Book Review: Bruce Roberts on Brant Waldeck’s The Secret of the Portals

The Secret of the Portals:

The Adventures of Bruten and Tommy: A Review

As a boy, I loved adventure books. The Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, White Fang, The Call of the Wild—all could keep me awake nights with a flashlight, hating to put the book down.  Later I loved swashbucklers, such as Scaramouche, Captain Blood, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, Homer’s Odyssey.  Defeating villains and monsters thrilled me. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, if I’d had a bb gun, I’d have heroically shot my eye out.

The Secret of the Portals, by Brant Waldeck, is a kids’ adventure book in much the same vein. Bruten and Tommy are best friends, and love to take off on their own. At the urging of Tommy’s Uncle Ron, reputedly a great explorer himself, they set off into the nearby national forest. What they find there has all the right stuff to keep kids turning those pages.

How could a young reader resist secret and magic portals that open into alien worlds?  A world of squirrels, of mini-people, of a world made entirely of stone—people, trees, everything. And in all these worlds, vast wealth is taken for granted. Emeralds, diamonds, gold galore—and ignored!  Through one portal, diamonds are even eaten—for food!

All stories need conflict, of course, and this one is no exception.  Marauding Coyote gangs, ninja chipmunks, confusing cave passages, a monster beast, huge and hostile stone warriors, a beautiful stone girl with evil intent—the right ingredients to keep a young reader’s imagination well-fed.  And rising above all these, emerging as the chief villain of all, an antagonist that no one suspected—until the end.

Is this a great book? No. The writing, the plot, the characters—all need work. The writing is not horrible, but not masterful either. It carries the plot, but deserves no notice for its quality. The plot is convoluted and seems awkward. The author tries to develop the characters, but they wind up shallowly done. Readers barely even know what they look like.

However, Bruten and Tommy are eleven year olds– sixth graders, in other words. And none of the problems mentioned above would be noticed by a sixth grader who needs to read, read, read. In its own clumsy way, this book holds together well enough to keep a sixth grader turning pages. And since I—an aging reviewer—am not the target audience here, and sixth grade kids are, no teacher should have any qualms about including it in the classroom library. For the right audience, it is well-done.

Bruce Roberts

January, 2013

Bruce Roberts, who may be reached at brobe60491@sbcglobal.net, is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California. 

“Country”: Excerpt from a prose poem by Shelby Stephenson

 

“From Country

 

Did you know there’s an Academy of Country and

Western Music?  Its admission’s policy is not Open Door.

 

Consider “Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life,”

Paul Craft, writer, Bobby Bare, singer.  CMA was not a

 

foundling, though mysteries abound:  1964:  “country” stood for

America, “western,” mostly for the western states, the gimmick,

 

since Genesis, to create a kingdom on earth, Eve

looking at Adam, duo, singing “You Go On and Eat a

 

Bite, Too”:  the Red Barrel Club in L.A. was a treat:

awards started in the RBC-LA:  Hollywood Palladium

 

got in on the act, plus the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills,

all this, C & W fans, before the “Beverly Hillbillies Show”

 

on television.  “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” song of the

year, 1967, sung by Wynn Stewart, written by Dale Noe:  Nin

 

and I, newlyweds, lived near a pawn shop in Pittsburgh,

Pennsylvania, preparing for academia, instead of

 

buying a Ph.D − post-hole digger − for $29.99, at Lowe’s

Home Improvement.  Why Roy Acuff’s The Crazy

 

Tennesseans placed musicians in Tennessee:  the state

jarred with  Smoky Mountain Boys eventually,

 

Roy Acuff savoring his businesses − Hickory Records,

Dunbar Cave Park Recreational Center, Acuff-Rose

 

Publications:  “Don’t Make Me Go to Bed and I’ll be Good,”

“Wabash Cannonball,” “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” “Streamline

 

Cannonball,” “All Alone Beneath That Lonely Mound of Clay,”

“The Precious Jewel,” “The “Great Speckled Bird,” and

 

“Branded Wherever I Go”:  Roy Acuff was different

from Rex Allen, the Arizona Cowboy, Allen’s biggest

 

hit, 1953, “Crying in the Chapel”:  “On Top of Old Smoky”

everybody loves:  Rosalie Allen recorded with Elton Britt

 

“Tennessee Yodel Polka,” a whitewash parge upon the

wall of the country music business:  what warbles a yodeler

 

brings to falsetto and voices − natural as I feel − mostly

good about the C & W industry, for the real thing

 

loses amusement among the beer and sequins.

I am at the G-Y-N with Nin:  laughter bounds the halls:

 

among all these women, their chatter, galaxies − mirror-mints,

cloud-soups the receptionist sneezes:  Nin says,

 

“Good-bye, Penny.”  Pete Seeger might never stop to say

Farewell, since he’s been going strong before musicians and

 

Want-to-B’s flooded Nashville, Tennessee,

like a “lightered-knot floater” at my homeplace on Paul’s Hill;

 

meanwhile, Pete Seeger (went by Pete Bower),

Woody Guthrie, and Burl Ives crossed America,

 

Josh White, Bess Lomax, too, singing their songs

for unions, chanting anti-war, their chore to rout out

 

Hitler and war, too, if they could; yet Folk Music could

really score a scare.  The Almanac Singers pre-dated and

 

fore-ran the post-war group, The Weavers.  Once upon a time

I knew the South Turkey Creek Minstrel, Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

 

My brother and I went to the North Carolina State Fair,

Raleigh:  since I am a year and seven days younger than

 

Marshall (I call him “Brown”) I am a tag-along, though,

truth be known, maybe taller than most trees except pines:

 

Holly (brother-in-law, married to sister Maytle Rose)

dropped us off.  Our instruments in our hands we saw

 

our first waterfall.  Brown signed up to play his banjo in the

contest on the stage of the Mountain Dance and Folk

 

 

Festival which Mr. Lunsford started in Asheville in 1928.

When my voice changed, falling into my socks, I

 

felt like my underwear might be the yellowy bloomers

dandelions spring; I started singing “country”:

 

Bluegrass singers may have “higher” voices, though

some, like Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury,

 

Dolly Parton, Laurie Lewis, Rhonda Vincent, and

Bobby Osborne, sing − any-thang!  Marshall could get by

 

his invasion into Mr. Lunsford’s “baby”:  he played the

five-string.  Me?  I was not asked to perform at the festival

 

at the fair in Raleigh:  that’s why we got lost and called

Holly to come get us − “We’ll be at the waterfall”:  Brown

 

won the banjo-contest:  I listened to George Pegram sing

and pick his banjo and I saw Mr. Lunsford’s hat

 

roll across the stage in a windy seizure the size of a defunct

Six-String Café in Cary, North Carolina:  I did not know

 

that Mr. Lunsford and his son and Carl Sandburg, John Jacob Niles,

Harry Golden, Alan Lomax, and Paul Green made the original

 

board whose purpose was to promote this Festival, growing from a

gathering to become the folk festivals of the 1960’s and 70’s;

 

mainly, though they are touted as Bluegrass Festivals:

major artists once minor become plentiful:  the public just

 

eats up the idea of FESTIVAL.   By the way, Paul Green grew

up near Lillington, within an hour of Paul’s Hill.

 

Truth, meanwhile, shapes a gyrating boy from Tupelo,

Mississippi.  What am to do?  Stay with old-time music and

 

risk stardom, studying Folklore at Indiana University,

Bloomington (I did get into grad school there):  maybe

 

those 50’s hooked me:  I got me a continental jacket and peg-

legged pants in the manner of the catty-times:  didn’t every

 

boy in the country want to MEOW?  Like Elvis or Jerry Lee

or Chuck or Little Richard or that Perkins boy, Carl?

 

Let’s not forget John R.  My shirt pink-flecked black

ingrained my sequins:  so when I made the

 

speech at the Pythian Home for Children in Clayton,

North Carolina, a child myself, listening to Faron Young −

 

Hank having died at twenty-nine, leaving me to hear

outside my bedroom window that whippoorwill of his song −

 

I sang “I Want to Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young, and Leave a

Beautiful Memory”:  it swamped my talk on “How To

 

Be A Successful Farmer,” my Future Farmer of America

pin obvious on my belt-buckle, scratching the back of my Martin,

 

my metaphor a ladder I must climb, growing the tobacco and

shortening the lives of every one of us smokers,

 

softly and tenderly, until our bodies comfort

oxygen to breathe no more:  in that audience

 

sat Mr. Huggins, owner of Huggins Hardware, Chapel Hill.

I write my ode from Paul’s Hill not too far from Mary Vance’s near

 

Four Oaks where my father and I used to turn out the

thirty-five dogs on the fox’s tail.  Mr. Huggins said,

 

“Shelby, come to Chapel Hill, Memorial Hall, and

sing a song; Mr. Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s the emcee”:

 

I said, Sure, taking my 00018 Martin.  I had seen Elvis Presley

at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, performing the

 

first song I ever heard him sing, “I Got a Woman

Way Cross Town, She’s Good to Me”:  he brought up the

 

tail-end of the Ferlin Husky Show:  when Mr. Lunsford introduced

me, he left my knees knocking and my white bucks

 

buckling, my blue-bird blue jacket flecked in musical clefts,

my peg-legged trousers shimmying off my continental

 

jacket:  why, you could not get over me:  I sang with

all my heart and soul the Ivory Joe Hunter song,

 

“When I Lost My Baby, I Almost Lost My Mind”:

Mr. Lunsford never even mumbled a word, went

 

right on with his work:  I might have sung the song

he’s credited with writing, “Oh They Call It That Old

 

Mountain Dew,” but no:  I held my father’s stumphole

handy:  Primitive Baptist I am, hearing Sister Bernetta Quinn

 

tell me, as she backs her big white car into a dumpster in the

parking lot at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, “Shelby, if you

 

were not an Old Baptist, you would make a Good Catholic.”

I sang silently as the tree frogs croak in a voice

 

the Solemn Old Judge might endorse:  “I don’t care if it

rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus,

 

dancing on my dashboard upside-down.”  Asheville today’s

got big roads and condos and festivals:  string

 

dusters keep their fingers from rusting when their voices crack

“pop” in folk music’s changing Americana:

 

go figure:  Hank was already ensconced in the scene:

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison.

 

Shelby Stephenson’s Family Matters:  Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge.

Poetry from Tatjana Debeljacki

 

THE PAIN

I take a nap and IT HURTS,

I fall asleep, wake up

IT HURTS

I think about something else

I feel THE PAIN

I look for myself,

I lie to myself,

I get drunk,

and IT HURTS,

and IT HURTS.

To die in the arms of someone who does not trust you

IT HURTS.

*****

EYES

In them you will find

What I really am – the eternity.

Wishes of my non-being,

Face full of wrinkles,

Light souls and spring happiness.

No remorse in the core of reason.

Let go of me, without saying my name!

I do not count on you anymore.

You were not ready to

Exist carelessly,

Glitter unintentionally and

Reign unnoticed.

With this love we are fighting for loneliness.

You are imposing new forms to the wind.

How complicated is this simple love …

The thought, legitimate or silly,

Strengthens the games of boredom through you!

Memory is suicide of the oblivion.

Withered lie warns imagination with the fresh truth.

Out of the mere deception,

Starry nights I offer in my eyes.

 

THERE IS

Someone is cracking the branch?!

Hang on till morning.

Here it is inside of me,

Innocent, thirsty

Still waiting for the bread and milk,

Sipping the mint tea.

Bring the peace without the aim

And the flowers for the vase.

Doesn’t know that her soul is freezing, so she takes her time.

Every now and then she sees her but never anything happens.

Starting to believe in miracles.

Is there the heavenly love  and

Such a flame

That it never turns into ashes?

Always ripe like an apple!

Eh, my quest for the fire…

I’m intoxicated by the poem, not wine!

Your words are the wind

Blowing my love

Away!!!

 

SCRUFFY HIM AND SCRUFFY HER

They put you on Psychiatry!

They feed you with antideporessants.

Wooden hags are rejoicing.

They walk on strada,

Mother in law with the cane,

Daughter in the mirror

Fixing her lipstick.

Badass forgive me

If I were a bird

Never to land

On the ground.

Living in that flight,

Could I take you with me?

Probably those birds flew by!

SCRUFFY HIM WITH SCRUFFY HER

When the season of roses pass by

And they wither,

And the birds stop flying.

It is temporary

Washing the faces of lovers.

 

Tatjana Debeljacki writes poetry, short stories, stories and haiku. She is a Member of Association of Writers of Serbia -UKS since 2004. She is Haiku Society of Serbia- Deputy editor of Diogen. She also is the editor of the magazine Poeta. She has four books of poetry published.
Email/Websites/Blogs Debeljacki & follow her on Twitter.

Book Review: Bruce Roberts on Jonathan R. Humphries’ Windham’s Rembrandt

Windham’s Rembrandt: A Review

My very first teaching job long ago was in a federal prison in Lompoc, California. Friends of Richard Nixon, like Haldeman and Ehrlichman, resided in the minimum security buildings, outside the walls. But my classes were in the big house, reached only after a gauntlet of slamming security doors, armed guards, barbed wire, and stultifying lime-green corridors.

Windham’s Rembrandt, then, the story of an art teacher’s experiences in the Texas prison system, was like a gigantic flashback for me.

The stories in this book reflect the experiences of James L. Humphries, written well by his son, Jonathan R. Humphries.  James, the dad, is an ex-Marine, and a credentialed teacher in math and art. These stories begin with the idea to create the first art program in the TDC (Texas Department of Corrections). The Windham school district runs all the “behind bars” education programs for Texas, and when James accepted their teaching offer, he began a 13 year, off-and-on intensive relationship with the residents of East Texas prisons, both the regular inmates, and the criminally insane, part of a special unit called The Walls.

What makes James Humphries, and thus these stories, special is that he truly cares about people. The poor choices his students had made to get themselves incarcerated were anguishing for him to hear. In fact, the stress of watching so many of his students self-destruct is what caused him to retire.

For example, Reginald, age 20, had gone into a panic attack when sentenced to 15 years in prison. “When he began attending my art therapy sessions, his attitude changed for the better. He smiled all the time” (p. 122). Still, Reginald drew the same thing every day, until one day he changed it.   When Humphries asked why, he smiled, “Docs say I’m all better now”(p. 122).  Shortly afterward, Reginald hanged himself with his belt.

Not content just to tell stories though, Humphries uses these shocking experiences to theorize about the meaning of  art in inmates’ lives.  “I noticed this sudden change in the symbols drawn by other patients, before they too were found dead from suicide…” (p. 123). Sadly, his insights were ignored by the psychiatric staff: “ ‘Quite interesting,’ they said, and left it at that.”(p. 123)

The metaphor that runs throughout this book is “the beast” within all of us. This is the term Humphries uses to describe the inmate who commits suicide after telling him all is well. It describes Kenneth, the inmate who kills any other inmate who crosses him. When one tried to stab him, Kenneth relates, “So I take his little knife out of my hand, wrestle him to the ground, and saw his head off.”

Yet Kenneth likes Humphries.  This mystified one of the guards: “You should know he’s talked more with you than… with anyone, ever!…It wouldn’t be wise to get too friendly” (p. 133). Humphries, however, treats people as they treat him, regardless of their past: “I know the men in prison had all done some sort of wrong, but there is more to a man’s nature than his actions” (pp.132-3).

The oppressive prison climate was not easy on Humphries, and ultimately he left. But he survived 13 years because of his own artistic talent, and his ability to communicate that to the inmates, and because he judged them as they were in his class, not for the crimes they had committed before. And, like Kenneth, no matter what beasts lurked within, they liked him for it.

This is a well-written story of a talented, dedicated, and insightful teacher in difficult circumstances. Windham’s Rembrandt is certainly worth reading.

 

Bruce Roberts,2013

Bruce Roberts, who may be reached at brobe60491@sbcglobal.net, is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California. 

“Pilgrimage to Wounded Knee”: An essay by Jeff Rasley

Pilgrimage to Wounded Knee

I spent an hour hiking around the grounds of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but not seeing Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, or Lincoln.  Fog shrouded the mountain and hid the Presidents.

I competed with hundreds of bikers riding through the fog up to Mt. Rushmore on winding Highway 244.  The reward for risking a crash in the fog was to see more fog at the viewing sites up the mountain in the Park.  Thankfully, there weren’t any wrecks or laid-down cycles on the way up to or on the way back down the mountain with the carved faces of the four dead Presidents.

I wondered about the determination of the hordes of Harley riders braving the fog to reach their desired destination.  But then, we Americans are unique in our determination to cross barriers of land and space to reach our goals — whether good for us or not.  The Pilgrims and early colonists made the perilous Atlantic crossing to begin life anew in the New World.  The Pioneers crossed the Appalachians to clear the forests and break the sod in the Midwest and Great Plains.  The gold rushes and land rushes of the West propelled the greedy, the desperate, and entrepreneurial opportunists beyond the Mississippi and over the Rockies.  And, by God, we beat the Soviets and everyone else in the space race to the Moon.

The will and courage to cross boundaries, to tame the land and conquer whatever we encountered is one of the great American characteristics.  The strength and courage required to begin those journeys is admirable; the results of the conquests, maybe not so much for those who were in our way.

 

My mind was running down this course over a solitary breakfast at the 1880 Keystone House Family Restaurant in the town of Keystone, South Dakota.  Exactly what the hell was I doing here?  I hadn’t even seen the images of the four Presidents, nor Crazy Horse.  From the unseen stone faces my thoughts had turned to pondering the checkered history and relationship of Americans with the land, the trees, animals, and native peoples who occupied the land before we did.  I was seized with a feeling of loneliness and ennui.

I had spent two alienating days in Sturgis, South Dakota during the great biker hajj of Bike Week.  Sturgis was just a larger version of other Biker gatherings I’d experienced – macho exhibitionism, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.  It had become increasingly clear in the two days I had spent in and around Sturgis that I no longer fit.  I had left the tribe and could not return.

 

I studied my map of South Dakota while eating scrambled eggs and bacon.  With map in one hand and fork in the other, I had an epiphany.  My eye landed on a place marked “Wounded Knee” on the map.  To transform this trip into a meaningful adventure I should perform a spontaneous pilgrimage.  I should go to Wounded Knee.

My cell phone battery was almost dead.  I turned it off, paid the bill and exited the restaurant.  I opened the trunk of the car and stuffed the cell phone into the pocket of my duffel bag.  I revved up Goldie, my faithful Sebring, and headed southeast toward the Badlands in a warm, foggy drizzle.

 

An ancestor of mine died as a result of the “action” at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.  He was not one of the hundreds of Indians killed in what has come to be considered one of the worst atrocities in the history of the U.S. military.  He was one of the perpetrators, Lt. James Defrees Mann of the 7th U.S. Cavalry.

My journalist mother wrote a story for our hometown newspaper, The Goshen News, published in May, 1977, about our ancestor, Lt. Mann.  My mom learned about our ancestor when she was invited by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to represent the family at Lt. Mann’s “Last Roll Call”.  The Last Roll Call is the one hundredth anniversary of graduation from West Point.  My mom attended the ceremony.  Then, she researched Lt. Mann’s military career and wrote the article for the newspaper.  I had recently re-read her article while perusing the family scrapbook during a visit with Mom.

It struck me as intriguing and perverse that I have an ancestor who managed to get shot—most likely by friendly fire, since the Sioux weren’t doing much shooting—in one of the most notorious events in U.S. military history.  (Another ancestor is Cotton Mather, the prosecutor of the infamous Salem witch hangings.  But at least he had the compensating distinction of being a “Puritan Divine”, famed scholar, preacher, and educator.  And, he didn’t get killed by a witch during the Witch Trials.)   Anyway, my mom’s article was a revelation for me when it was published in 1977; not just about our family history, but also about the “action” at Wounded Knee.

Most of what I had learned about the Indian Wars and conquest of the Plains Indians by the U.S. Army in my American History class in high school was forgotten in the cobwebs of memory by the time I read through my mother’s scrap book.  Although, I still remember arguing with one of my teachers, Mr. Clason, about how Americans treated the Natives who got in the way of our “Manifest Destiny” to rule the land from sea to shining sea.  Mr. Clason didn’t claim the way the Indians were treated was right, just inevitable.  At least he was willing to discuss it, because the mistreatment of Indians was not a favorite topic of public school teachers when I was growing up.

We Americans had circled the wagons to defeat the threat of international communism.  We didn’t want to give Castro, Khrushchev, and Mao any extra ammo to use against us by dwelling on past misdeeds of our own.  So, most public schools taught us Baby Boomer kids the saccharine-sweet version of American history in our Civics and Citizenship classes.

Re-reading my mom’s article in the new millennium sparked enough interest that I did some further reading on Wounded Knee; including the worldwide best-selling 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.  The book generated tremendous interest in the largely ignored native peoples who had been abandoned to their reservations for the last hundred years.  The book was criticized for presenting history only from the Indian point of view and for romanticizing Native American culture.  Seems to me though, it was about time the Indian point of view got some attention from the dominant white culture.

A sea change began to occur in 1970 in the popular consciousness of white Americans with respect to the treatment of Native Americans by our forefathers.  The movie Little Big Man was also released that year.  It starred Dustin Hoffman and was wildly popular.  For once, U.S. Cavalrymen were portrayed as the bad guys and Indians as the good guys.  Angst within the country about the Vietnam War was at a nadir.  The movie subtly but very intentionally compared the way the U.S. treated Native Americans to the way it was conducting the war in Viet Nam.

The conventional view of the dominant white-American culture was that the Plains Indians were unchristian savages who raped and pillaged innocent pioneer settlements.  Indians were devious and could not be trusted to live with civilized whites.  They needed to be restricted to reservations in order to keep the peace and protect white people.  This narrative had some basis in historical fact and received plenty of print and propaganda prior to and up through the 1960’s.  Alternative interpretations of history were out there, but were minority reports given little attention.

Growing up in the late 1950’s and 60’s, whenever neighborhood kids played cowboys and Indians, which we often did, the Indians were always the bad guys.  We had to take turns being bad guys, so that we got our turn being John Wayne-like good guys.  Where did kids in Goshen, Indiana get the idea that the Indians were the bad guys and the cowboys the good guys?

Losers don’t usually get to write the history that is imbibed by the descendants of the winners.  But change was afoot by 1970.  The new narrative of the wise and noble Indian (e.g., Big Chief in the 1975 film of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) might have excessively romanticized Native Americans.  But, it was about time history was revised and popular consciousness evolved to incorporate the Indian point of view.

 

An Englishman I met on a recent trip to Wells, U.K. remarked to me that we have such “delightfully colorful-sounding names in the U.S., like Suwannee, Wawasee, and Wapahani.”  I replied, “Yes, we Americans are grateful to the Indians for bequeathing us their land along with the names that went with it.”  As the winner of the Indian Wars, we whites got to write the history and name the lands we won.  Apparently, we liked the sound of Indian names for lakes and rivers, since we kept them.  We just didn’t want the people around who named the landmarks.

 

There is no longer any dispute among historians that what happened at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 was one of the worst of the many terrible events in the sad history of Native American encounters with whites in the nineteenth century.  My mother’s 1977 article summarized the accepted account of what happened at Wounded Knee.  She described it as a massacre of Indians.  But her article also related our ancestor’s version of the events.

Lt. Mann might be the only casualty of U.S. Cavalrymen in “the action”.  The article describes and quotes a contemporary report about what happened in what was then called “the Battle of Wounded Knee”.  Lt. Mann was actually interviewed by a reporter from Harper’s Weekly after the battle while he lay dying from his wound.  The Harper’s article was also printed in Lt. Mann’s hometown newspaper, the Goshen Democrat, after the Lieutenant succumbed to his wound and died on January 15, 1891.  My mother’s 1977 article in The Goshen News summarized Lt. Mann’s interview by the Harper’s correspondent as follows:

“Lt. Mann was lying on his back with a bullet through his body.  The young officer grew stern when he got to the critical part of his story.  Lt. Mann said, ‘I saw three or four young bucks drop their blankets and I saw they were armed.’  ‘Be ready to fire men,’ I said, ‘there is trouble.’  There was an instant and then we heard firing in the center of the Indians. ‘Fire,’ I shouted, and we poured it into them.”

 

There is still disagreement among historians as to who fired the first shot.  My mother’s article relates that a gun accidentally went off while Indians were being disarmed by the government troopers.  Lt. Mann blamed “an old medicine man” for stirring up “the bucks”.  Although the Indians were surrounded by heavily armed government forces, Lt. Mann claimed that the medicine man stoked defiance and the Indians believed they were invulnerable to the bullets of the whites because they wore “ghost shirts … painted with magic symbols.”

Whoever fired the first shot, as my mother’s article notes, the result was that federal soldiers killed around 300 Sioux, mostly women and children.

 

As far as I know, no one from my family had made a pilgrimage to the place where our ancestor was shot while participating in the massacre.  The epiphany I had while studying my map over the course of my solitary breakfast in Keystone, South Dakota was that I should be the first.  Perhaps a pilgrimage to Wounded Knee by a descendent of Lt. Mann would qualify as some sort of atonement.

In retrospect, my “epiphany” seems more than a little presumptuous, really quite self-righteous and pretentious.  But it felt right at the time.  Plus, I figured a pilgrimage to Wounded Knee would relieve the anomie and alienation of Sturgis.

 

It is shocking and dispiriting to see first-hand the land the U.S. government “gave” the Lakota, Oglala, and Rosebud Sioux for their reservations in the Badlands.  We didn’t even reserve all the land for the tribes, because the government also cut out a major chunk of the Badlands for Badlands National Park.

This was the first time I had seen this part of America, southwest South Dakota.  Driving across this stark and bleak land, so different in its dry and rocky grayness from the rolling green of my Midwestern homeland, it seemed like it must have been a cruel inhumane joke of the government to have “reserved” this land for the Sioux people.  The cruelty of the joke seemed especially poignant as I drove through Custer County.

While there is beauty in the land to some eyes, it has to be indisputable that the Badlands are one of the most inhospitable areas in North America to human existence.  The landscape was harsh, grim, and the August heat was terribly oppressive as I motored along State Road 40; too hot to enjoy the convertible top down.  It was bad, yeah man, it was a bad land.

The cruelty of the joke on the Sioux manifested itself in another way as I drove on.  State Road 40 was a rough but decently paved and maintained road angling southeast from Keystone toward the Pine Ridge Reservation.  When it became a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) road, it ceased to be paved.  Smackity smackity — poor Goldie endured forty miles of gravel whacking her undercarriage and wheel wells as we motored across the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Pavement appeared again when we entered the Badlands National Park.

The sole ranger at Badlands National Park Visitors Center looked the part in his green Parks Service uniform.  He was tall, lanky, and had the weather-beaten but reliable look of Gary Cooper.  He told me I might be disappointed visiting Wounded Knee.  He laconically explained that “there’s not much there.”  Turned out, he was right.  But then, there wasn’t much there anywhere in the Badlands.

 

On the east side of the road at the site of the massacre were a couple forlorn booths with beaded belts, necklaces, and other handcrafts for sale.  An old Indian in a stained white t-shirt with a Fruehauf Truck cap shading his eyes was asleep on a metal folding-chair behind one booth.  A couple kids played in the dirt beside the other booth.  On the west side of the road was a circular-shaped wood and concrete building.  It was the headquarters for the American Indian Movement (“AIM”).

Inside, the walls were covered with posters and propaganda for AIM.  There were testaments to Russell Means and Leonard Peltier.  There were newspaper articles and scrapbooks about the demonstrations, minor insurrections, and violence perpetrated against and by AIM.  The sparsely furnished interior had a long counter with an aged metal cash register, rickety tables with T-shirts, books, and handmade trinkets for sale.  There were no artifacts to commemorate the massacre at Wounded Knee.  Only a couple dusty books on a display table referenced the tragic history ending with the 1890 slaughter of mostly defenseless Indians.

 

Behind the building were two small hillock-like mounds.  On top of each mound was a small cemetery.  I looked around both graveyards, but didn’t see any monument to those who died in the Battle of Wounded Knee.  An elderly Indian wearing a faded cowboy hat, dirty jeans, and stained t-shirt was leaning against the AIM headquarters smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.  I asked him if there was a monument to those who were killed at Wounded Knee by the U.S. Cavalry.  He looked me up and down without expression.  Then, he pointed toward a fenced area of about ten feet by six feet near the back of the closest cemetery to the AIM building.  I thanked him.  He made no reply.

Within the fenced area was a six-foot high granite monument with names of victims and a description of the massacre.  Although my mother’s article reported 300 of the 350 Sioux at Wounded Knee were killed, I counted fewer than 40 names on the monument.  The skull of a horned steer rested at the base of the monument.  There was some broken pottery, a few faded flowers, ribbons, and a couple fake gold tokens scattered around the base of the monument beside the weather-beaten skull.

 

I placed two stones on top of the steer’s skull.  I wanted to think of it as an offering of symbolic atonement.  The gesture was ridiculously presumptuous.  I did it anyway.

I had purchased the rocks for one dollar each from two Oglala Sioux kids at the intersection of two gravel roads within Pine Ridge Reservation.  Their father told me he wanted to “encourage entrepreneurship” among his kids.  Apparently, the only goods and services the father and sons could come up with as an entrepreneurial venture were rocks.  Dad told me the kids find rocks, polish them, and sell the shiny stones at road intersections in the reservation.

That the father and his sons were trying to sell rocks to passersby seemed both brave and sad to me.  Brave and sad also described what I had learned of the Sioux resistance to the irresistible force of the whites’ sweep across the Great Plains.  It seemed appropriate to give back those two brave and sad little stones to the land my ancestors had taken from the Sioux.

________________

Copyright 2012, Jeff Rasley

World of Words: February’s Whose Brain Is It, a monthly neuroscience column by Leena Prasad

 

 

 

 

Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how some parts of the brain work.

 

World of Words

Wendy has to stay at home with her mother while her siblings go to Universal Studios with their father. She is recovering from flu and her parents want her to take it easy. She is unhappy about the situation and sulks as her siblings go off to have a day of fun.

But when her siblings return from their adventure, Wendy is flush with excitement and does not even notice them. Her mother has given her a story book set inIndia. Wendy lives in a small town in theUS, nearLos Angeles. She is 15-yrs-old and has just started to discover the cultures of other countries. A particular scene in one of the stories fires up her imagination “a rainbow of colors swirled in the air and she closed her eyes just before the red-yellow-blue-green-purple powders landed on her white shirt.”

Wendy is engrossed in the exotic scenes in the book and her brain is having an adventure that’s comparable to that of her siblings’. The meaning of the sentences, paragraphs, and the entire narrative, is parsed by language processing centers in the brain called Broca’s area in the frontal lobe and Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobe.  For a long time, neuroscientist understood that Broca’s area is used for reading aloud and for producing language and that Wernicke’s is used for comprehension. But, according to studies cited in the New York Times and study results published in an article in the Harvard Crimson, Broca’s area is used for comprehension also.

The processing does not end once the meaning of the words is parsed. Some of the other regions that are involved in further analysis are motor and somatosensory cortexes. These areas catapult the experience from beyond the understanding of the story and characters into simulating the experience for the reader. It’s not exactly like the 4D simulation of Universal Studios, but it is much more individualized than the rides at the amusement park and can entertain longer depending on the length of the story being read.

Per neuroscience studies cited in the book Words to Brain and in a New York Times article, the actions of characters in Wendy’s book activate the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex in the frontal lobe.  The motor cortex, as the name implies, sends signals to other parts of the body for the coordination of movements, like walking, dancing, eating, etc. The somatosensory cortex manages the sensations of touching. Other parts of the brain are also engaged in the process of simulating the reading experience and more research is being done to comprehend the details.

When Wendy’s imagination recreates the scenes and the experiences of the characters, her brain experiences the event as if the scene had occurred in front of her or perhaps even to her. As she reads about the Indian festival of holi, her mind’s eye sees the colorful powders falling, the smile people dresses in white, the colors landing on their clothes…The words on the page activate her brain in a similar manner that it would be activated had she been part of the story.

Neuroscientists are only beginning to study the biological basis of the power of reading but good storytellers have known how to exploit it for centuries. Most avid fiction readers are familiar with the experience of getting lost in a story filled with compelling emotions, evocative scenes, and hypnotic storyline. Of course, the success of a story in achieving movement and sensory activation of the brain is dependent on the skill of the writer in communicating the narrative to the reader. As the characters move around slyly and playfully, filling up water guns with colored water or their hands with colored powder, Wendy experiences the scene only as vibrantly as the author is able to recreate it.

 

topic words
regions Broca’s area, Wernicke’s Area, motor cortex,
somatosensory cortex, and other regions

 

Upcoming…

March:  aphasia, a disorder in producing and comprehending words

 

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at http://www.FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at http://www.WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology fromHarvardUniversityand has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.

 

References:

  1. The New York Times. Your Brain On Fiction, March 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html
  2. Blackburne, Livia. From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?).
  3. The Harvard Crimson. Broca’s Area May Have New Function, October 19, 2009. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2009/10/19/language-brain-brocas-word/
  4. Pub Med. Broca’s area plays a role in syntactic processing during Chinese reading comprehension, April 2008, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18255103

“Spore Suite”: A poem by Teri Louise Kelly

SPORE SUITE

 

1.

Twisted like acid

Drops

My heart is a sanitary pad

No tears fall

In the desert of my soul

The wind howls

A serenade

My bones chime

Walking this empty land.

 

2.

Not fucked up,

Fucked down,

down to the pit

where beasts eat

& bodies squirm

where the pain is ecstasy

& the genocide reins

where sins multiply

& gargoyles laugh at impurity,

this hell you talk of,

exists within,

go to it,

consume its madness,

shit out its knowledge.

 

3.

Talk to me

through the bars,

I don’t bite,

listen to my words,

set me free,

hide me in

your chastity.

 

4.

Vomiting up boredom

pissing in the gutter

of dead end street

on another frail night;

shooting blanks into

another empty void;

needing nothing

wanting everything

fucking anything

drinking anything

chords & ropes & bells

& fists & boots & blood,

living here is ugly

in a beautiful way,

i was born on the tracks

run over by life.

 

5.

Those tenements of love we erected,

from bricks of lust & want,

crumbled in the tempest,

turning slowly to slums,

where bare-footed dwellers

& beggars, traded piety

for ammunition.

We could only sit and watch the fall,

stoned and inebriated,

through vacant eyes;

staring down wasteland promises

& shopping cart truths

wheeled through desolation

by promiscuous cunts

& vagabond slags.

We shed our clothes & our skin,

scoured rubble for clues,

until our bones bled;

builders we were,

Shakespearean sots,

architects of our own demise.

 

6.

Stilled by a bad blood transfusion;

thorazine shuffles toward identity crisis

inter-species communion, cerebral destitution

juice extraction – high-pitched screams

battery acid lozenges

creaking fairground rides

a non-ferrous  smile before you leap,

Out in the garden it/s raining ash

the running men sport surgical masks

jump-starting burned-out wrecks;

Beating hours on dead skin drums

with shinbone sticks

Re-winding time – re-engineering a house of pain stay

to meet all your serum needs

in pathos one they’re cooking spores,

spreading the word via pot-bellied microwaves

I can’t make it out on my own,

the exits are tied with intestinal tract,

the box is dead; the despot hung

All I got left to do, is sit here numb,

Dye my mind blonde

blend in with the pale-faced mob

as they run rampage

down dead clown alley

again tonight.

 

7.

despise it with a passion,

that four letter word,

loathe its manipulative device,

the way it blinds & corrupts,

spreads septic disease

tortures & kills romance

asphyxiates lust,

breeds infidelity;

that incestuous courtship it nurtures,

murders independence,

drags its swastika from the bedroom

to the courtroom.

Swaggering through lives

with bastard bravado,

& illegitimate sentiment,

bludgeoning honesty

coveting deceit;

love is a plague,

to which we all succumb . . .

 

8.

Let go or hold on,

watch the masks dissolve

the facts dissipate

in the murky gloom of innuendo

a moment dies

another is born,

there are no steps to retrace

no prints to track

this is the void between truth or dare,

the blurred line;

& you can stand or fall,

live or die,

on the strength of three words,

one heart,

two lies.