Saturday, June 10, 2017

Them Bones: Our Catfish Friend Shows Us the Way

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Howard Waldrop, Them Bones, 70-73, 92-96:

Back in 1929, we rejoin archaeologist Bessie and her colleagues on the verge (and, later, in the midst) of a terrible storm, the kind of downpour familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Deep South. Waldrop slowly builds up the atmospherics: high wind, darkening skies, flashes of lightning, promises from the site director to call the governor and keep the upstream floodgates open. Finally a great “gray slab of rain” bursts over the bayou and rolls into the campsite (72). Just before the storm breaks an apparition, a silent man in patched trousers and a tall hat, appears at the edge of camp. William, the chief workman, identifies the newcomer as Bob Basket. Mr. Basket is an Indian who has come to “take one last look” at the mounds. Perhaps he knows something about the coming storm that Bessie does not?

Later, as Bessie and William and the other workmen take shelter from the downpour, Bob Basket tells them about his people (the Choctaws, I presume) and their relationship with the mounds. Six generations ago a three-year-long rainstorm inundated his ancestors’ homeland killing crops and animals and threatening to drown them. They were saved by a giant, totemic catfish, who led Basket’s ancestors to the site of Bessie’s archaeological dig. There the refugees settled, and grew their crops, and lived until the waters receded.

Then things got weird. The mounds, the Indians’ crops, and their canoes all shrank to the size of toys. Basket’s ancestors gathered their shrunken possessions and headed back upriver to their old settlements, to start over. I have read this novel a half-dozen times, and I still can’t figure out the meaning of this development. Perhaps Waldrop is giving Basket’s ancestors a vision of a future in which their temporary home became a museum diorama? Few of us in the modern era have other ways of relating to the Mound-Builder generation.

At the end of Basket’s story, the rain stops. Bessie steps out of the tent into the muddy campground, surveys the dig, and sees a large, slightly depressed area adjoining the three main mounds. A light goes on in her head: “There was some kind of settlement here,” she says (96). No-one is listening, however: the workmen have dozed off and Bob Basket, as mysteriously as he appeared, has vanished.

The storyteller thus becomes one of this section’s disappointments: a cliched “vanishing Indian,” an apparition who moves silently in and out of scenes, tells a story to enlighten one of the main (white) characters, and disappears completely from the narrative. Basket’s implicit message to us is that the Indians of Mississippi belong to the past, which was far from the case in 1929 and far from true today - several Choctaw communities have stood in eastern Mississippi since the Removal era. Perhaps Waldrop didn’t come across this detail in his research; I suspect it wasn’t well known in the early 1980s. Still, it adds an unnecessary bit of melodrama to a story whose strength lies in its historical realism.*

Coming next: The Music People. 

*Even if that sometimes takes the form of magic realism.

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