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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Book Reviews

Once Upon a Time in the West

Blue Horse Dreaming by Melanie Wallace. MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco, 2003, 307 pages, $23.

In her first novel, Melanie Wallace, a contributor who lives part of the year in Evia, ambitiously reverses two of the most popular narratives of nineteenth-century American history: the triumphal story of westward expansion and the reassuring plot of thankful captives “redeemed” from Indians. Blue Horse Dreaming is a courageous, as well as artful, debut because Wallace does not flinch from her protagonists’ unhappy fates as they, like their creator, attempt to resist the cultural imperatives of imperialism and racism.

When the novel opens, Major Robert Cutter commands “Outpost 2881,” a fort near the emigrant trail somewhere in the great plains, a setting so desolate that early settlers have abandoned it and moved further west. The outpost has not been resupplied for months, and ragged soldiers are deserting or scavenging for food. Everything is in disrepair, including the commander. He has allowed discipline to degrade while he writes unsent letters to his wife and hallucinates visits by his mentally disturbed son.

Then things get worse. A detail that Cutter has dispatched to trade three Indian male prisoners for two white female captives returns to the fort with Constance Smith and Abigail Buwell. Constance is grateful to be redeemed and tells her story to Reed Gabriel, a visiting journalist. Wallace presents the text of this “captivity narrative” with that widely read genre’s conventions intact: the woman’s chaste suffering, the inhuman cruelty of the “savages,” the happy ending of religious constancy rewarded. With Gabriel’s money in hand, Constance and her husband leave the fort. Abigail Buwell, however, resents her enforced rescue and stays at the fort to exude her hatred. In her four years with the Indians, the twenty-something Abigail has taken a mate, been forced to leave him and a child behind, and is carrying her second child. She refuses to speak, sleeps with her blue horse, and attempts to prevent her child’s birth. When the infant dies, Abigail places it on the roof of a building for its soul to be released by birds feasting on the child’s carcass.

Cutter is attracted to Abigail’s silent rebellion and attempts to comfort her in his quarters. We find that this middle-aged Civil War veteran has disregarded orders to engage in “suppression of the savages” and believes that his garrison is futile. To Cutter, the Indians are already as defeated by the barren landscape as he and his men are. At Outpost 2881, the white man’s victory is as hollow as the eyes and bellies of the soldiers.

But in Wallace’s West things can get worse, and do. Sandstorms and a plague of flies assault the humans and animals in the fort. A hunting party does not return. Men shoot and eat their mules while grumbling that the “white Indian,” Abigail, has put a curse upon their lives. Cutter continues to shelter her and kills a man to protect her. When the cavalry finally rides in to save the starving outpost, things get even worse for Abigail and Cutter. She finds her husband’s and child’s scalps in the new troops’ possession, and Cutter is relieved of his command. Both are returned eastward, where he is court-martialed and she is committed to an insane asylum. I am giving away the characters’ endings here because Wallace reveals them quite early in the novel. The characters’ defeats, the author implies with her foreshadowing, have been fated from the beginning by the victories of American culture.

What Wallace substitutes for suspense are flashbacks that help explain the resistances of Cutter and Abigail. Cutter’s children have died or gone crazy, his brother was killed in the Civil War, and Cutter was wounded — literally shot as well as psychologically traumatized by ordering men to their deaths. Cutter has also not seen his wife for, it seems, years so at least part of his attraction to Abigail is erotic. Somehow her presence diminishes his hallucinations.

Abigail’s life has been unhappy from the beginning: as a child, she was sold by her prostitute mother to a childless farmer, who sexually abused her and then sold her to an itinerant peddler, who beat her and then sold her to a sodbuster whose brother attempted to rape her. She is just beginning to feel some affection for her pioneering husband when he is killed and she is kidnapped.

It is this overdetermination of Abigail’s victimhood where Blue Horse Dreaming falters, not because her sufferings could not have happened, but because Wallace lavishes much more detail on Abigail’s abuse than on her four years of happiness with the Indians. We are told about her sublime closeness to nature and bits of information about the Indians’ language and spiritual customs, but Abigail’s experience with her Indian family is never dramatized or made persuasive to counterbalance her past — or Constance Smith’s conventionally racist narrative. Wallace’s Indians are generic Others, not identified by tribe or specific customs. American captivity narratives from Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 text onward usually had some ethnographic value. With plenty of professional ethnography to rely on, Wallace could have imagined her way further into the personal experience that Abigail holds dear and the cultural experience against which the novel’s white Americans and their deeds are measured.

Wallace, like her heroine, may have been reticent about certain details because she wanted Blue Horse Dreaming to have an allegorical vagueness and, thus, a contemporary resonance. Just as we don’t know what tribe captured Abigail, we don’t know the territory where Outpost 2881 is located. Time is equally uncertain. The action appears to occur within a few years of the Civil War, but Wallace also mentions The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published in 1885. Perhaps Wallace is dreaming a time of no time, an alternative to the chronology between Custer’s last stand in 1876 and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

If Wallace’s history is fuzzy, she does meet other requirements of the historical novel, including general plausibility. There were, in fact, a few female captives who did not want to come back to “civilization,” including one Cynthia Ann Parker who, after living with the Indians from 1836 to 1860, starved herself after her return. To vivify the past, Wallace uses the present tense to represent life in the fort — dehumanizing weather, the odors of despair, the howl of Abigail’s mourning, the mysterious power of her blue horse. Minor characters — an African American blacksmith, a doctor sympathetic to Cutter, the ambitious journalist Gabriel, Abigail’s second “owner” — are specifically observed figures who might well have stepped from the realistic fiction of the time. Wallace also includes various documents — Smith’s narrative (which includes some lies, according to Abigail), Cutter’s long meditative letters, a dead quartermaster’s crazed scribblings, lists of the fort’s “assets” — for the illusion of documentary authenticity, a needed effect because Wallace otherwise calls attention to the artifice of Blue Horse Dreaming with an omniscience that shifts back and forth into the minds of several characters. Abigail’s consciousness is probably a little too literary for a person without any education, and Cutter may be improbably fond of quoting Shakespeare, and the whole novel echoes “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but Wallace’s people generally seem recalled rather than invented.

Cutter’s letters to his wife often have the sentimental ideality and euphemistic prose presumably expected by an educated female reader of the time. Abigail Buwell and Melanie Wallace do not share in this stylistic cover-up. Here is a passage describing the troops returning Abigail and Cutter to civilized society:

They would no more go into the fog than those who are not savages would willingly enter a tomb, a sarcophagus, a grave, to lay themselves down and breathe in mold and decay, share the dead’s putrefaction. This fog holds the defiled dead — Abigail Buwell’s infant, her other child, the man who fathered her children, his mother, sisters, father, aunts, cousins, uncles, the decimated band of savages whose scalps, scrotum sacs, ears and fingers became the trophies of soldiers — for their dishonored bodies lie yet upon the earth, have been bored into by maggots and beetles and ants, gnawed at by wolves and nocturnal creatures glad of the feast. What is left of their rotting flesh is seeping into the earth, condemning their unreleased spirits to evermore remain earthbound, enshrouded in fog. (p. 250)

Wallace’s ending is — admirably, I think — in keeping with this passage. Both Abigail and Cutter despair in their final days and years. He visits her in the asylum, and she speaks animatedly to him, but neither Cutter nor her other visitor, Gabriel, frees her from this captivity. And Abigail knows that her soul will be captive forever, for when she dies she will be buried in the ground, her tribe’s worst fear. Living in a run-down house on his reduced pension, Cutter does not write a didactic or uplifting account of his frontier experience. Instead, he burns all his books and papers. And like Abigail, he is sure death is an earthly prison, not a release. As dark as any western by Cormac McCarthy, Blue Horse Dreaming is as uncompromising as Melville’s tale of passive resistance unto death, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Abigail and Cutter lost hope. We are fortunate that Melanie Wallace did not despair over history completed. By inventing her counter-narratives, she makes us aware of American losses — and the gains of an art that does not lie about the lost.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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