Faking It in the School for Tricksters

School for Tricksters: A Novel in Stories
By Chris Gavaler
(SMU Press, $23.95)

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/fjgemh

Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School remains a controversial chapter in U.S. history, more than 90 years after the school was shut down and converted to a military hospital. Later, it became the site of the U.S. Army’s War College.

The Carlisle campus is the central location in author and playwright Chris Gavaler’s engaging new novel, School for Tricksters, set in the early 1900s. The book was published recently by Dallas-based Southern Methodist University (SMU) Press.

Between 1879 and 1918, nearly 12,000 Native American children from more than a hundred tribes were sent to Carlisle for “education.” The campus followed strict military rules, and its administrators and teachers were supposed to try to strip away Native American cultures, customs, languages and religions. Students took Caucasian names and followed customs and religions of white Americans. They wore contemporary clothing when not wearing Carlisle uniforms.

Carlisle soon became the model for other Indian boarding schools sponsored by the U.S. government. The schools also became places where orphanages and parents sometimes dumped children who, in reality, had little or no tribal blood. This is the circumstance for several characters in School for Tricksters.

“You know how much white trash we got in here?” the school’s head disciplinarian, Mr. Henderson, asks Sylvester Long, a new arrival from North Carolina, just after Sylvester gives him a fake Cherokee name instead of his real name. “Kids with barely any Indian blood. Trying to steal an education from the government.”

Henderson, in Gavaler’s tale, is unaware that Sylvester has white and African-American relatives, as well as Native American blood, and is the son of a black janitor. In the early 1900s, having any black heritage at all is grounds for immediate expulsion from Carlisle.

Another new student, Iva Miller, arrives from the Oklahoma Territory believing she is part Cherokee or possibly Shawnee, whatever her father told the orphanage when he abandoned her. In truth, she has no Indian roots.

School for Tricksters becomes an engrossing coming-of-age story as Sylvester and Iva forge new identities built on falsehoods, while others around them also try to build new lives or maintain careers, sometimes with help from lies, deceptions or corruption. One of the book’s underlying themes is that we are all tricksters to some degree, at some point in our lives.

Significantly, the book’s main characters are real people used fictionally. Along with Sylvester and Iva, they include: Jim Thorpe, Carlisle’s stellar Sac and Fox football player who won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics; William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a Carlisle athlete of questioned heritage who achieved college and professional gridiron coaching greatness; Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Carlisle’s athletic coach who became a national sports icon; and Marianne Moore, a Carlisle typing teacher who became one of America’s leading poets.

Chris Gavaler’s fiction is drawn from extensive factual research and interviews. Also, each chapter is a separate short story that provides different perspectives of key characters as they adjust to Carlisle and Caucasian-dominated culture.

The real Iva Miller became Jim Thorpe’s first wife while he was a major-league baseball player. The real Sylvester Long achieved fame as a journalist, author and actor known as “Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance.” His tribal claims, however, eventually were disproved, and his 1932 death was ruled suicide.

Despite its underlying grimness, School for Tricksters is refreshingly unusual fiction. It also is another stark reminder of how Native Americans have been treated, feted, mistreated and exploited.

Si Dunn

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Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

 Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
By James D. Hornfischer
(Bantam Books, $30.00)
Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/giTclq
Kindle Link: http://amzn.to/fKzayj

Guadalcanal typically is remembered as a small Pacific island where U.S. Marines stayed locked in savage combat for months with tenacious, desperate Japanese defenders during World War II. U.S. Army troops, however, also fought heroically in the battle for Guadalcanal, which stretched from Aug. 7, 1942, to Feb. 9, 1943.

But as military historian James D. Hornfischer makes starkly clear in his new book Neptune’s Inferno, the U.S. Navy actually bore the biggest brunt of the fighting. The Navy also made the greatest sacrifices during the protracted campaign that is now remembered as a turning point in the Pacific theater of the war. 

“When it was all said and done at Guadalcanal,” Hornfischer notes in his book, “three sailors would die at sea for every infantryman who fell ashore.”

Much of the fighting focused on Guadalcanal’s airfield, which could be used to threaten or protect key sea lanes between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. U.S. Marines seized the airfield and part of the island in a surprise landing that drove Japanese defenders inland.

During the next six months, seven major sea battles ensued as the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to destroy American planes and reinforce Guadalcanal’s Japanese troops, so they could retake the airfield.

Five of the encounters were fearsome, grinding night clashes. And, more than once, American ships blasted each other, as well as enemy warships, in the chaotic darkness. In the two daylight battles, carrier-based and land-based aircraft ultimately won the day for the Allies.

The toll of ships, men and aircraft was horrific on both sides. As Hornfischer makes grimly clear, torpedoes and shells ripped through hulls and thick armor plates and ended dozens or even hundreds of lives in an instant. The U.S. Navy lost 25 major warships, including two aircraft carriers and several cruisers and destroyers, as well as numerous smaller vessels. Australia’s losses included its heavy cruiser Canberra. Japanese ship losses included an aircraft carrier, two battleships, several cruisers and other vessels, including six submarines.

Thousands of Allied and Japanese sailors and officers died, and hundreds of planes were shot down. Meanwhile, Guadalcanal’s Japanese defenders never retook the airfield. Instead, their counterattacks were repulsed, and they suffered massive casualties from air assaults, naval gunfire and Marine and Army ground attacks.

Much of Hornfischer’s book focuses on officers and crews of individual battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, recounting how they veered into combat, absorbed savage hits and valiantly kept fighting and struggling to stay afloat. But he also zeroes in on the strategies, indecisions, failures and heroics of task force commanders and ship captains.

“The campaign,” he writes, “featured tight interdependence among warriors of the air, land, and sea.” Yet that interdependence was tenuous and troubled at best. Lives and ships were lost because of inter-service rivalries, jealousies and stubborn attitudes among key admirals and generals.

Some American warship captains made efficient use of a new technology, radar, while others failed to embrace its early-warning capabilities, with fatal consequences.

Another vital technology, radio, also was not used effectively. Ships, aircraft and ground units frequently could not communicate with each other. And important alerts often were delayed, misrouted or ignored.

Neptune’s Inferno is well written, rich with scene-setting details and very clearly the product of extensive research, as well as interviews with some of the battle’s now-aged survivors.

The author’s two previous WWII books, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts, brought him into the major leagues of American military history writers. Neptune’s Inferno is solid proof that he deserves to be there.

Si Dunn

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