Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hanta Yo

I haven't done a lot of reading in recent years because I have spent every spare minute writing. Prior to this writing frenzy, I was a 3- to 7-books-a-month reader. Now that I have more free time, I'm trying to add reading back into my daily routine.

Some people never re-read a book. I am not one of them.  If I haven't read a book at least twice, I didn't like it much. There are several books I've read many times. I keep going back to them because I love them. Re-reading them is like visiting an old friend who is familiar, and yet each time I visit I see something I didn't see before. I understand something new about the story because I am reading it from a different perspective.

The book I've read more times than any other (not counting certain Dr. Seuss books read aloud to children night after night for weeks at a time) is a book called Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebe Hill. It is a novel set in the Great Plains at the time when white people and the Lakota bands first made contact, following the lives of two Lakota friends through their amazing lives. I don't know how accurate the story is as to the actual day-to-day life of the Lakota people (I seriously doubt it's accurate at all). The general trajectory of the history as to the tragedies that attended the American westward expansion is generally accurate, as far as I know. It isn't one of those Indians-are-good-and-white-people-are-bad stories. There are some really bad-assed Lakota and the story at least holds out the possibility that there could be white people of good will.

For me it doesn't matter if the novel is historically accurate in its depiction of the native Americans or the Americans who stole their land. My love for the story arises out of two things: first, the beauty of the language in which the story is written; and, second, the sense of tension, confusion and bewilderment of people who are living in a world that they know is dying.

I have always felt that the culture I live in is very much like the the Lakota's world in this story: it is doomed and there is nothing we can do to stop the changes. All we can do is to learn to live in a new way. The characters know they can't go back to the way things were before. They know that if they make wrong choices, disaster could befall them. They also know they can't stay in one place, so they have to make those hard choices. The 21st Century American reader knows that in the end the traditional Lakota way of life will be destroyed and that the whites will barely notice -- and not care if they do notice. What never fails to intrigue me is that embedded in the story is the barest of hints that something of the beauty of the Lakota way of life will survive on the land, even if it is hidden and dormant, along with the corresponding hint that someday another people will discover that it could learn a lot from the Lakota culture. It is the story of conquest and empire, but it plants the seeds of hope that someday, somehow, a people will live on the land who will create a culture that incorporates the best of both native American and white cultures. I like that theme because I'm a person who believes in living in accordance with the spirit of the land you live on.

The language of the story captivates me more every time I read it. Allegedly the story was written in English and then translated into Lakota and then back into English in order to give it a rhythm and cadence that approximates Lakota speech. I don't believe that. I think that the author did what J. K. Rowling did: she created an imaginary world and then invented words and phrases and a way of speaking that enhances the mystery and magic of the story world. There are those who blast the story because it is not “historical” or “authentic” or “truthful”. I don't care about any of that. It's fiction! It can be anything it wants to be, including historically inaccurate or completely and totally imaginary – providing the reader is entertained. It is even better when the reader comes away with a nugget or two of something that is true-for-her, but that does not necessitate historical accuracy.

I have read this book seven or eight times and I've never failed to be entertained. I still cry at the sad parts and smile at the humor. I have never failed to come away with some insight into my own world that is new for me. I love a book that makes me cry as much on the eighth reading as it did on the first and from which I can learn something about my world that I didn't see before. It may not be Shakespeare, but it's my favorite novel.


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