Hitting the road with a trunk full of your newly published books is a great way to 1) see parts of the country you've only seen out the window of a plane, 2) eat food you've never heard of, and 3) find out what your best stuff is really made of.
Not to worry about the last item. Citizens in that other America, those same fatalistic Missouri Senate Lutherans you met in Willa Cather novels and Ted Kooser poems in freshman lit, are some of the nicest folks you'll ever meet. In a lot of those small towns in Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, the fact that you got there, under your own power, is, in and of itself, front page news in the local newspaper. At your reading that night they'll be happy to tell you what they think, but unlike some of their urban counterparts, they'll gush about the things they like, and they'll be painfully polite about the things they don't. Politeness is encoded in their DNA. Picture them sitting quietly on neat rows of folding chairs at the grange or the VFW, ankles crossed, backs straight, hands clasped loosely in their laps. For the next hour or two, they're yours!
But don't make the mistake of looking in their eyes. Those expressionless glares can unhinge your self-confidence as quickly as a registered letter from the IRS. One glance at that sea of blank faces and you think — I'm bombing. Now, your last best hope is to make it to the 'question and answer' period. But even that relief is short lived! Invariably, a verbal rocket, no, a meteor, unleashed by the oldest lady in the room, roars out of the left quadrant of the galaxy and comes straight at your forehead.
I remember just such a moment at the Smithsonian, in Washington D.C. Carlos Pienado, a Mandan/Hidatsa native from North Dakota, and his partner Daphane Ross, are film makers who produced a beautiful documentary called Waterbuster, a film that paralleled the story (and interviewed many of the characters) I wrote about in my book Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation (Little Brown, 2004). The trail of success for both the film and the book has led us to venues, large and small, all over the United States. Along the way, Carlos and I visited a number of cities and towns in the 'big empty' of the upper mid-west, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southwest. Large, enthusiastic crowds (500 qualifies as large in the Dakotas) greeted us at every stop. In time, the word spread and raced ahead of us, resulting in an invitation to the Smithsonian's National Museum for the American Indian on the mall in Washington D.C. By the time we rolled into Washington D.C., our shtick, as they say, was dialed in. We were a well-oiled machine.
Waterbuster tells the story of Carlos' family's search for identity after their world — and the ancestral homelands of many thousands of native people on the Great Plains — was destroyed by Pick-Sloan dams built on the Missouri River in the 1950s. Carlos' family (and tribes) not only lost their homes and land, they were subsequently forced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move to urban centers on the west coast in a federal program called Relocation — a travesty of federal ineptitude and cultural cynicism that I investigated extensively in Coyote Warrior. Surprise surprise! Relocation just happened to be administered by a guy named Dillon Myer, the same racist autocrat who set up and ran the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Coyote Warrior and Waterbuster tell the story of Relocation from the eye of that storm, and witness the devastation it left in its wake.
As one might expect, the film was wonderfully received by the crowd at the Smithsonian. Waves of applause swept us to the front of the auditorium as the lights came up. Questions started popping beneath waving hands. After repeating this in twenty or thirty venues, the questions become somewhat threadbare, and the answers canned. How long did it take you to make this film? Where do you live now? What made you want to write the book? What happened to your uncle, the guy on the horse who got stranded in the ice floes at the beginning of the film? Questions like those, reasonable and understandable. Then came the zinger, one we'd never heard before, from an elderly woman at the back of the auditorium.
"You've done such a beautiful job telling your grandmother's story," she began. "I'm ashamed to say had no idea all of this happened. But what I really want to know is, where did you find so many articulate Indians?"
What can you say? The answer to that is — well, there really isn't one! You do your best to fumble through a diplomatic response and hope you don't make the guest appear more idiotic than they already have, which is not always easy. A similar thing happened to us in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when a college professor at the University of North Dakota stood up and explained that she was deeply moved by the film, but she wondered when someone was going to tell the story of the thousands of white people who were also devastated by Pick-Sloan?
"The reason I ask," she finally explained, "is because my family was destroyed by Pick-Sloan. We were fourth-generation homesteaders. My great-great-grandfather came from Sweden and built our farm from scratch. When we found out we were going to lose everything, I was a little girl. Six of our family members, my aunts and uncles, went out behind the barn and committed suicide rather than give it all up to the flood. And they weren't the only ones. Who's going to tell their story?"
Questions like hers leave me speechless, adrift in quandry. I think of something appropriate to say an hour later, after we've had pie at the local diner and we're driving back to the motel past the now-darkened windows of the grange — it comes to me then. But not at the moment. The moment finds me humbled and astonished and flushed with compassion for the real people of America, the everyday Joes and Sallys living their lives in urban boroughs or sleeply little backwater towns — just trying to make the best of things. After all, isn't that why we do this thing called writing, to tell great stories and hit the road with a trunk full of books so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and connect with our readers and other strangers on their home turf in fleeting moments that lift the gloom?
I think so. It is for me, anyway. The moral to this little story is pretty straightforward. If you wanna be a writer, and you wanna tell tales that open old wounds, brace yourself for blowback (in many forms) when you hit the road. Be prepared to be a lightning rod for the hopes, sorrows, and joys of total strangers. And don't pass up the walleye platter at the Scenic Restaurant in New Town, North Dakota. Like the buffalo tacos at the Bison Café in Ravalli, Montana, it's the real deal.