Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2

Book Reviews

 

American Indians in World War I. At War and at Home by Thomas A. Britten. Reviewed by Chris Padgett.

Science, Values, and the American West edited by Stephen Tchudi. Reviewed by Bill McCarron.

When by Baron Wormser. Reviewed by Shaun T. Griffin.

Mormon Midwife: The 1846-1888 Diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions edited by Donna Toland Smart. Reviewed by Jason G. Horn.

 

American Indians in World War I. At War and at Home by Thomas A. Britten. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997, 256 pp., $34.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Chris Padgett, Dept. of History, Weber State University

The fifty years following the Civil War were perhaps the most racial in American history. The abolition of slavery, the waves of new immigration, and the "closing" of America's frontier led to a hardening of the country's racial and ethnic boundaries. While other western nation-states competed for the spoils of imperialism and foreign colonization, America indulged in a scheme of domestic colonization that saw non-Caucasian peoples sequestered under white rule. The rise of racial segregation in the Jim Crow South, the huddling of immigrant masses into urban ghettoes, and the continued clustering of Native Americans onto reservations gave America a form of segregation analogous to the imperial apartheid of Africa and Asia. Though materially successful for a generation or more, European imperialism unraveled during the era of the World Wars from 1914-1945, a period which also saw the beginning of a concerted attack on American apartheid. Thomas A. Britten's American Indians in World War I is an excellent study that places the discussion of Native American military service into this larger context of European and American racialism.

Britten offers the story of American Indians in World War I as a case study in American racial thought and experience. Building on the work of such scholars as Thomas Dunlay, Brian Dippie, and Frederick Hoxie, his analytical framework is both national and comparative, and he argues that the wartime experience of Native Americans was conditioned less by America's racial exceptionalism and more by racial attitudes and stereotypes that were prevalent among western imperial powers. Just as the French employed Senegalese troops, for example, and the British used colonial troops from India, so too did the U.S. government recruit and draft Native Americans to fight on the killing fields of Europe. More than 6,500 Native American men were drafted while thousands more enlisted, and, like their African and Asian colonial counterparts, they both suffered and succeeded because of the often contradictory racial assumptions that governed their participation.

Several fascinating insights come from Britten's discussion of the tortured logic and irony of American racism and how it shaped the wartime service of minority troops. In Chapters 4-6, he shows how, on the one hand, white America seemed reasonably comfortable with the idea that the American Indian was part of a "Vanishing Race," poised on the doorstep of extinction by 1900 (a viewpoint conditioned by the popular belief of a vanishing frontier). Yet as American policy leaders mobilized the nation for war, an old stereotype of the noble Indian warrior reasserted itself into conscription and recruitment efforts. While French propaganda depicted the Senegalese as "les bon sauvages," for example, so too did supporters here praise the supposed "manly" aspects of Indian cultures, particularly the "virile virtues" of Indian warriors, including courage, energy,

and daring (31). One popular magazine of the day praised the Indians' "adroit tactics, sense of strategy, and feats of camouflages" that were the "outgrowth of ancient training in the science of war"(99). Britten shows how such attitudes determined the wartime roles filled by Native Americans, a disproportionate number of whom served as scouts, snipers, and messengers, largely because commanding officers harbored the popular belief that Indians were born with a martial sixth sense that underlay their legendary fighting prowess. If dangerous assignments offered opportunity for military heroism, producing such genuine war heroes as Joseph Oklahombi, a Choctaw from the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, and Ernest Spencer, a Yakima who received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism during the St. Mihiel Offensive, then, not surprisingly, they made wartime service more perilous for Native Americans. Largely because of their reputation as fighters and their resulting placement in especially risky roles, Native Americans suffered a disproportionately high casualty rate as compared to other "doughboys"(82).

Among the significant achievements of Thomas Britten's work is that he demonstrates how Native Americans themselves, though generally supportive of the war effort, evinced no single response to the call to arms. Diversity rather than uniformity characterized Native American reaction to conscription, training, transport, combat, and return. As he writes, "there was no monolithic 'Indian response' to World War L" but instead "there were a multitude of Indian responses that were about as varied as those of non-Indians"(72). His discussion here restores historical agency to Native Americans and keeps the work from becoming yet another history of how white people viewed racial minorities.

An additional virtue of this study is that it treats a chapter in Native American history often overlooked by historians more concerned with the frontier era. Significantly, Britten uses the war years to challenge Frederick Hoxie's contention that Americans gave up on the long-debated goal of assimilation after the turn of the century. He suggests, rather, that policy leaders within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and elsewhere viewed the Great War as an opportunity to revive the assimilationist ideal, and he points to the Indian Citizen Act of 1924 as further proof that "World War I was the initial and perhaps most important catalyst for Indian citizenship" (18 1). If true, then once again Britten's analysis offers important clues to understanding the demise of European racial hierarchies throughout the colonial world, not to mention the undermining of state-sanctioned racial colonialism within the United States. Indeed, African Americans would find a similar catalyst for the dismantling of Jim Crow in the Double V campaign during World War IL which became manifest in the desegregation orders of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

American racism has proved more durable and enigmatic than assimilationists supposed. Yet, perhaps the chief contribution of Britten's study is that it nevertheless reminds us of what C. Vann Woodward, Winthrop Jordan, and other historians have told us about the African American experience. Namely, that race itself is a historical construct whose strange career in American history has sometimes affirmed, but too often denied, the blessings of liberty to all Americans. As such, this valuable case study of American Indians in World War I illustrates the complexity of America's great dilemma.

Back to Top

 

Science, Values, and the American West edited by Stephen Tchudi. Reno: Halcyon Imprint, 1997, 257 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Bill McCarron, Dept. of Literature and Languages, Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Science, Values, and the American West is Volume 19 in the Nevada Humanities Committee series; the book may highlight the and portions of California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, but the readings are anything but dry. University of Nevada, Reno English professor Stephen Tchudi has put together a volume which features many genres: scholarly articles, poetry, personal narrative, literary criticism, and excerpts from a novel. Whether one reads about John Wesley Powell's nineteenth-century environmentalism or the present-day controversies over the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste disposal site, the emphasis is always on land: wheat fields, orange groves, archaeological digs, the vestiges of underground nuclear testing.

What makes this book a compelling read is its sheer variety of differing points of view. For example, physicist James K. Kliwer, in "The Trinity of Physics in Nevada," stoutly defends the Yucca Mountain site through revealing explanations of radioactive decay: "The larger the half-life, the smaller the radioactivity becomes" (162). Conversely, in "Mock Turtle Arithmetic, Public Trust and the Nevada Test Site," Sue Rabbitt Roff illustrates the wide range of fall-out from atmospheric testing in the 1950s where photographic film at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, was ruined by radioactivity. And Craig Walton's "High-Level Ethical Risk" warns of the dangers the Yucca storage facility holds for future generations.

However, Tchudi's carefully edited volume is not a doom-and-gloorn nuclear forecast. The first two-thirds of the book offer truly educational revelations about the demographics of the and west over the past century. In an examination of Frank Norris' The Octopus (1901), Brett Zalkan argues that the novel's ending shows man and machine locked in "an integrated circuit" (41) where neither one has identity. Zalkan implies that agriculture has become agri-business and that the individual farmer is becoming an artifact. Echoing a similar loss, Gary Short, in his poem "Shoshonean," longs for Coyote Lung Mountain and the forgotten time "when animals and humans/ spoke the same language" (25). Even the late twentieth century sees human beings inseparable from machines of a different order as Brian Yaw points out in his poem, "Turning My Wheel": "Lost in the Techno madness... Driving in my'92 Nissan Maxima….No connection. Running./Tired of the disk jockey/ on 91X, I press Play/on my Sony CD player" (53). Likewise, in an analysis of John Keeble's recent novels, Yellowfish (1980) and Broken Ground (1987), Todd Moffett and Tina Ehopulos lament the distance and "facelessness of [corporate] Machines" (63) in the lives of people living in the west.

In "Mammoths, Prehistoric Archaeology, and Interdisciplinary Research," Stephen Livingston and Claudia Minor write gripping first-hand accounts of searching for human artifacts during digs for mammoth fossils. Prehistoric Archaeology is a relatively new branch of science-the study of stone tools and weapons left by early men and women. A more optimistic view of agriculture occurs in Douglas Sackman's brief history of the genetics associated with citrus crop development in California-even down to revealing how the Sunkist logo first was stamped on an orange. The vast and and western lands continue to defy even today's mechanized field trips where, as Vincent L. Morgan states in "Badlands Mary," a sudden thunderstorm turns hard clay into "rutted, sucking paste" (110), and Morgan humorously concludes: " we cannot miss how quickly the pre-tamed West is ready to take over again" (116). In what is-literally and figuratively-the most harrowing piece in the Tchudi collection, David A Kirsch summarizes "Project Plowshare," the use of peaceful underground nuclear explosions in the supposed service of government and industry. One such experiment, Gasbuggy, is chilling in its concept and execution: an underground nuclear explosion in New Mexico in 1967 to help stimulate the flow of natural gas.

In the shortest essay, "Coffee, Doughnuts, and Atomic Bombs," Stephen Adkison shares a pre-dawn conversation in a Nevada diner between himself and a retired Atomic Energy Commission worker where both men agree: "Science itself offers no Holy Grail" (154). This motif connects directly to the concluding piece in Science where Frank Bergen's "Demons, Monks, and Nuke Waste" intersperses passages from and commentary on his novel, The Temptations of St. Ed and Brother S. St. Ed, a trappist monk, faces off against the director of a nuclear waste site. The director assures the priest that even if an earthquake should occur, the packaged waste would only shake like a grape in a bowl of wavering Jell-O.

What really makes this collection meaningful, therefore, is its mixture of opposing viewpoints on men and machines, land use, and nuclear-waste disposal. Stephen Tchudi should be commended for presenting liberal and conservative views side by side and leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Back to Top

 

When by Baron Wormser. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 1997, 85 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Shaun T. Griffin, Writer, Virginia City, NV.

What one listens for in a poem-the idle thoughts between action, the drift of sound from person to stair step and beyond, the old telling of a story one remembers, but told fresh, so fresh it fairly swims in the mouth-this is what one finds in When, winner of the 1996 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, selected by Alice Fulton.

These poems have the odor of a hay field after cutting, and there is something uncanny about the field he makes for us, the readers. It's as if it were a place of sanctuary, where one hears among the harvest, the girlfriend, the stock broker, the wood cutter, the landlord. The scraps of WWII on a dresser, the unfinished memory of all we have created. And refuse before the next terrible offering of war.

It is no coincidence that Baron Wormser is, by all definitions, a pacifist. Who else to build the poems of the Ozzie and Harriet generation that came so close to conflict? Over and over in this collection, he stirs the photographs, the etchings from our past, to swing the pendulum farther than we might have wanted into our lives, so that we become the aperture through which this experience of postwar, bee-bop, blue-line America is distilled.

Our poets know this better than anyone: in the land of milk and honey it is hard to say what matters. We have become insulated from the foggy avenues beyond our daily lives, surrendered much of what we know to the couch. And when a poet dares to write about the crossing of us and them, sparks fly. Thankfully for this New England poet, they fly into our living rooms.

I hear a good deal of Carruthian Yankee pragmatism in these lines. They mince few words and move squarely to the elements of our suppositions. And in their grace, they soar. "Fans" will go down as the poem to mark the musical generation of Jimi and Janis: "Out in the cheering dark we remain./ We are still listening but life is like death,/ so strong it doesn't have to explain." This poem doesn't fill the hollow left by rock-and-roll's icons. Rather, it peels from the layers of memory to find their voices wailing still.

In his previous books, Wormser has taken atoms to the point of meditation and worked the language of New England into a formalist's grape vine. But in When he opens the lines of conventional meter to a voice that marshalls feeling from the first page to the last. It is the voice of a poet who would stubbornly "grind each day on the lathe of experience/ and marvel at the unappeasable friction." What other reason to thank a maid in a poem? But there we are, spinning on that lathe in the 1960s, listening to Hettie Smith pushing a broom for people as "simple as infants."

Whether in Las Vegas, Sun City, or driving a Ford in 1978 on "The Nuclear Bullet Tour," Wormser takes sight on so much of what we hold dear: the myth of America. A myth of contradictions, covenants, and prayers for the unruly middle class. But like so many characters in this book, it is a myth "[y]ou'd be a fool to refuse."

I will put these poems near my bed for winter. Merciless in their odyssey, they will comfort in their longing. As spring returns, so too will the feisty refrain of When: "Hard knowledge wants a sharp edge." Among the many poets in mid-career, Baron Wormser has found the full range of his voice. He has turned the craft of poetry into a song of sturdy words, words that will last.

Back to Top

 

Mormon Midwife: The 1846-1888 Diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions edited by Donna Toland Smart. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997, 457 pp., $29.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Jason G. Horn, Division of Humanities, Gordon College.

Reading diaries can be a wearisome chore. Often the diarist's language and stylistic quirks frustrate the reader, or an endless amount of dense detail dulls a rich appreciation of diary entries. Such is not the case with Mormon Midwife. Through judicious editing and careful commentary, Donna Toland Smart unravels over forty years of knotty details as she strikes straight toward a better understanding of Patty Bartlett Sessions and her response, as a Mormon midwife and pioneer woman, to a particular stream of nineteenth-century American experience.

In her introduction, Smart locates Sessions within the early years of Mormon history as she delineates her role as a midwife and her relations with prominent Mormon figures. Smart points out that only three years after Joseph Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) in 1830, Sessions accepted his message and mission. She then set off with the Mormons on a journey that would lead her from her Maine home to temporary quarters in Kirtland, Ohio, then on to Missouri, to Nauvoo, Illinois, and finally to the Salt Lake Valley. Smart highlights the important work Sessions performed along this route; Brigham Young later honored her as a doctor. And Smart also explains some of the curious practices of Sessions and her Mormon companions: "sealings" and polygamous marriages, for example. 

Useful and informative, rather than elaborate and intrusive, Smart's editing of the diaries proper quickens Sessions' daily experiences. Smart contextually situates each of the seven diaries with a brief headnote and provides photographs of original page entries. Within her transcription of the entries, Smart brackets her clarifications and emendations-and identifies notable figures and events. She faithfully renders the documents, retaining Sessions' spelling and punctuation, and offers clarifying rather than distracting information within the footnotes.

Smart's editorial presence, in short, never overshadows her material. But the books, articles, pamphlets, and archival documents found in the appendixes and bibliography, along with a forty-page index citing important events and hundreds of individuals, attest to Smart's impressive knowledge and thorough coverage of the material.

Sessions' range of coverage in her diaries equally impresses the reader as she recalls, often in painstaking detail, more than four decades of service to the Mormon community. In her first few entries, which begin while she and other Mormons were taking leave of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, she writes about delivering more than a half dozen babies, making numerous sick calls, organizing and attending funerals, walking miles between camps, cooking and washing, loading and unloading, while all while battling her bouts with "the ague." So read the first few months of entries. Accounts of deliveries and birthing complications, as might be expected, dominate the diaries as Sessions recounts "putting to bed" thousands of women.

At the same time, the diaries document the growth of Sessions' inner life as she increasingly ministered to both the body and spirit of suffering Mormons. Sessions recalls, in an August 1885 entry, how she "laid hands" on a sick sister; at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, she writes of anointing a dying child; two days later, she records spiritually counseling the dead child's parents. And while many of Sessions' entries recount the simplest of details-"it snows I iron" (305), "1 have been knitting" (313), or "made me a cap" (327)-the diaries as a whole reveal how the most mundane of actions transcend the moment through a personality dedicated to the moment's importance.

Some may find reading Sessions'—diaries a tedious task. But I believe most will find Sessions' diaries refreshingly clear and simple-and Smart's editing of them direct and historically illuminating.

Back to Top