The Village—August 3, 1951
Everyone remembers that day in August 1951 when the Jew arrived on the reservation.
In later years the Indians would sometimes wonder idly at the strange fact of his arrival, and his departure on the first train to Minneapolis the next morning. But the Jew was forgotten that day, until then a day like any other; hot and muggy and filled mostly with the thrum of wind-plucked power lines and the crack of grasshoppers lifting out of the sand and spent grass. The Jew stepped off the train and into the thoughts of the villagers, and he exited the station and their minds just as quickly, because an hour or two after the train groaned to a stop, one of the hotel maids found Prudence’s body in the room above the Wigwam Bar. And then there was that. Her poor young body arched and twisted and frozen in the August heat. And Prudence’s baby, too, whom no one saw alive, not even Prudence, in its little cathedral of blood. And there was that, too.
Not long after the maid found her, the sheriff had come. After him the coroner. Then Felix and Billy, separately. Soon, everyone in the village, Indian and white and in between, had gathered outside the hotel, and in front of the hardware store, and the grocer’s, on the platform that served the depot, and in the Wigwam itself. Since the village didn’t consist of more than those small stores and the hundred or so Indians and loggers whose houses clustered around the railroad tracks, the gathering didn’t look like much
It was, as dramatic events go, quiet. There wasn’t much fuss when her body was loaded onto a canvas stretcher, covered with a white sheet, and handed down the narrow stairs like a ham in paper. The passage of Prudence’s body from the apartment above the Wigwam was performed with the solemnity of the viaticum. No one raised a fuss, even though she was twenty-three and pregnant and alone, and now dead. It just wasn’t that kind of village. And northern Minnesota wasn’t that kind of place. Besides, it was 1951 and there was a war on. The world was much too big to worry itself about a dead Indian girl. No one wondered, really, what had happened or why, in the way people who aren’t accustomed to being wondered about discover they dislike thinking about themselves. It was too hot, in any event, to do more than sit and shake one’s head. No. It was much better not to think of Prudence at all.Part I
The Pines—August 1942Chapter 1
Emma Washburn watched the small figures across the mouth of the river. There was no change. Not that she could see from where she stood in the front room, which served as dining and sitting room for the Pines. She stood with her hands on her hips and then, after a moment, crossed them under her bosom, and then again placed them on her hips, as though her posture could somehow affect the search for the missing prisoner. No change. Across the river the men still milled in the yard of the prison camp formed by the right angles of the unpainted cabins. The camp had gone up quickly. Where there had been nothing the previous August was now a high fence enclosing four bunkhouses, a dining hall, three guard cabins, and a storeroom.
Back when they bought the Pines in 1923 the opposite bank was just a grass-covered bluff with nice, shady trees ringing the edges. The Indians from around the reservation camped there sometimes. They were harmless. Nothing at all like the Indians in the movies. Before the camp Emma heard them singing and saw the lights of small fires on the bluff in late summer. And that’s how it had been until the prisoners started coming in 1941. At first they slept in canvas tents, but by spring they had the camp set up. What an eyesore.
As the heat had built up over the day, and with it the wind, Emma had heard the barking of the dogs and the shouts and whistles of the policemen and volunteers as they formed yet another search party. Why did they have to put the camp right there, where you could see it out of the front windows? And why did that German have to escape, this week of all weeks, just when Frankie was coming back? Why did he have to try and escape at all? His war was over. The cabins weren’t bad and they were even paid for their labor, if you could believe it. Surely his people wouldn’t treat American prisoners so well. Emma waved the thought away.
Despite her many duties—making sure the girls heated the water up hot enough to really clean the sheets, seeing that Felix put up the wood for the kitchen stove and finally got around to cleaning up the beach (the smell was getting stronger), counting the lemons and the oranges and weighing out the flour, soda, and sugar because it wouldn’t do to send someone off to town for more, what with all the guests and the millions of things that had to be done to make sure it all went smoothly, cleaning the windows inside and out so no one, especially Frankie, had to wake up and see cobwebs and dead mayflies instead of trees (if they were on the backside of the Pines) or the lake (Frankie would get the lake room, of course), and starching the napkins and the tablecloths herself, and in the heat, only because the girls, being Indians, didn’t know what proper starching was, and, oh, the bait, too, because the Chris-Craft would go out at least twice a day, assuming that the constable returned it, because the search couldn’t possibly go on much longer—Emma could not tear herself away from the window. This could ruin everything. Even with her worry about all the things that had to get done and Frankie’s train arriving that afternoon and the whole thrumming enterprise of the Pines, which depended on her, and the search party organizing itself like an anthill that had been stepped on, she felt like a king, yes, a king, not a queen. A king with his castle at his back, gazing out over the scene of a siege, which, God willing, would be lifted soon so they could all breathe and, more than that, so they could all properly welcome home the prince, who was coming all the way from Princeton before heading south for aviation cadet training in Montgomery.
“You could go with them at least once, Jonathan,” Emma said without turning around. The rustling of the paper stopped. He always heard everything. “It wouldn’t hurt. Everyone is joining in.”
“It would hurt, dear. It would. You know how hot it is out there. And the woods in August? It’s a jungle. Let the locals do it. And the Indians. Let them do it. It’s what they’re good at.”
Of course, even after buying the Pines in 1923, when everyone else was selling or trying to sell, and keeping it running, and hiring Finns to cut and mill timber for new cabins and taking on Indian girls during the season to do the cleaning and washing and even letting old Felix live there as caretaker, year-round, didn’t buy them much credit with the locals, as her husband called them. The Washburns would never be locals. They would never really belong up north, not in the minds of those who were there before them. But it was the Washburn place, and Washburns occupied it and kept it from sinking into the ground. A little Chicago spit, she liked to say, a little Chicago spit and a lot of determination, and there wasn’t anything a Washburn couldn’t keep running. Though she was the one who put in the work. She was the one who came up by train soon after ice-out each year and got the place going again. Every spring she left Chicago the first weekend in May and took the Hiawatha to Saint Paul and then the B&N to Duluth, where she switched again and headed west to Bena, the small town of Indians, mixed-bloods, and loggers in the middle of the reservation. Without fail Felix would be at the station, waiting next to the Chevy Confederate, the bed filled with supplies, and he’d drive her out to the mouth of the river where the Chris-Craft waited, lapping against the dock he had built, shored up with cribs he made from tamarack and filled with river stone, listing, of course, because the ice had pushed it over, but Felix would get to it in due time. Felix parked the truck and then started the boat and ferried her across the river to the Pines. What a sensation! Every time, the first glimpse made her heart rise up and beat faster, without the lessening effect that repeated exposure to a thing usually causes. Like love (but why did she think of that?). All winter she yearned for a glimpse of the white clapboard main house with its fieldstone chimney poking through between the front room and the “lobby.” And the smaller cabins huddled around back like children waiting behind a beautiful mother. It filled her with pride to think that it was hers. It had been a grand resort once and she would make it grand again—a place for their family and friends and someday her grandchildren to gather. Of course it was theirs, together, but: it had been her idea to buy it and to live there and make it a business. Not that it had become a true business. The visitors were confined to friends and family. But that was just fine—it was a place for them, and as the years passed, her initial fantasy of a real resort, a combination of the domestic and the wild, shifted to an even more pleasing reality of a family that came together again and again in a special place that was theirs alone and grew stronger by coming together. Jonathan didn’t care much one way or the other. When she first went to see the Pines and came back to Chicago gushing—the trees! the lake!—he had said it was too far away. The Dells would work. Hayward, maybe. You couldn’t even drive to the Pines, you had to cross over in a boat, and it was on a reservation, and surely the Indians would break in or set it on fire or something. Jonathan didn’t trust anyone. That was his problem. But the Gardners—who owned the mill in the village and three more throughout the state—had a place up the shore and so did the Millers (surely he remembered them from when they stayed at Lyon’s Landing the first time they’d gone up, shortly after they were married). And they had children, too. Children Frankie’s age.
Each spring, when Felix eased the boat into the dock and tied it to the wooden cleats that he had carved from spruce root, quite nimbly for an Indian with big, clumsy hands, she stepped off the rocking boat and onto the solid dock as though she were stepping into the world she had been waiting for all her life; a world for which she was intended. Always, before doing anything else, she stalked the property as if in a dream, touching the weathered boards of the boathouse and toeing the dead grass and weeds to see if the daylilies had begun to poke their spears through the earth. She walked around the main house and looked for shingles on the grass and worried over every fleck of paint that had peeled off the spruce clapboard. After the long winter and the bustle of Oak Park it shook her to realize that some things, even those things far away from her in space and time, and especially those things that she loved, continued to exist, continued to endure. That anxiety and that wonder, mixed as they were, must be what love was. This was love.
Her marriage was something else. It had a different timbre. A different tone. It more closely matched the stateliness of their home in Oak Park than the wildness of the Pines. She and Jonathan had been marred twenty-seven years now, and with each passing year the union grew more spacious. It had more echoes. There was more room to move around in it now than there had been at first—in those early years when Jonathan was just starting his practice and she lost Josephine and then after much trying Frankie had been born and Emma had her concerts and recitals, which slowed to a trickle and then to drips and then stopped altogether except for the once-a-year party they held in the second-floor ballroom. The house in Oak Park was a proper house and theirs was a proper marriage. She never worried about the solidity of either, but nor did she exult in them. They just were and always would be.
It was different with Frankie, of course. He was, still was, her baby. Not just because he was her only child (there had been Josephine, but she had been with them for just a few weeks before God took her away). He was special. When she thought of him she felt the same combination of dread and wonder, fear and pride, that she felt when she arrived at the Pines every May. Frankie was a special boy. In the months after he was born, his cheeks were flushed red. Rosy. He sweated easily. As he grew older he never turned into the robust boy Jonathan had hoped for. “Anemia,” Jonathan pronounced when Frankie, at eight, fainted during gym class. When he turned twelve and gave up athletics altogether, Jonathan said that Frankie had a hormone imbalance. Emma and Frankie accepted this as true; after all, Jonathan would know.
But when Fenwick’s let out, and Frankie came to the Pines, he bloomed. His favorite thing was to follow Felix around. Not that the old Indian spoke to him much. But Frankie seemed content just to spend time with him, watching him carefully as he mended the dock or replaced siding or cut back the riot of goldenrod and joe-pye that crowded the cabins abutting the woods. Or he’d go on adventures with Billy, the half-breed who had begun as a dock boy and became, over the years, Frankie’s daily companion. Frankie grew tan over those summers, as though the sun’s movement were harmonized with his. His skin lost its blush and turned apricot, golden. Not that Jonathan noticed, when he deigned to show up for two or three weeks in August, after much beseeching and urgent letters and even telegrams. But Emma was always thrilled at how robust, how alive, Frankie became in the summertime. “Oh! You’re my little Indian, aren’t you? My little Indian man. Isn’t he, Felix? Isn’t he turning into a little brave?” Felix always nodded and said, “Uhhgg. Yes. A little brave.”
He was brave now. Princeton had changed him. He had grown taller, his shoulders broader. He’d joined the Nassoons and sung in Blair Arch, his face thrust up to the vaults as though a string ran from his chin through the arch and into God’s gentle hand. His voice rang clear and strong. He was, Emma thought, a passable tenor for that kind of music, for glee club music. He would never sing Die Winterreise, nor should he. And opera! No, no, no. But the glee club pleased him and it suited him and it was good to do things that both pleased and suited a person, this was the key to happiness. And, with the whole country in the swing of war, Frankie had decided to join the Air Force. A pilot, he’d written in February. He was to be a pilot on something called a B-17. He had already joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in addition to his regular classes, and he found time on the weekends to take flying lessons in Lawrenceville. He was to go to Maxwell Field in Alabama for aviation cadet training, and from there, who knows where?
So everything had to be perfect at the Pines. It wasn’t. First they had put that prisoner camp across the river, and now one of them had escaped. She’d wanted one last glorious August, one last innocent holiday before Frankie joined the world and the war. But how could you forget something like the war when you opened the curtains and saw the camp across the way? And with one of them escaped. There was no telling where he was or what he was up to. You couldn’t trust them a bit. Germans were awfully clever and they never gave up, even when they were beat.
Copyright © 2015 by David Treuer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.