Read Scarlet Plume, Second Edition Online

Authors: Frederick Manfred

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Scarlet Plume, Second Edition (2 page)

BOOK: Scarlet Plume, Second Edition

Her sole source of luck is the protectorship of Scarlet Plume, who helps her only covertly and who cultivates a kind of monastic devotion to her, sans romance. As a leader within the tribe, he engages in more and more religious roles—a successful diviner, a prophetic voice, a master hunter with the uncanny ability to deceive the buffalo. Eventually he facilitates her escape, saves her from multiple perils, and becomes the lover she has always wanted, until he lets her know that their idyll must end, not simply because he feels it is wrong (or at least futile) to think they can be together for the rest of their lives but because he knows that he must become a sacrificial lamb. And she is unable to persuade anyone to act to save him. The final irony is her discovery that she is carrying the child of this man who thinks that half-breeds are doomed, this man who has first been chained and condemned, then emasculated, then hanged, and whose body is finally stolen for dissection by a greedy doctor. But she is a survivor and intent upon living among the Sioux, who are at that moment fleeing imminent pursuit by the army in which her former husband is now regarded as a heroic officer. Her only triumph is that she has now escaped from those to whom she had once desired to escape. However, she does appear again, in the ninth chapter of Manfred’s
Of Lizards and Angels
(1992), as a dying old woman under the care of her son conceived with Scarlet Plume.

And Scarlet Plume—what of him? We first see him warning Judith of the impending massacre. We see him act as her advocate among his people. We see the development of his spiritual powers, his hunting skills, his powers of persuasion. We see his cunning role as Judith’s elusive protector. We observe his enthusiasm for making love. We watch him run down an antelope and single-handedly kill a puma. We observe his tender assistance with the burial of Judith’s daughter. We acknowledge his acceptance of celibacy and admire the stoicism with which he accepts his execution. But we may be utterly frustrated by his final passivity. Why does this Yankton superman not attempt to save himself for Judith?

More than one reviewer has expressed disappointment that Scarlet Plume is essentially a strong-and-silent stereotype without much beyond a surface presence—that we learn little or nothing about his motives or his intentions. He is in some ways a symbol rather than an actual human, they say. It does seem a little troubling: after all, he
the title character. Though Judith provides the point of view of the story, she is as frustrated as we are about not understanding him. If there is a single major weakness in the novel, that may be it; it may also be that if Scarlet Plume were fully explained or explainable, he would disappoint us. And if he were to exercise his full force of character, it might require a change in the story line that would ultimately make it more implausible. I think the story is strengthened by his elusiveness. Turning Scarlet Plume into a voluble prophet would get in the way of the complex net of issues the book addresses emotionally more than intellectually. Judith is enough of an intellectual for both of them, and more than one reviewer has said that she’s sometimes unbelievably intellectual at inappropriate moments.

There is the key, perhaps, to the deep and enduring appeal this book holds for so many of its readers, that it raises so many questions about so many issues. I have found myself stubbornly frustrated when someone asks me what this book is about. A plot synopsis does no good in representing it to someone. Neither does praise for the characters. The difficulty is that it’s about so many things: survival, love, war, justice, forgiveness, Yankton culture, the failings of Christianity, the hidden history of Minnesota, race hatred, miscegenation, sexual prowess, sexual intimacy, love of family, the ineffectuality of missionaries, comparative economic values, the raising of children, the futility of intellectualism.

At its core, it’s about the ways in which “heathens” can be more Christlike than Christians are, as we may see in the character of Scarlet Plume. The parallels are evident throughout. Scarlet Plume is the son of a chief regarded as especially wise and prescient. He is able to perform miracles. He has superhuman physical abilities—he may not be able to walk on water, but he can run down an antelope and become a credible wolf. He is at one with nature, and he makes it his mission to save people from harm—both his own people and his people’s enemies. He willingly suffers execution at the hands of occupying soldiers, letting himself be sacrificed for a crime he did not commit, hanged as part of a public spectacle on the day after Christmas. Scarlet Plume spends much of the story costumed as a wolf; ironically, near the beginning of the novel Judith witnesses the vicious character Jed Crydenwise crucifying a wolf and skinning it alive.

The white men we see throughout the book seem to be sadistic, ineffectually Christian, or indifferently self-serving. The Indian men, with the exception of Scarlet Plume, fall more or less into the same pattern. The same goes for most of the female characters. Maggie Utterback is as unpleasant as any in the book, and the gentle Sunflower becomes a sacrificial victim as a result of her kindness. Manfred is scrupulously evenhanded about blaming both the whites and the Indians, and he seems to regard leaders on both sides as mostly bloodthirsty, indifferent, or ineffectual. The whites have exploited the Indians, who have in return found ways of making life difficult for settlers. Dishonesty is rampant in both camps. The missionaries are not consciously hypocritical or coercive, but they are no match for the traders and petty officials. The penalty for their ineffectuality is that it is the Christian Indians and those who linger around the agencies who are the cruelest participants in the massacres.

No fictional counterparts to real-life rescuers like John Otherday and Paul Mazakutemani appear in
Scarlet Plume
. Similarly, only a few characters who carry out illustrative roles in the text are “good Christians.” Even they are soon gone from the story. As in historical America, from earliest times to the present, civil religion displaces “real Christianity.” When injustice is uncovered, it always seems to be too late to do anything about it. It is too late to expect more reprieves from President Lincoln, it is too late to stop the legal machinery, it is too late to postpone the hanging, and it is too late to get the missionaries to intervene more effectively.

As Manfred said in one of our interviews, “I try to be fair to them. I’ve heard many missionaries preach. They really believe what they’re saying. I don’t happen to believe it, but I’m not writing my story, I’m writing their story. So then I try to present it as if these people really believe this. It has to be convincing to the reader that these are really missionaries and this is what they truly believe.” The more real he makes Judith’s sister seem, he said, the more credible it is when Judith disagrees. If Manfred wants his readers to take his criticism seriously, he has to acknowledge that while the whites are victorious their victory does not confer or affirm moral superiority. By the same token, that the Yanktons are defeated does not mean that they have an inferior understanding of the world.

Throughout the book, Manfred emphasizes the cultural, philosophical, and ethical contrasts between the Yanktons and the whites—religiously and in daily life. He shows how Yankton children learn more self-reliance than white children. The Yanktons have a more thorough grounding in the ways of nature because their religion is pantheistic, he once said in a television interview, but white culture has a better understanding of astronomy. Some claim that white culture introduced the practice of scalping, while others say there is evidence that it was practiced in North America long before the arrival of Europeans. However, there can be little doubt that it was practiced more widely among Indians, and with more elaborate justification. Hair has different meanings in different cultures. In
Scarlet Plume
, Judith learns about the differences in funeral customs and their meanings. Manfred has been praised for his illumination of cultural differences, and for the “stylized and sympathetic perspective” with which he treats Yankton culture. He doesn’t present himself as an expert on Indians but as a student of Dakota culture. I heard him praised once by a tribal member who said that Fred knew more about some aspects of Dakota life than some Dakotas did, but that you’d never hear that from Fred himself.

He began studying Sioux culture, and particularly that of the Yankton division of the Sioux Nation, while he was working on
Lord Grizzly
. He then interviewed and made friends with some Yankton people while he was working on
Conquering Horse
. Because of his acquaintance with Yanktons knowledgeable about traditional ways, and his careful incorporation of that knowledge into his books, he has been praised by tribal representatives for his respect for Native culture. Consequently,
Scarlet Plume
is respected among Dakota readers in spite of its depictions of extreme violence and cruelty by some of the tribe during the 1862 war. Manfred has said, “I want to make sure to show that there were three kinds of Indians [involved in the war]. There were the old-line Yankton. They weren’t part of the slaughtering and ravishing and raping. . . . And every society has its bastards, its evil men. . . . And [there were] the Indians who accepted Christianity, and when they decided it wasn’t for them, they revolted. They had nowhere to go, and they didn’t go back. They were just suddenly crazy in their ravishing and raping. . . . They had dropped both moralities, their old one and Christianity. They were just floating in between.”

Of course, he depicts the viciousness of some white participants as well.

The depiction of outrageous brutality in the novel, especially in the first third of it, has generated quite a bit of criticism, though not as much as might be expected. Manfred has made the point that he did not set out to depict excessive violence but that the violence is inherent in the history. The violence in the beginning of the book may seem excessive because so much of it is individually targeted, with sharp-edged weapons, but in actuality the ending of the book is just as violent, though its violence is carried out by more “civilized” people. The attack on the train of carts bearing the Indian captives is extremely vicious, and the hanging of thirty-eight Sioux still stands as the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. Violence pervades the book—the horrific initial massacre is echoed in every event throughout the story. As one commentator on a website said, “I almost didn’t get into the book: The first chapter was so horrific! Later I realized how the gravity of the novel . . . was only achieved because of the graphic writing.”

Graphic writing—that brings us to consideration of another frequently noted aspect of the book. When the phrase “graphic writing” is used, by common understanding we know that what is under discussion is either violence or sex. Nobody ever mentions “graphic writing” when they’re talking about effusive restaurant reviews or typography. This is not the first book of Manfred’s that has provoked negative reactions among some readers because of its sexual content. In fact, as he tells us with good humor in the preface to
Green Earth
, members of his own family told him that a scene in his first novel,
The Golden Bowl
, was “pure filth,” which has always struck me as an interesting juxtaposition. For many years, people of northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota referred to him as “that guy who writes dirty books.” But
Scarlet Plume
, his fourteenth book, published twenty years after
The Golden Bowl
, is the first that can be properly called sexually explicit. It introduces discussion and description of rear-entry sex, masturbation, rape, child rape, genital mutilation, pleasurable consensual intercourse, and abundant admiration of the size of characters’ genitals—all without gutter language (the male organ is consistently mythologized under the term “phallus”). I bring all this up primarily because there are some persons in our culture who still regard this subject as taboo. But it is absolutely vital to the central concerns of the book, which include the dangers of war (including sexual violence), the hypocrisy that accompanies some common religious posturing, the sexual frustrations inherent in loveless marriages, the intensity of desire under extreme duress, the differences of sexual practices in different cultures, and the problems of miscegenation taboos.

Let us grant the author his central premise: that a woman kidnapped, raped, and forced to witness sexual atrocities during a war and who is starved for love might become deeply infatuated with her rescuer, a member of the enemy culture, leading to all sorts of difficulties for both of them. It is laughable to think that such a story could be told without dealing frankly with the matters mentioned in the list above. It is almost inconceivable that it could be told without frank language, unless by resorting to clinical terminology divorced from human feeling.

The controversial
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
was first published in Europe in 1928. After a celebrated court case, it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1959.
Scarlet Plume
originally appeared five years later. I contend that no one ought to be shocked by it. For the most part, reviews published at the time praised the book without objection. I would not hesitate to recommend it to high school students if they had any desire to read it for its other content. The problems
Scarlet Plume
raises have not disappeared from the worldwide stage, and its historical significance is inestimable.

I have been sorely tempted to go on and on here about why I think that in spite of its occasional clumsiness this novel is important to our understanding of Minnesota history and American history. I am continually fascinated by its use of language (always a rewarding subject in Manfred’s books), and I have steadfastly resisted inflicting my take on the book’s theology. Most of all, in this introduction I have decided to forego discussing the issues of miscegenation raised by the book, as this topic demands in-depth scholarly analysis. However, I do want to urge you to consider those matters as you read the novel.

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