Native-American Characters in Literature

Louise Erdrich 2The first residents of what’s now the United States were Native Americans, but they haven’t often been first in the casts of novels. Still, there are a number of such characters, including more in recent years.

Their depictions, of course, have been all over the map — from stereotypical to fully three-dimensional. We might see the virulent discrimination against, and the poverty faced by, many Native Americans, or see some of them doing quite well. There are set-in-the-past depictions (including the genocide and otherwise horrific treatment at the hands of whites) and present-day portrayals. It helps when the author is partly or 100% Native American, but some authors with no such ancestry have done a reasonably good job with Native-American characters.

One Native-American author is Sherman Alexie, who I read for the first time last week with Reservation Blues. That novel chronicles the ups and downs of a Native-American rock band — with content also including a romance, mystical elements, interactions between Native Americans and whites, the effects of Christianity on the characters, struggles with alcoholism, and more.

Another (partly) Native-American author is Louise Erdrich (pictured above). I read her novel The Painted Drum a few months ago, and it’s an absorbing tale of an important Ojibwe artifact and the impact it has on various characters.

Some novels with partly or 100% Native-American characters by authors who are not Native American? One famous example is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s Chief Bromden, who ends up in the book’s Oregon psychiatric hospital after descending into clinical depression partly caused by his father being humiliated at the hands of whites. He is one of the Ken Kesey novel’s three stars, along with Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.

Then there’s The Charlestown Connection and other crime novels by Tom MacDonald featuring partly Native-American private sleuth Dermot Sparhawk.

The above books are basically set during the time they were written, but there are also a number of books by modern-day authors set in the long-ago past.

For instance, the star of Isabel Allende’s compelling Zorro — which takes place in the late 1700s and early 1800s — is of mixed Native-American and Spanish descent. Among that novel’s most interesting supporting characters are Native Americans: Zorro’s mother Toypurnia, his grandmother White Owl, and his lifelong best friend Bernardo — all well-drawn and non-stereotypical.

Two in the Field — the sequel to Darryl Brock’s riveting time-travel/baseball novel If I Never Get Back — takes 20th-century-protagonist Sam Fowler to the 1870s to search for his lost love Caitlin with the help of a Sioux guide. Sam even meets General Custer, against whom Native Americans won their famous (and rare) victory against the always-encroaching white menace.

They didn’t fare as well in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in which the vicious Glanton gang massacred many Native Americans and others during an 1849-50 rampage in the Southwest.

Literature fitting this topic written during the 1800s? Many Native Americans appear in James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels — the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans. None of them are as prominently featured as white guy Natty Bumppo, but Natty’s friend Chingachgook is an important secondary character and several other Native Americans have noticeable supporting roles. While Cooper gets somewhat stereotypical at times, he was fairly enlightened for a white author of his era in decently depicting Native Americans.

“Injun Joe” of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is more problematic. That half-Native American is portrayed as quite villainous, although Twain does offer some sense that one motive for the character’s actions is a desire to avenge the discrimination and ostracism he faced throughout his life.

Of course, some novels set in other countries also have indigenous characters — including the Eskimos of northern Canada in James Houston’s White Dawn and Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, Aboriginal Australians in novels such as Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and so on.

I realized I’ve only touched the surface here. Your favorite novels that include Native-American or other indigenous characters?

Many of you know “Kat Lit,” a great/frequent/long-time poster here who hasn’t commented for a while. She tells me she has been dealing with a move and some health issues, says hello to everyone, misses everyone, and plans to return here when she can.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which compares the way my town coddles powerful developers with a neighboring town’s more community-minded approach — is here.

From One to More: Widening Our Reading of Certain Authors

Isabel AllendeHave you ever read just one novel by an author — her or his most famous work — but then waited years to read some of their other, lesser-known books?

I’ve done that, and am not always sure why. Perhaps part of it involves wondering if a different novel by that author would be as good, or not finding other books by that writer in my local library, or a desire to keep reading a variety of writers for the first time, or…

The author who is my most recent example of “one and done (for a while)” is Isabel Allende (pictured above). I read her masterful The House of the Spirits quite a few years ago…and loved it. It’s really almost as good as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s groundbreaking One Hundred Years of Solitude — which partly inspired The House of the Spirits — and Allende’s debut novel is actually more “readable.” Anyway, this week I finally started another Allende novel — Zorro, a fictional work about the younger years of the fictional vigilante — and am very engrossed in what is an excellent book.

Which led me to look back at other authors whose most famous novels I read years before trying some of their other work.

Margaret Atwood is one. I was impressed with The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it not long after its 1985 release, but for whatever reason I didn’t move on to other Atwood works until around 2010. I’m glad I did — thoroughly enjoying Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Oryx and Crake, and more.

Moving back in time, there’s John Steinbeck. I first read his magnificent The Grapes of Wrath in high school, but didn’t dive deeply into his canon until decades later. Worth the wait: East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Moon Is Down, etc.

Herman Melville? I tackled Moby-Dick in college, and then waited years before trying several of his other novels. None quite at the level of M-D, but still excellent: Billy Budd, Pierre, Redburn, White-Jacket, Typee, etc.

Melville contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne is of course best known for The Scarlet Letter, which I read in high school. Decades later I got to the rest of his relatively small novel canon: The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun. All good, but more A- or B+ compared to The Scarlet Letter‘s A. (Couldn’t resist that.)

My experiences with George Eliot’s work have been a bit more complicated. I tried Middlemarch in college, and gave up on it relatively early. Then it was many a year before I returned to Eliot — reading Silas Marner, which I loved; followed by The Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede, both of which I also thought were terrific. At that point, I figured it was time to try Middlemarch again — and was bowled over by its psychological depth and expert dissection of two marriages, among other things. Finally, I capped things off with Eliot’s riveting Daniel Deronda.

Then there are novelists best known for TWO novels who also wrote plenty of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are clearly his masterpieces, but works of his such as The Insulted and Injured that I read much later are well worth the time. And we have War and Peace and Anna Karenina from Leo Tolstoy, who also penned some exceptional novellas I finally got to within the past couple of years: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murat

Which authors have you read who fit this “one and done (for a while)” topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which includes more on my school district’s “SalaryGate” — is here.