Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo, by Walter L. Williams and Toby Johnston
An entertaining and fascinatng tale of historical and socialogical significance
Publisher’s blurb: [Lethe Press, 2005] Twenty years after publishing his groundbreaking The Spirit and the Flesh, anthropologist Walter L. Williams breaks his silence and publishes another book on Native Americans by teaming up with award-winning writer Toby Johnson. Together they have produced a work of historical fiction that is striking in its evocation of Navajo philosophy and spirituality. Set in the Civil War era of the 1860s, this novel tells the story of a feckless Virginian who finds himself captivated by a Two-Spirit male highly respected among the Navajo. It is a story of tragedy, oppression, and discrimination, but also an enlightening story of love, discovery, and beauty. Two Spirits illuminates the truth of what the United States did to the largest indigenous people of this nation. Full of suspense, plot twists, and endearing romance, this novel will captivate readers.
Review by Gerry Burnie
This is a novel that admirably fits the category of ‘historical fiction’.
In 1864 twelve thousand Navajo (Diné) were forced to march from their homeland in Canyon de Chelly (now Nevada) to Bosque Redondo Reserve outside Fort Sumner; a distance of 325 miles in the dead of winter. More than three thousand individuals died en-route, and because the soil was so unfertile at the Reserve another quarter of the population may have died as a result of starvation.
This ill-fated scheme was the brainchild of General James Carlton, a so-called “Indian Fighter” who regarded the Navajo as “savages,” per se, and promptly set about embezzling money and supplies from them; making their existence even more precarious.
The fiction: William Lee is a young, idealistic and confused young man, who is literally cast out into the world after being caught by his fundamentalist father having exploratory sex with another youngster. Now disowned, he is assisted by a sympathetic member of the community and eventually sent to New Mexico as the apprentice to the Indian Agent at Bosque Redondo—more-or-less a banishment from the God-fearing, white society.
Unbeknownst to Washington or William Lee, the Indian Agent has ‘disappeared’ from his post, and Lee therefore becomes the acting Agent in his absence. Well aware of his inexperience, General Carlton sets about moulding his character by treating him like a novice clerk whose only function is to maintain the status quo of Carlton’s making.
Early in William’s experience he encounters a mysterious, but strikingly handsome ‘woman,’ named Hasbaá—in reality a Two Spirit, possessing both male and female spirits. Such individuals were considered a blessing sent by the Great Spirit, and possessed very powerful medicine for healing and other religious ceremonies. Of course William is unaware of any of this, and his confusion is only exacerbated when he discovers the Hasbaá has the body of a man. Nonetheless, Will and Hasbaá are drawn together, and the two of them eventually fall in love.
William then goes on to learn the ways of the Navajo, assisted by an old woman who acts as his interpreter, and at the same time he begins to learn about himself—ultimately accepting his homosexuality. His curiosity doesn’t end there, however, because he goes on to enquire into the discrepancies that are becoming apparent at the Fort—an inquiry fraught with intrigue and danger.
The question that always accompanies historical fiction, is: Is it history, or is it fiction? In fact the resolution between these two fundamentals is a very tricky business, indeed. The ideal, of course, is a more-or-less 50/50 split; provided the two are woven seamlessly into an integrated whole. Only then, in my opinion, has the writer achieved harmony.
If I have one criticism of this novel it is that the fiction does not always measure up to the history; seeming at times to almost be a contrivance to introduce a fact, etc. Moreover, the ‘old lady’ character who is charged with interpreting some very complex Navajo beliefs, while obviously needing to be wise, is far too articulate to be credible as a woman with no educational background.
Having said that I hasten to add the pluses far outweigh the negatives, and I therefore recommend Two Spirits: A Story of Life With The Navajo as an entertaining and fascinating tale of historical and sociological significance.
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