History, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has amply demonstrated, is just another corridor in the labyrinth of man's self-imagining. Historical novels--oxymoronic creatures that they are--enter that labyrinth by the back door. In "Shoshone Mike," Frank Bergon has imagined brilliantly, with painstaking detail, one of the last sordid episodes in America's long genocidal campaign against the American Indian.
In 1911, enraged by the deaths of a white rancher and two Basque shepherds, a posse led by the Nevada State Police tracked down and massacred an isolated band of Hukandeka, or Northern Shoshone. The event is fact. Curiously, however, like the massacre of the banana workers in Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the slaughter of the family of Shoshone Mike has been excised from history texts. In the self-portrait America has chosen to paint with words, this episode has no existence.
With exhaustive research--through interviews with survivors and their descendants, newspaper files, state documents, Indian agency records, and other means--Bergon has re-created this moment in American history. With the author, we come to know very well Sheriff Graham Lamb, the law of Winnemucca, Nev., and the only character in the novel to understand what is taking place, that the Indians are being exterminated simply because they are in the way. Bergon does a splendid job of putting us in the sheriff's boots as he walks the muddy streets of a mining-and-cattle town that dreams wistfully of making itself the state capital. A case of arrested development epitomizing the West at the turn of the century, Lamb's town aspires toward sophistication while simultaneously celebrating a kind of muscular and hormonal adolescence. Violence--both physical and psychic--laps at the edge of every scene, pervasive and inescapable.
Bergon brings the jagged, desolate environment of this lost part of the nation to the forefront of his story. The characters seem possessed by landscape, by the emptiness, coldness, and sheer inhumanity of the place that at the same time invites escape and promises despair. Somewhere far off, across the desert or the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is another world where people feel secure and wise, but in Winnemucca, Bergon's characters drift alone through what seems perpetual winter, communing with themselves and eyeing the empty places.
Shifting his narrative focus, Bergon allows us to travel with the family of Shoshone Mike, one of the few Hukandeka who refused to live on starvation rations on the reservation and who tried to re-imagine the world as it had been. Living in the mountains, telling coyote stories and hunting with arrows, Shoshone Mike's band runs inevitably afoul of the ranchers who have claimed all of the range. Soon the family is fleeing through winter storms pursued by a posse that has carefully excluded the sympathetic Lamb.
With a prose style as unembellished as the landscape he describes, Bergon has created a powerful novel. That his historical--"real"--characters step quickly into the realm of cliche does not detract from the force of this story. Lamb is the big, strong, gentle-but-forceful and sympathetic sheriff we all remember from "Gunsmoke." Lamb's wife, Nellie, is the frustrated and slightly shrewish housewife pining for culture at the edge of civilization. The novel's priest is still more frustrated, confronting the barbarism of the late frontier with a kind of helpless twitching. Shoshone Mike, for all his compromises with Anglo culture early in the novel, is a Fenimore Cooper stoic, courageous and mostly silent.
Bergon has written a novel about America, about the way we imagine who and where we are. That the Shoshone people in this novel inhabit fictional spaces in the imaginations of the whites who murder them is entirely appropriate. And that the sheriff and other characters become equally recognizable fictions tells us much about the idea of the West that allowed such horrors not only to take place but to disappear from the texts of America's collective memory. Shoshone Mike sums up this fiction-making impulse when he tells a government agent, "You people all the time are trying to make things different from the way they are. . . . You make up names like Po-ca-tel-lo and Sho-sho-ne and then you think they're real. All the time you make up Indian words and tell us they're our words. We're not children. We have our own words. . . ." Words and the worlds they create don't match. The result is disaster. Bergon tells his story well.