This section contains 1,276 words
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SOURCE: "Splendor in the Grasslands," in The New York Times Book Review, December 31, 1989, p. 14.
In the following mixed review, Marston faults Momaday's romanticized view of Native history in The Ancient Child.
Locke Setman, or Set, has achieved almost everything a person can in late 20th-century America and, of course, is suffering heavily for it. He is the central character in The Ancient Child, N. Scott Momaday's first novel since he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for House Made of Dawn.
Set is a San Francisco artist who has continued to paint large, colorful and pricey canvases, even though his inner vision has tried to pull him in less lucrative artistic directions. By conventional standards, Set has been well rewarded for this submersion of self. The fortysomething artist has a home and studio on San Francisco Bay, is moderately famous and has a relationship with a beautiful art collector—"the sort of affair that everyone ought to have once, as a birth-right."
He tries to keep this life going—who wouldn't?—but he can't. Dissonant elements begin to creep into his paintings, he takes up with a woman attracted by this dissonance, his beloved adoptive father dies and finally he cracks wide open. But this is not another story of a conventional midlife crisis. For although Set was raised by and as an Anglo in San Francisco, he was born an Indian, and part of his crisis is the growing assertion of his Kiowa self over his adopted culture.
Mr. Momaday, who is a painter and poet as well as a novelist, does not leave Set to struggle alone. He gives him, almost as God gave Eve to Adam, a beautiful, sensual, warriorlike Indian woman to act as midwife to his attempted rebirth. Her name is Grey, and she is a 19-year-old medicine woman who lives on the endless Oklahoma grasslands with her great stallion, Dog, and a few Kiowa relatives.
Although Set is the central character, this mythic and romantic novel is dominated by Grey. We are attracted by the ease and vitality that let her gracefully evolve from adventurous, sensual girlhood on the Kiowa plains to settled maturity on the arid, colorful Navajo reservation of Arizona-New Mexico.
Momaday on the Power of Language:
A word is intrinsically powerful. If you believe in the power of words, you can bring about physical change in the universe. That is a notion of language that is ancient and it is valid to me. For example, the words of a charm or a spell are formulaic. They are meant to bring about physical change. The person who utters such a formula believes beyond any shadow of doubt that his utterance is going to have this or that actual effect. Because he believes in it and because words are what they are, it is true. It is true. One can disarm an enemy by talking to him, as in the Kiowa story of the arrowmaker. One can even bring such an unaccountable presence as Devils Tower into one's own sphere of instinct and experience by means of language. What could be more magical? Every day we produce magical results with words. And there are people, like holy men and medicine men, who make occupations out of the magic of words. In some, there's a dark, sinister aspect to that. For example, the whole business of witchcraft is really centered upon the magic of words.
N. Scott Momaday, in an interview with Charles L. Woodward in his Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday, 1989.
For the first part of the novel, Set is in San Francisco struggling with his demons while Grey gallops across the open country of Oklahoma, interweaving her exciting enough real life—she trades sex for the stallion, she is raped but almost castrates her attacker and she learns to be a powerful medicine woman—with visions of her hero, Billy the Kid. Here is Grey imagining her way into the life and bed of Billy:
She had looked all morning at rather into—a thirty-carat turquoise stone, a Lander's stone, that its reflection might hold in her eyes and shimmer there like mountain rain. She had brushed her beaded moccasins with sprigs of cedar and sage: and she had patted her breasts with crushed juniper berries and rose hips and the pollen of sunflowers. She stood graceful and tall and comely.
This vision of loveliness has no trouble achieving her imagined purpose: a jailbreak. In her fantasy, she beguiles the guards and slips a revolver to the Kid, who kills his captors and gallops away to the cheers of the townspeople.
But true to history, Grey cannot save the Kid, even in her imagination. She can only watch him die and grieve over his death. Set is another matter. Using powers enhanced by contact with the century-old medicine woman Kope'mah, Grey yanks him out of San Francisco and sets him onto first the Kiowa grasslands and then the Navajo reservation; there he begins his search for his fierce, bear-like Kiowa self.
This book is several stories at once: traditional Indian tales of bears and lost and transformed children; the legend of Billy the Kid; the evolution of a Kiowa girl into Navajo womanhood, and the life and cultural crisis of Set. Described thus, The Ancient Child works well enough, although language meant to be mythic is often simply stilted and ponderous.
But the book turns puzzling, even frustrating, when one tries for a larger sense of it. Why, for example, has Grey made a hero of Billy the Kid? Although Mr. Momaday, who is a Westerner, a Native American and Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona, doesn't mention it, the Kid began his career by helping to rob and murder three Indians.
The wider context is also missing. Myth transforms the face of reality and history. But this mythic treatment of Southwestern Native Americans appears to ignore history. Grey, for example, gives lip service only once, briefly, to the fencing, roading and development of the land. Otherwise she spends her time galloping—sometimes masked and naked—across an unpopulated, primeval, pristine landscape.
Yet the vast American inland West is a land that over the past century has been heavily grazed or plowed or roaded or drilled or dammed, or all those things together. Not far from Grey's galloping grounds lies the edge of the 1930's dust bowl. The Okies and the dust bowl they made have been mythified by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, but they are not unique. All of the inland West has been abused to at least as great a degree. And the abusers—the Okies, other homesteaders, loggers, gold-rush miners and construction boomers—have pulled up their shallow roots and left for yet unplundered landscapes.
Native Americans are more tied to place, and have found it hard, sometimes impossible, to escape the shattered, unproductive landscape created by the mobile "settlers." That is reflected today in life on many reservations. People whose collective memory reaches back to once intact and beautiful and productive land now live amid its ruins, and suffer from the knowledge of what the land had been.
Mr. Momaday knows this legacy, and it may be that his romantic treatment of the murderous Billy, the wild throwback Grey and the blocked and suffering Set is meant as a healing novel. Perhaps we are to see Grey as first forgiving Billy, and thereby the whole Anglo-cowboy culture, and then going on to rescue blocked and visionless Indian peoples, in the person of Set. If that was the intent, it has not worked. This novel cannot heal because nothing is shown as wounded. It is as if 150 years of human bloodshed and destruction of the land never happened.
This section contains 1,276 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)