Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

Catherine Bell, Rush of Shadows

RoS cover

Catherine Bell. Rush of Shadows. Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2014. 367 pp $17.95 Available in Kindle.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1941551025/?tag=mh0b-20&hvadid=7004748657&hvqmt=e&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_12v02jy409_e

Winner of the WWPH Fiction Prize, Rush of Shadows is the debut novel for Harvard- and Stanford grad Catherine Bell (“Gull,” GHLL XXIV [2013]). It’s an impressive start. The New Englander takes as her subject the relationship of two exiled women, one a white Southerner and one a “Digger” (Paiute) Indian, in the wake of the California Gold Rush and in the runup to the Civil War, though, significantly, these national agonies, while mentioned, hardly amount even to a backdrop for the ten years of failed good intentions the novel covers.

 

The absence has a very different effect from Jane Austen’s bizarre silence about the defining event of her characters’ lifetimes, the Napoleonic Wars, where their obliviousness prods us to ask whether these are trivial people, or whether real lives actually have rather little to do with global events. It’s the book’s key strength. In lesser hands, an account of how-genocide-works could have defaulted into political/moral/cultural shadowplay. The novel is most striking in its ability to invoke the universal without compromising particularity. We find out, for example, only in the final pages the actual location of these events, and a little Wikipediation reveals it’s a real place with an extraliterary history still ahead of the events related here. We learn too the full name of the protagonist’s husband, which foregrounds the significance of a nickname that might otherwise seem ham-handedly allegorical. This evidently deliberate and strategic reticence has the effect of rendering both husband and hamlet at once emblematic and very real, quite particular (as a sidenote: there’s much to admire too in Bell’s ethnographic, historical and linguistic precision. There’s rarely a false note in the mid nineteenth century idiom, and the casually and credibly deployed knowledge of Indian language and lifeways never calls attention to itself). Mellie and Bahé (not her real name, which is shared with no one, a compelling correlative of the final unbridgeability of privilege) are the playthings of larger powers and purposes; if a tonal antecedent were sought, it would probably be Hardy, though nothing in the book is as superciliously sardonic as “The President of the Immortals had finished his sport with Tess.”

 

It is a Western of course, and interacts with that tradition, which is always said to be on the brink of extinction and also poised for a revival. Historical fictions, we know further, are always about the present (we could go into very deep stuff here with Borges’ “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote”). But this has as well the feel of Willa Cather’s writing of a past definitely past but not at all remote, the consequences of these events still with us, still unfolding (another echo, this one from Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) I wonder how intentional are the linkages to Shadows on the Rock (a widowed physician’s daughter, living a life of colonial privation, reaching for relationship in a world defined by male readiness, even eagerness for conflict). It’s also got something of My Antonía, in its focus on female strength and endurance in a world where the men are primarily troublesome, and entirely convinced of their own centrality. One of the set-pieces is a childbirth, in which the heroic male who in more than one sense brought this mess into being is worse than useless, and not in an endearing, sitcom way. The most enduring and destructive theme of the classic western, the renewal of society through violence, is not even given leave to stand on the carpet, hat in hand, making its shabby case. Whereas the women achieve little more than adult acceptance of despair – and there’s considerable dignity in that -- the male narrative ends up hobbling ineffectually on one leg.

 

The woman-centered story offers an antidote both to all the toxic Man-Against-the-Wilderness clichés and the condescending ranch romances of Louis Lamour (Shane is the only time that was ever well done. Maybe Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”). It is indeed a story of loneliness in a hostile environment, but the pain is entirely unnecessary. There’s no glorious West being Won here. Nor will the women become bosom friends. They will not come to a warm understanding that transcends the boundaries of language, culture, greed and testosterone, but they do repeat a sacrament of silence and sorrow, and there’s something to that. There are no facile balances, equivalencies, mirrorings. The two women learn to work together, though there is an asymmetrical responsibility for the universal harm inevitably descending. Those who have no use for, or perhaps understanding of the doctrine of Original Sin might get a taste of it here. There is much talk of poison, both literal and in the more encompassing sense captured in the phrase “bad medicine.”

 

I saw Bahé with her head cropped and smeared with ash, saw the thin children, the listless men. I had done evil. What had evil to do with meaning or intention? The world closed down around me. Why had I ever come here? What excuse could there ever be for me?

 

It’s not doctrinaire. Bahé does not disconfirm Mellie’s awareness that her participation in White gain implicates her in the crimes that won it, but she also affirms the value of individual personhood.

“That sickness,” she said. “We took it to you. Matthew and I.”

“Took it?”

“Poisoned you.”

“Poison? You?” Bahé laughed the hurt out of her belly. It had long been known that sickness followed the whites, but this woman was no witch. Could she be ignorant that sickness does not come without evil spirits?

 

Mellie is not a pampered ninny, though there are background characters who sound those traditional notes (there was a point when I was prepared to criticize some of the really flamboyant racists here as caricatures, and then I remembered what one routinely reads in the comments section of just about any online news story). Bahé is a thorny personality with a few prejudices of her own. Now, while it’s no buddy-picture, there are some Huck-n-Jim moments:

“People can’t be equal,” I said, “if some aren’t free.”

She shrugged. “Not free?”

“Not able to choose for themselves.”

“They dead then?”

Sometimes it was hopeless talking to Bahé.

 

It’s no heartwarming tale. Dread is the serious sibling of suspense, and it governs this book. Given the setting, it’s no spoiler to note that some very bad things happen. Bell’s narration is at its austere best in just these moments. But if it lacks easy and overt triumph, it is very far from depressing. Decency is possible and worthwhile, just not omnipotent. It’s a good writer who can lead you credibly through that lived lesson.

 

 

Adam Brooke Davis teaches folklore, medieval studies, writing and linguistics at Truman State University.  He has published fiction, poetry, essays and scholarship, and serves as managing editor of GHLL.