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Laura Wright reviews

The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History
by Kass Fleisher

348pp. State University of New York Press. US$71.50/ $23.95. 0791460630/ 0791460649 paper

This review is 1,500 words
or about 4 printed pages long

Which other perspective?

‘At dawn on January 29, 1863, Union-affiliated troops under the command of Col. Patrick Connor were brought by Mormon guides to the banks of the Bear River, where, with the tacit approval of Abraham Lincoln, they attacked and slaughtered nearly three hundred Northwestern Shoshoni men, women, and children. Evidence suggests that, in the hours after the attack, the troops raped the surviving women — an act still denied by some historians and Shoshoni elders.’ (back cover) It is from this event that Kass Fleisher’s The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History takes its title and its focus. But the event itself, and the histories surrounding it (Mormon, Native American, Western expansion, Civil War), are indeed only the beginning, forming a framework around which Fleisher constructs an over-arching study and critique of who tells history, which histories are told, and how.

In doing so, Fleisher, an acknowledged non-historian (she is a writer), constantly attempts to expose and criticize her own designs, her biases, her failures. It is this personal sense not only of responsibility, but of presence — the intentional intrusion of the author into the narrative — that makes possible the critique that is the central tenet of this work.

As she exposes her sources, her confusions, the conflicts and holes she finds, the biases she uncovers in her approaches to researching the history of what ‘really happened,’ she returns and her musings eventually revolve around a phrase found in an historical novel: Something had just been done, however, to curb the excesses created by young warriors... Does it take a ‘real writer’ (someone whose attention is with the language as well as what the language points to) to make apparent how our history frequently is vaguely regurgitated at us like this in the passive voice? Apparently so.

I, too, am not an historian. I am a poet — and what does a poet or a writer know of history? Most U.S. Americans have a chronological, Euro-centric notion of history that, in its eagerness to summarize, reduce, and make easily memorized, excludes most of perhaps what ‘really’ ‘happened.’ It also excludes all but one or occasionally two perspectives. That this informs, for instance, how I read current history (e.g. the news) is evident.

Our history and our sense of ourselves is fraught with duality, with an us vs. them mentality which, even when attempting to acknowledge the ‘other perspective,’ limits our understanding of any issue to the assumption of two sides. And we usually have a pretty good notion that just one of them is right. In our attempt to know, always, what ‘really happened,’ we frequently obliterate or ignore anything that doesn’t lead smoothly to a unified conclusion. The ‘irrelevant’ details are omitted or even denied. This not only leads to sterility, but to the annihilation of various truths.

At heart, The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History, is not a history, but a history of a history. It is composed of three parts, the first being a (fairly) conventional (and compelling) history of the region (the site being located in part of what’s now called Idaho that was once also called Utah (though, as Fleisher notes, was also called home by many to whom these names meant nothing at the time)), the region’s inhabitants, the Mormon settlers, and what’s known of the massacre (and subsequent rape) itself.

The second part details Fleisher’s interest in this event (‘How it Came to Me’) and the proposed National Park site along with the interviews she conducted and sources she found (or didn’t find).

Part three, ‘Conclusions Without Ends,’ contains many possible deductions a student of this sort of history might make along with a brilliantly honest critique of the previous chapters, including a discussion of her own use, in part one, of ‘the stylistics common to the disciplines we call ‘anthropology,’ ‘geology,’ ‘history.’’ ‘Note the certainty,’ she observes, ‘with which I write about things 140 years old and 140 million years old, as if I really know what I’m talking about.’ (p.308) This critique, this elaboration on confusion, on discrepancy, on inadequacy and impossibility, is the true essence of the book.

Fleisher skirts established acceptability as an historian in several ways. First of all, she, the writer, the researcher, the fallible human, is conversationally everpresent. Included in accounts of interviews are accounts of the interviewer’s thoughts and emotions, the narrator’s response to the narration as it transpires.

She also eschews, intentionally, footnotes, lending the text readability perhaps at the cost of credibility from those (many in academia) who cede credibility from citation, from constant referral to other texts (which reference, I might note, is not absent, just the footnotes are missing). In addition, she uses literary techniques, such as repetition (retelling), as well as writing in the first person, departing entirely from a more standard, didactic tone.

Finally, and most importantly, she refuses to synthesize, letting each version of the story stand as is. In fact, in her final ‘Ten Digressions on What’s Wrong,’ she is more inclined to further confuse the reader than to point to any one unifying feature or factor the reader might take away. She staunchly refuses to let anything be any less confusing, or less varied, than it is.

Central to Fleisher’s discourse and analysis are not just the facts, but questions and concepts, such as ‘why this story is about us all, white busybody feminists included, because it’s about what we as a people have done.’ Why did I not know about this? she keeps asking as she researches the massacre (and rape). She did not know, we did not know, because no one told us. Perhaps if we all stand aside to let ‘the ones who really know’ (or the ones who claim to own) tell the stories, this is the result. Because no one really knows.

Also central to Fleisher’s critique is the underlying concept of legitimacy. Whose version of the story is legitimate? Is the recognition of the massacre without acknowledging the rape legitimate? Is emotion about one’s subject legitimate? Is oral history or history told by a ‘lay person’ legitimate? Is Native American history told by a white person legitimate? Is a point made in a work of creative writing’s relevance to history legitimate? When a writer cites another writer, is it done to legitimize the other, or to be made legitimate?

But that’s not quite the point either. Perhaps the point is this:

If civil rights legislators, and U.S. citizens, were to understand race oppression, gender oppression, economic oppression, and oppression of gays and lesbians as interrelated, interdependent manifestations of a patriarchal superstructure, one Civil Rights Act would have been enough, and marginalized groups would not now be reduced to competing with each other to benefit separate constituencies.

Or maybe the point is this: if writers of history would acknowledge themselves to be ‘writers’ as well as ‘historians’ we might learn more — or be more interested learning it. (Isn’t ‘history’ what we remember about ourselves?)

Or maybe this is the point: there isn’t one point, just like there isn’t one story, but that doesn’t mean we mustn’ t pay attention to all of them. What was it Keats said about the ability to hold contradictory thoughts in mind without any irritable grasping after fact (negative capability)? — and does this apply to history as well? Yes, because history is written and read by people with opinions using language that is inherently slippery and limited by the preconceptions of what is possible held by the readers and writers alike.

Yet all this has been pointed out before. Fleisher’s addition to this discussion is not just a passionate illustration of history’s shortcomings, nor is it just the presentation of information about little-known events that have necessarily shaped our culture. This book gives voice to the value of dissent, the notion of multiplicity, and provides an example of a treatment that is inclusive without being vague, that is informative without being dictatorial, that can consider giving weight to both emotion and recorded facts in order to approach finding ‘truth.’

Fleisher’s undertaking is ambitious. Her works cited and consulted list transcends genre, including poetry, fiction, and literary theory, along with more standard historical publications (i.e. traditional scholarly works). Does this breadth weaken the overall intent of her book? I think not. The severity of her self-critique serves not only to vitiate a sense of ‘single truth’ (or to redeem her possibly deviant approach to history), but to expose the many assumptions we make in looking at any history, or the idea of a history, even when we attempt to understand it from the ‘other’ perspective. In the back of my head, I can hear Fleisher asking: Which other perspective?

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