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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

The Many Sides of an American Tragedy

PUSHING THE BEAR by Diane Glancy Harcourt Brace $22, 241 pages

September 02, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"From October 1838 through February 1839, some 11,000 to 13,000 Cherokee walked 900 miles in bitter cold from the Southeast to Indian Territory. One-fourth died or disappeared along the way."

With these two simple sentences, Diane Glancy both introduces and summarizes her first novel, a many-voiced chronicle of the "Trail of Tears," the forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee by President Andrew Jackson's administration.

Glancy's telling of the story, however, is anything but simple. Of Cherokee and German-English descent, she is the poet laureate of the Five Civilized Tribes as well as the author of two volumes of essays and three of short stories, including "Trigger Dance." Within the novelistic framework, "Pushing the Bear" retains the complexity, immediacy and indirection of a poem.

"I knew this wasn't going to be a good Indian/bad white man story," Glancy says in an afterword. "You know there has to be both sides in each."

Multiple sides, actually--a cacophony of speakers, young and old, wise and foolish, brutal and compassionate. Glancy also includes excerpts from eyewitness accounts, contracts for wagons and supplies, letters by literate Cherokee seeking compensation for their lost farms and homes, fatuous speculation by ministers that the hardships of the trail may be "worth it" if more Cherokee are driven to convert to Christianity.

This documentation, in its humdrum exactitude and, often, its moral blindness, has much the effect of the slave owners' journal William Faulkner simulated in "The Bear," with its mix of comic misspellings and chillingly casual acceptance of the idea that human beings can be bought and sold.

The bear the Cherokee "push" on the trail is a metaphorical animal. In the words of Glancy's central character, Maritole--a woman whose baby and parents die, who is estranged from her husband, accepts help and love from a white soldier and is ostracized for it--the bear stands for despair, the "terrible weight" of meaninglessness that is even worse than physical suffering.

The Cherokee had tried, more than other tribes, to adopt white people's ways. They had a written language (a syllabary of which Glancy provides). They farmed, built cabins, got baptized. Some owned slaves. Maritole's husband, Knobowtee, notes that Cherokee "men had taken the power from the women," who had traditionally allocated the tribe's farmland, "to emulate the white man, to show we could also dominate."

Despite this effort at assimilation, the Cherokee were ethnically cleansed from lands they identified with themselves, a specific natural world reflected in their language, religion, songs, stories and medicine. Struggling across Tennessee, Kentucky, southern Illinois, Missouri, a corner of Arkansas and present-day eastern Oklahoma, Glancy's characters worry not only about how they will survive in their new home without tools, seed or draft animals--"How plow?" the men say. "With our fingers? Feet? Just speak our voice?"--but about whether they will still spiritually exist as a people.

The Cherokee ask: What words, what stories, what combination of old and new faiths, can make sense of such a dislocation? What mix of grief, anger, resignation and hope can possibly see them through?

These questions are at the heart of "Pushing the Bear." We may long sometimes for the drama of, say, Howard Fast's novel "Cheyenne Autumn," but that was a different story, a story of flight and battle. The Trail of Tears is slow, grinding tragedy. Old people and children die of pneumonia. Wagons full of the sick plunge through Ohio River ice. Bare feet leave bloody prints in the snow.

The drama, such as it is, happens within. Glancy does it justice in a work whose very restraint and evenhandedness make it a powerful witness to one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

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