I loved this book! It took me a little bit to get used to the style, which can be a bit confusing, and if fairly explicit, bisexual, profanity-laced sex is going to bother you, you’ll probably want to avoid this one, but in terms of our books for Idaho, it was definitely a win!
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, or people of the state. We are just finishing Idaho.
Oh! And there is an elaborate metaphor involving killdeer that runs throughout the whole book! How could I resist? It’s a great metaphor, too: the killdeer bird is known for faking a broken wing to lead predators away from its nest and young. Spanbauer uses that idea in a couple of ways. On the one hand, sometimes he’s referring to misdirecting attention away from something you’re trying to hide or protect–and the cleverness of that. But sometimes he’s referring to the adrenaline rush of doing something dangerous–like leading a predator away from your nest.
So, that was it. That was how you played killdeer. You ran all over the valley and looked in on things that couldn’t see you looking, for what it was out there that you didn’t know and needed to know–scrutinizing people, the world, for the best story, for the truth.
Buffalo is another bit of symbolism that appears throughout the book, and it also has several meanings. Buffalo Sweets is the name of Shed’s mother, who he believes is one of the Bannock native people. One of the things Shed wants when he leaves Excellent is to see the buffalo herds, but he learns that they have mostly disappeared. Dellwood Barker shows him a formation he calls Buffalo Head at Craters of the Moon. (I was able to find a formation called Buffalo Caves, but it doesn’t really fit with what Shed described, though there were caves as well.) Then, at Fort Lincoln, he sees a lone, old buffalo cow kept in a barn, which feels very much like a symbol of the Bannock people.
Spanbauer’s confusing style takes a little getting used to:
If you’re the devil, then it’s not me telling this story. Not me being Out-In-The-Shed. That’s the name she gave me not even knowing. She being Ida Richilieu, and later, after what happened up on Devil’s Pass, they called her Peg-Leg Ida. Hey-You and Come-Over-Here-Boy were also what I thought were my names. First ten years or so, I thought I was who those tybo words were saying. Tybo being “white man” in my language. My language being some words I still can remember.
When I read the Goodreads blurb and saw that the character’s name was Shed, I thought it was odd; “Shed” doesn’t convey the same bleakness as “Out-In-The-Shed.” But despite the bleakness that’s inherent in the story, the book doesn’t have the same sense of bleak depression that turned me off from Housekeeping. I think it’s because many of the characters show that same unthinking discrimination combined with good-heartedness that I saw in the characters of Thousand Pieces of Gold. There’s plenty of malicious, overt racism as well, but many of the people we meet are just oblivious–the kind who would probably argue that they weren’t being racist at all–and many are kind and loyal.
Spanbauer gives us some wonderful landscapes in Shed’s account, which ranges all across the lower part of Idaho including the Sawtooth Mountains, the Owyhee Desert, Fort Lincoln (which is a fictional version of Fort Hall), and Craters of the Moon:
Far as you could see was big bubbles of black hard lava rock going up high as mountains, some caved in deep down the way the other ones had exploded up. You could see how, when the lava was hot, it had flowed over the land, rivers of the stuff–red-hot rivers now dark and hard like scabs on a big burn wound–cliffs of scabs, of valleys–forever.
There’s other wonderful descriptions too:
The fresh horses pointed down a road you could see for as far as there was ahead. At sunset, the horses headed right into the sun. The flat-topped mountains, somewhere along the way, had sunk into the ground, leaving only the flat. Flat, sagebrush, jackrabbits, and bitterroot–not one tree.
This brings up something we haven’t talked about yet–bitterroot. We’ve seen it as the name of a mountain range and a river, but we haven’t discussed it as a plant. It’s a low-growing perennial with a taproot which was occasionally eaten by several Native American tribes, some of whom apparently ascribed to it the power to repel bear attacks. Some of the images on the web show a succulent-type of plant like the one pictured here, while others show no real plant above-ground, only the flower itself, which is often shown as a lovely purple instead of white.
Other than the killdeer, there are a few other birds, mostly because Alma Hatch has an ornithology book. So we have a blue jay, a robin, and some generic finches and swallows, but perhaps not as many birds as I was hoping for given that killdeer metaphor, especially given that Shed has a deep connection to the land around him. But instead of birds, it shows up in quirky personifications like this:
The sound of the river was telling me to walk closer, so I did. On the opposite bank, at the base of the hill, was a family of pine trees–friends of mine I had sorely missed–didn’t know how much until right then when the wind blew through them.
And this one about the poplar trees in Fort Lincoln:
Me and Princess went up the road down the middle through the trees, the wind making poplar leaves talk something how aspen trees talk up in Excellent. But there was something wrong. … The trees sounded scared. They were standing together in the middle of a flat nowhere. No tree in its right mind would ever think of growing in a place like that–unless they were forced to–and I figured, being forced to, they’d all clumped together making the best of things like a family would, standing proud and tall, bringing shade to a desert that didn’t have any.
There’s an innocence to Shed, even though he was raised in a whorehouse and worked out-in-the-shed earning his keep. On the one hand, he seems to expect discrimination, but on the other he truly doesn’t understand it. His response during his travels to the whites (tybos) who refuse to let him drink inside a saloon is a good illustration:
What I figured was this: it wasn’t me that was not talking. It was the tybos who were not listening. Wasn’t no different from anywhere else. Folks not listening being what was no different. Excellent, Idaho, being anywhere else.
I don’t feel equal to the task of reviewing the book’s content in terms of Native American identity or bisexual identity, although I did find some interesting information about the term “berdache,” which apparently fell out of use around the time Spanbauer’s book was published. The term is considered somewhat offensive and dated, with some preferring the term “two-spirit.” While others find this new term problematic, at least it was chosen by the community itself rather than being chosen by outsiders as was the term “berdache.” At the time the novel is set, however, the term “berdache” is what would have been used (or something more offensive). In any case, I felt Spanbauer discussed a cross-section of the various meanings of the term, both sexual and cultural.
Spanbauer gives us a bit of the history of the conflict in Idaho between the Mormon settlers and the Native Americans (as well as between Mormons and “dens of iniquity” like Ida’s Place). Some of it is handled in a humorous manner, such as when Ida announces that she’ll give $10 to the first person to spell pernicious correctly (because it was misspelled on a poster announcing a town meeting to discuss “those among us who are evil and purnishus”).
In Ida’s Place, and all over town, folks tried their damnedest to spell that word. Heard so many ways to spell pernicious that I’d have to go back and spell it to myself now and then just to make sure I had it right. The contest went on for weeks, and for weeks pernicious was all you heard. … When somebody asked Alma Hatch how you spelled pernicious, she was so tired of that word by then, she spelled it: “E .. A .. T .. S .. H .. I .. T.”
But we also see the attempts at converting the Native Americans to the Mormon faith. Spanbauer’s depictions of starvation at Fort Hall are apparently accurate, as are the incentives given for conversion. So are the realities of the failures of that program–according to this page, the land the converted Native Americans were given was so poor that they couldn’t grow enough food to live on. The land just wasn’t suited to subsistence farming, so their farms failed, and they returned to the reservations, disillusioned and hopeless.
Overall The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon by Tom Spanbauer was a fantastic addition to our reading challenge list for Idaho! It was the first one I started and the last I finished, but I’m glad I read it. Now that we’ve finished Idaho, we’ll be moving on to warmer climes. Perhaps inspired by Yumi from All Over Creation, we are reading Hawaii next. Stay tuned–aloha!