and the disturbed Merricat can see through the subterfuge.

The story moves towards its frightening climax as Charles and Merricat lock horns with increasing mutual antagonism. And when it comes, it is devastating in the extreme – but it is in the resolution that Ms. Jackson really displays her mastery over the medium. Instead of a blast and the subsequent silence, we are left with a smouldering fire which will haunt us for days to come.

***

John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_ShrineDarkness is always present in our midst. Most of the time, we shove it under the carpet as it is not a nice thing to look at. Writers and artists sometimes feel it more strongly, which is why we get painters like Frieda Kahlo and authors like Shirley Jackson.

The feminine is seen as mysterious, dark and moist (I am talking here of archetypes; the stuff of myths and dreams, not actual women). I have seen that women authors (Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brontë et al) have a much better connection to this part of the human psyche. This is possibly why the mythical goddesses are more mysterious than the Gods – nurturing and frightening at the same time.

Ms. Jackson, through the device of framing the story through the experience of a disturbed female protagonist, has succeeded in highlighting the seething void beneath the surface of the polished civil society. Towards the end, the mask slips away totally (as in her story The Lottery) and the primal being shows its ugly teeth. And the resolution – where the Blackwood sisters attain a sort of pagan goddess status and their home becomes a shrine which is reviled, feared and worshipped at the same time – is a masterpiece.  This takes us to the realms of poesy where myths and fairy tales are born.

Brilliant.

A Subaltern Narrative

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience. ” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

The above paragraph appears on the very second page of Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. In a sense, it encapsulates the whole tale.

I do not know when I came across the term ‘subaltern’: most probably it was in the eighties, in a book dealing with Dalit issues in India. This term, popularised by the Subaltern Studies Group of South Asian scholars, is derived from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Wikipedia says “In critical theory and postcolonialism, subaltern refers the populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.” In simple terms, they are people on the margins of the book which describes great colonial epic of civilisation.

We have many such people scattered all over the world: people who have been choked by a much more powerful occupier, pushed along to the fringes of society, and forced to eke out a meagre existence. The American Indians (or Native Americans, as they are called now) are such a people. Until fairly recently, the world as a whole did not know much about them, other than as bloodthirsty savages who rode about with painted faces, let out bloodcurdling shrieks, kidnapped and raped women and tortured men to death – a fiction perpetrated by Western movies and novels. They were the demons – the ‘Injuns’ – whom the ‘brave’ cowboys killed.

I awoke from this myth engendered by the Spaghetti Westerns once I started reading history, and learnt reality was the opposite of what was shown in the movies – the red man was brave, honourable and peaceful; the white man was cowardly, cunning and rapacious. The creation of America was actually a tragedy of gargantuan proportions for the original inhabitants of the continent. For them, the so-called ‘American Dream’ is a never-ending nightmare.

***

Mary Crow Dog was born piss-poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As with many Indian families, her father was a wastrel who did not take care of his family: she was raised by her grandparents. Mary grew up experiencing racism in its every form. The Indians were openly despised by the white people, and in those days, they did not need to hide it. Their traditional style of living destroyed, their men caught in the vicious circle of drink and despondency, and their women open to exploitation of all forms, the original inhabitants of the land were on a fast downward spiral to oblivion.

The ‘civilising’ forces were at work on all fronts. Denied land and justice, Indians were supplied with the one thing that the white man had in abundance – religion. The traditional religions were all but outlawed, and Christianity was being forced down the throats of the natives. Mary too was born a Catholic; she had the ‘fortune’ to attend a boarding school run by nuns, whose motto was “civilise them with a stick”.

It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like…

…The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families-sometimes for as long as ten years-suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots-caricatures of white people. When they found out-and they found out quickly-that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.

In the school, the Indian children were submerged into a world dominated by guilt and sin. They were made to feel guilty about their bodies and bodily cravings – everything was viewed through the red lens of sin (maybe because the sisters were so steeped in it, to hear it the way Mary tells it) and even the smallest digressions invited severe chastisements.

The kids tried to run away, frequently: they were almost always immediately caught and brought back to the school, and subjected to corporeal punishment. The nuns thought nothing of bending teenaged girls over chairs, lifting their skirts, and whipping them mercilessly with straps – the same treatment was meted out to boys by the male teachers.

Spirited Mary (and many others like her, including her sister Barbara) rebelled. Mary left without completing her course, after punching a priest in the face. Like countless times in history, the desire of the authorities to enforce discipline without justice had created a revolutionary.

***

People talk about the “Indian drinking problem, ” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.

A dropout from school with no aim in life, Mary started drinking and hanging out with similar shiftless youths. A lot of her time was spent in fighting: because, according to her, drinking does not help one forget; rather one remembers “all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined”. So the next thing to do is pick a fight – and there are always white rednecks who oblige. And the fights are often violent.

I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.

Mary recounts various crimes against Indians, often repeatedly, in her memoir. Her aunt, the powerful ‘turtle woman’, who was found beaten to death in her home, face down with weeds in her hair; Annie Mae Aquash, an activist who was raped and murdered and whose death was reported as natural, from exposure; Indian men were killed and women were raped by white men with impunity, while even the smallest protest by an Indian resulted in arrest and incarceration. The system thus succeeded in criminalising a peaceful people; then prosecuting them for their criminal activities.

The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power. That goes for the U. S. A. as well as for Russia or any other country in the world .

Ultimately, the alleged criminality of Indians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistreated by a monstrous system whom they could not confront head on, Native American youth became spit-and-run warriors: a spot of vandalism here, an incident of shoplifting there… Mary says that they did not consider pilferage from shops as theft, because they were only re-appropriating what is theirs by right. And so it would have gone on, unless she had discovered AIM (the American Indian Movement) and literally found an aim in life.

***

The major part of this memoir is structured around a specific event in the history of Native American awakening – the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee town by a group of AIM members, and their subsequent standoff with the FBI and US Marshalls. This is significant to Mary for two reasons, one political and the other personal – this was the first Indian movement which received massive media coverage and broadcast the condition of the Native American population to the world: and this was where Mary met her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and gave birth to her first child among the flying bullets.

Wounded Knee, to the American Indian, is a sacred place. It holds the same place of awed reverence that Jallianwala Bagh holds in the mind of Indians. It was here that the U. S. Cavalry massacred over 200 people including children, Lakota Indians who had gathered there to perform the “Ghost Dance” that the government had outlawed. Here’s one telling image from the massacre, as told to Mary by her grandfather:

It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes , thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.

Woundedknee1891
The second time around, however, the activists who occupied Wounded Knee were not so many lambs to the slaughter – they were a people who were slowly awakening to their essential mythic roots.

“Our most sacred altar is this hemisphere, this earth we’re standing on, this land we’re defending. It is our holy place, our green carpet. Our night light is the moon and our director, our Great Spirit, is the sun.”

The words above are from a prayer by Leonard Crow Dog, and pretty much sums up what motivated the Indians.

The Wounded Knee incident had its beginnings during the “Trail of Broken Treaties protests in the autumn of 1972, when Native Americans from all over the U.S. A converged on Washington to protest against injustices done to their community. But President Nixon refused to talk; as Mary says sarcastically, maybe he had more important things to do like planning Watergate. So what in effect was planned as a peaceful protest became a full-fledged uprising, and the Indians occupied the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). There was standoff with government forces, forcing a negotiated settlement which was subsequently ignored – predictably. But it was huge moral victory for the Indians. And it indirectly led to the more acrimonious one at Wounded Knee.

Since 1934, Native Americans were governed by titular “tribal” governments – who were virtual lackeys of the bureaucrats at the BIA. This system lead to the creation of tribal presidents who were corrupt and tyrannical, and who staffed their governments with friends and lackeys. According to Mary, President Dicky Wilson of Pine Ridge was one of the worst.

Following the explosive situation created after the killing of an Indian by a white man in Rapid City, AIM teamed up with OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization). One of the AIM leaders, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, was the political enemy of President Wilson, who once had him severely beaten up. AIM members from all over America travelled to Pine Ridge to help OSCRO against Wilson’s goons, and after a time, all of them wound up at Wounded Knee. It was time for the Great Symbolic Act.

“Finally, on February 27 , 1973 , we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of uswrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.

…Altogether we had twenty-six firearms-not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”

The siege went on for seventy-one days, and left behind two dead Indians. Nothing much again was achieved in concrete terms: but what it achieved in metaphorical terms was enormous. The wide media coverage turned the spotlight on Native American issues; more importantly, it allowed the Indian to look inside, and see himself for what he really was.

Mary says, “I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple.” This was the case with most Indians. The Wounded Knee incident brought the redness out. Leonard Crow Dog was not a political leader, but a spiritual one: for this reason, he was feared more by the authorities, and persecuted.

He could not understand why the government was after him. He did not consider himself a radical. He was not interested in politics. He never carried a gun. He thought himself strictly a religious leader, a medicine man. But that was exactly why he was dangerous. The young city Indians talking about revolution and waving guns find no echo among the full-bloods in the back country. But they will listen to a medicine man, telling them in their own language: “Don’t sell your land, don’t sell Grandmother Earth to the strip-mining outfits and the uranium companies. Don’t sell your water.” That kind of advice is a threat to the system and gets you into the penitentiary.

This was the reason why the British Raj feared Gandhi and the South African apartheid establishment feared Mandela.

***

In the memoir, the most effective part is where Mary describes her awakening into her religion. The smoking of the peyote, a hallucinogenic plant which is an integral part of Native American Rituals; the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce themselves but feel no pain; the music which is derived from nature, which the Indian is almost part of… these are described in words which are almost poetry.

The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival.

The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices-one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air.

And it is in a Peyote dream that the past comes alive for Mary.

In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back-I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.

This awakening is dangerous: because it cannot be lulled back to sleep with the promise of material comforts. No intoxication provided by alcohol will match the intoxication of the spirit connected to its origin across space and time. For the Native American religion is live: its myth is forever being re-enacted on the temporal as well as spiritual plane.

The hostility of the Christian churches to the Sun Dance was not very logical. After all, they worship Christ because he suffered for the people, and a similar religious concept lies behind the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce their flesh with skewers to help someone dear to them. The main difference, as Lame Deer used to say, is that Christians are content to let Jesus do all the suffering for them whereas Indians give of their own flesh, year after year, to help others. The missionaries never saw this side of the picture, or maybe they saw it only too well and fought the Sun Dance because it competed with their own Sun Dance pole-the Cross.

The Church is afraid with good reason, it seems.

Mary Crow Dog, who symbolically gave birth on the battlefield of Wounded Knee and married the medicine man behind that uprising is no longer with us here on earth. However, I do not think people like her will ever die, as long as the magpie cries in the forest or the brook runs, with her gentle laughter, over the plains.

Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge

I pierced too, together with many other women. One of Leonard’s sisters pierced from two spots above her collarbone. Leonard and Rod Skenandore pierced me with two pins through my arms. I did not feel any pain because I was in the power. I was looking into the clouds, into the sun. Brightness filled my mind. The sun seemed to speak: “I am the Eye of Life. I am the Soul of the Eye. I am the Life Giver! ” In the almost unbearable brightness, in the clouds, I saw people. I could see those who had died. I could see Pedro Bissonette standing by the arbor and, above me, the face of Buddy Lamont, killed at Wounded Knee, looking at me with ghostly eyes. I saw the face of my friend Annie Mae Aquash, smiling at me. I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send .
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live!