Review of the Day: Geronimo
I'm reading a lot of nice new books these days, but I couldn't help but notice how most of them were WASPy WASPy. Had to get a little Joseph Bruchac into the mix just to spice it up. Now this wasn't his best work, to my eyes, but it was definitely better written than most of the stuff circulating on bookshelves today.
By and large, you shouldn't start a review of a book by saying that you, the reviewer, are an idiot. Just the same, I am an idiot. Why am I an idiot? Because I'm fairly certain that I've been walking around as a full-fledged children's librarian, all my credentials in place, while thinking that Joseph Bruchac was Michael Dorris. This is a pretty good litmus test of idiocy. Just now, JUST now, I went to Amazon.com to confirm that Bruchac had written, "Sees Behind Trees". Imagine my shock when I discovered that for years now I've been giving credit to the wrong danged guy. Now I did read and enjoy Bruchac's, "A Boy Called Slow" years and years ago, but that does little to offset my embarrassment. In any case, I've read a Bruchac book now and I've come away with it with mixed feelings. Telling the tale of the great Geronimo's life through the eyes of a fictional grandson, Bruchac has meticulously researched and lovingly drawn a portrait of this impressive figure. His book is full of factual information and heartbreaking detail and life. Unfortunately, the first half makes for a very dry read. If kids can get through it and proceed on to the second, they'll find themselves more than adequately rewarded by the tale's end. A great but mixed read.
Little Foot was adopted as a kind of grandson to the great warrior Geronimo when his parents were killed in a Mexican raid many years ago. Over time he has stood by his Apache people, finally standing down to the American army when Geronimo surrenders with the feeling that they should fight no more. En masse the Apaches are taken from their homes in Arizona and sent by train to Florida as prisoners of war. Through Little Foot's eyes we see the history and betrayal of the Apache people. Their inordinate trust in a white government bent on their destruction. How they watched as their children were sent far far away to the infamous Carlisle Indian School (and subsequently killed by the school's diseases). Finally, we view Geronimo's life in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and his constant yearning to return home. Jumping backwards and forwards in time, readers get a well-rounded view of Geronimo's life and a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the lies people told (and still tell) about him.
The book is an excellent antidote to such ill-prepared Native American titles as, "My Heart Is On the Ground" and its ilk. With Bruchac you are in safe hands. Well-researched and fairly bursting with an overabundance of factual information, the story is fiction but it reads like fact. The author knows enough to write some humor, even in the bleakest of moments, into the tale. Better still, you really do come to care for Geronimo and Little Foot. Even the magical realism, which is a bit off-putting in such a realistic novel, is handled with grace. Now there are problems with this book, but they aren't simple mistakes. I dare say Bruchac never puts a word out of place or a sentence out of alignment. What he says is always the best way OF saying something. Unfortunately, I didn't think it all needed to be said. Put in plain English, the book bored me sometimes. We're watching a story that begins when Geronimo and his people step onto a train that is taking them far far from their home. It ends when his grandson returns to his tribe and Geronimo at long last. In between, however, Bruchac has a hard time with continuity. That's facetious of me to say. Of course he knows exactly what he's doing. It just doesn't happen to work. What the book does, right from the beginning, is engage in constant shifts between the present, the past, and the future (if you deem the train time "the present"). Not only is this confusing but it draws out a story that could be more fascinating than it's presented. The train details are great. The stories of Geronimo's life are great. But when you get to page 174 and the characters are STILL on the train, you begin to worry that the action will remain permanently bogged down. It doesn't, of course. Halfway through the book it picks up and makes for a great read. It's just that first half that's the difficult slog.
Also, it's very difficult to care for a book when after every happy moment you have to deal with a chapter that closes with a variation on, "What they did ended up sending us all on this endless train journey toward the dawn, a journey that would have no destination for many of us other than disease, despair, and death". Even when it looks like things are perking up or that the Apache might have a little happiness in store, that hope is swiftly crushed with lines like, "I did not know how wrong I was". Obviously this isn't a happy-go-lucky tale and Bruchac DOES balance his woe with as much cheer as he can honestly muster. Though some Indians were sent to Florida in trains without even so much as bathroom facilities (a fact Little Foot is careful to mention), Bruchac mentions this and then gives his own characters slightly better fare. There are funny stories here and amusing anecdotes and jokes. I just wish a little more care could have been taken with the countless bleak chapter closing sentences.
But in the end the book rises above such flaws. I would certainly not hand it to any reluctant readers and you should not purchase this title under the mistaken apprehension that it's a non-fiction biography. Bruchac notes right there on the cover that it's a novel. It's often painful, often heartbreaking, and always interesting. It takes an especially skilled author to bring together a story based on real life that has as great a sense of closure as "Geronimo". Bruchac is so skilled. And then some.