Talks with Wolves

Early in their careers, fiction writers frequently reach into their life for a locale, a particular background, or a composite of character types from which their stories emerge. On occasion this formula proves so rich a resource – the literary equivalent of tree ring data, soil and/or ice core samplings – that the author never has to abandon it. Nor does the author have to put much stock in the classic misadvice “write only what you know from first hand experience.”

Taking such counsel from left-brained thinkers, Captain Nemo, for instance, never would have made it twenty thousand leagues under the sea nor would Edgar Rice Burroughs been able to justify Tarzan’s trip to Mars. Yet another nail in the coffin of that write-what-you-know argument, male authors would be enjoined from venturing female characters and we would all of us, regardless of our race and ethnicity, be proscribed from writing beyond the playground of our own genetics.

Growing up amidst a wealth of character and theme, Charles Dickens could barely had time, to borrow from John Keats, “for [his] pen to glean his teeming brain,” his stories fired by his sense of social outrage. In his small venue of Oxford, Mississippi, William Faulkner saw enough to populate all of a fictional county, one he made famous and iconic of regional writing. Even more appropriate to the topic at hand in this review is mystery writer Tony Hillerman, who began his career as a newspaperman, then, in 1971, wrote one novel, “The Fly on the Wall,” in which a reporter took on corruption and injustice. The novel all but exhausted Hillerman’s “actual” experiences but opened the door for a series featuring two wildly diverse members of the Navajo Tribal police.

There is no question that Hillerman learned his subject – from the outside in, using actual places on the Navajo Reservation, dealing with the complex relationships between tribal cops, Arizona and New Mexico cops and sheriff’s and the even more political relations between tribal and state police and the FBI. In many ways, a Hillerman novel is like a Navajo rug or that even more remarkable work of art, the sand painting. The latter have some deliberate flaw or imperfection embedded in them to secularize the spiritual intent of the design. Hillerman, his Navajo informants, and possibly a gifted anthropologist or art dealer know where Hillerman deliberately deviated from direct factual information that would take the edge off the power of the ritual or belief.

Sandi Ault, in her first published novel, “Wild Indigo,” has done in her way what Sue Grafton, Dennis Lynds, and Ross Macdonald have done for Santa Barbara, and what J.F. “Jerry” Freedman has not done – changed just enough so that the locale, while recognizable, is called something else. Sandi Ault has a vast and admirable awareness of kinship, societal, political, and ceremonial culture of the Puebloan Indians. With this knowledge, she has created the Tanoah Pueblo, placed it near the Taos (New Mexico) Pueblo, and created a culture that in its behavior reeks of authenticity. More to the point, it shimmers with plausibility.

“Wild Indigo”(Berkeley Prime Crime) introduces a Bureau of Land Management agent, Jamaica Wild (unfortunate name) and a basic strand of dramatic DNA for a series, an immediate superior who is alternately exasperated with her and admiring her disregard for bureaucracy. By virtue of her race and employment, Jamaica Wild is an outsider so far as the Tanoah are concerned. Except. Except that one Tanoahan, Anna Santana, a cuarandera, rich in the lore of curing and healing, has felt a bond with her and begun to reveal some of the ways of her people.

Beyond being versed in Puebloan lore and culture, Sandi Ault is no stranger to dramatic technique. “I got there too late to save Jerome Santana,” she writes as the opening sentence to “Wild Indigo,” then plunks us into the midst of a herd of wild buffalo on the foothills to the northwest of the reservation. And that land was in my jurisdiction…” With Jamaica Wild, we watch the strange and tragic behavior of Jerome Santana, watching events with a mounting sense of dread until we are in many ways as vulnerable as Jerome Santana. We are certainly pummeled by the dramatic elements to the point where we settle in to their effects, many of which are exquisite. Alas, many aren’t, most notably the dialogue, which in places yanks me back to a time which I will characterize as Radio Days, when one of my favorites was the ongoing saga of “The Lone Ranger.” That kind of dialogue.

“Wild Indigo” works on a strange, compelling quid pro quo. Nearly every embarrassing exchange of dialogue in which Jamaica Wild deals either with her boss, her boyfriend, a lady FBI agent with an attitude, or Wild’s Tanoahan mentor is followed by some moving evocation of the terrain or some lovely clash between Wild’s whiteness scraping against Tanoahan Indian-ness. My favorite of these is when Wild, with warmth of heart, takes an enormous shrimp salad to a ritual potluck supper honoring the anticipated arrival of a Tanohan into the world of Tanohan ancestors. “We are Indians,” she is told. “We don’t eat that. We eat meat.” She is told that in no uncertain terms by a woman who pointedly stirs a cooking pot of elk chili.

Whoops, I almost forgot the wolf. Someone has maneuvered Jamaica into becoming the owner of an orphaned wolf cub, and yes, her heart goes out to him, and yes, she manages to give us a plausible sense of what it would be like to be a pack mate with such a noble animal. But Sandi Ault is not content to have Jamaica Wild involved in clunky dialogue exchanges with humans; she also talks to the wolf.

I am reminded of the surely apocryphal story of the young boy who, when asked to provide a book report on “Moby-Dick,” wrote, “This book tells me more about whales than I want to know.”

My problem – and I hope we share it – is that I am more than a little fond of Puebloan lore and culture. It brims with the kind of zest for living that registers big numbers on my emotional Richter Scale, reminding me of a time when a student of mine, a Puebloan, invited me for dinner with the lure of authentic fry bread. Then, to show respect, she swore she’d serve the red Kool-Aid.

My problem with this remarkable and intriguing work goes to the issue of writers and research – authors who know their subject then become determined to demonstrate their complete mastery of it to the point where they forget about the story.

Because there are times of ritual and custom, there are also potentials for that lovely convergence between anthropology and mysticism, between the rational and the spirit guides and medicine bundles. Sandi Ault does not over-romanticize this terrain, although you can pretty well bet that when Jamaica sets out to follow instructions given her by the matriarch of the Santana family, she’s going to end up zonked and something will have left her a While-You-Were-Out Note.

Let’s try this as a formula: We’ll admire Sandi Ault for a strong first effort, look forward to her second in the series, and hope she gets a handle on the dialogue so we can stick with her and get to know the people of Tanoah Pueblo.