"The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville." Thus begins Rose Goode's story of her growing up in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Skullyville, a once-thriving Choctaw community, was destroyed by land-grabbers, culminating in the arson on New Year's Eve, 1896, of New Hope Academy for Girls. Twenty Choctaw girls died, but Rose escaped. She is blessed by the presence of her grandmother Pokoni and her grandfather Amafo, both respected elders who understand the old ways. Soon after the fire, the white sheriff beats Amafo in front of the town's people, humiliating him. Instead of asking the Choctaw community to avenge the beating, her grandfather decides to follow the path of forgiveness. And so unwinds this tale of mystery, Indian-style magical realism, and deep wisdom. It's a world where backwoods spiritualism and Bible-thumping Christianity mix with bad guys; a one-legged woman shop-keeper, her oaf of a husband, herbal potions, and shape-shifting panthers rendering justice.
One of the joys of this blog has been my discovery of novels by writers of native American heritage, such as Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, Alfredo Vea and Rudolfo Anaya. Now to that list I can add Tim Tingle. Tingle is perhaps better known for his children's books: Crossing Bok Chitto won the American Indian Youth Literature Award in 2008. This book however is for the adult market, although it would also be suitable to older children.
Maybe because of the author's background in writing children's literature the book has a gentleness and morality which was appealing. These didn't prevent the author from tackling hard subjects - the book opens with the murderous arson attack on a Choctaw school by white racists and two women in the story are victims of domestic violence. Nevertheless these are countered by both Amafo's choice of forgiveness rather than violent response and an attempt to understand the motivation of even the most vicious of men. A part of me (maybe the adult part) kept thinking that life isn't/wasn't like this, but then another part wanted the moral resolution that the book offers.
Justice prevails in this book. Amafo is able to find allies within the white community, such as the wonderful one-legged Maggie Johnston. Most importantly for the purpose of this blog the Choctaw central characters find allies in the natural world and the spirits of their family. This is where the magic realism appears, especially in the form of a panther, that may or may not be Rose's dead grandmother. As is so often the case in magic realist books, there is an ambiguity about what is happening at this crucial point in the story. But earlier we see the spirits of the dead through the eyes of the young narrator Rose, who has inherited her grandfather's sight: Rose, if you are real quiet and learn to see people, you can know the ones weighed down by death. Find out what makes them happy, what they like to do or talk about. Making Walking People laugh is a very good thing to do too, sweetheart. When the spirits laugh, everybody is happy.
Tim Tingle is an experienced oral storyteller and this shows in the book. House of Purple Cedar's central plot may be the serious matter of the persecution of Amafo and his family by the hateful marshal, but the book is leavened by the tale of how Maggie Johnston saves her future husband, Terrance, from the gallows. This tale of the most incompetent bank robber you can imagine reads like a comic fable. It had me giggling when Terrance is threatening to cut a hostage's throat with a butter knife to the bemusement of onlookers. But then there is something fable-like about the whole book. The story is partly told by an elderly Rose and it feels like something told by the fireside. Indeed, as I discovered in the book's acknowledgement section, the tale of the panther/protector had been inspired by just such an account by a real woman remembering her childhood. All of which reminds me of what Marquez once said: the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.