by Alison Gazarek
When Orpheus lost his great love, he was offered one opportunity to bring her back—to descend into the underworld and lead her back to earth, playing his instrument. There was only one catch: he couldn’t look back. He had one rule to follow, and in the end, he simply couldn’t. He didn’t trust that Euridice was behind him, so he turned back, and lost her forever.
The story of Orpheus and Euridice alternately seduces and infuriates me. On the one hand, I understand Orpheus. Who can’t help look back at a great love, considering all the romance and passion, the missteps and mistakes? Isn’t what’s behind us also what makes us who we are now? But then there is danger in looking back. Perhaps dwelling on the conflicts and great moments of your past can sabotage your present.
Historical fiction is a kind of “looking back,” but also an opportunity to reinvent, or to color the way the past is perceived. Similarly, nonfiction history books are, for better or worse, a kind of story-telling, colored (no matter how hard one tries to be impartial) by the teller. Think of Christopher Columbus: the great explorer who discovered America, according to some narratives, or the power-hungry rapist who stumbled into the Caribbean, according to others. How do we look back at his legacy, and how does the way we look back serve our current narrative? Certainly remembering him as a brave explorer is a convenient story to instill pride in schoolchildren and solidify our ideas of manifest destiny. Remembering him as a slave-making gold-monger may be more accurate, and could also help us avoid making some of the mistakes in the future (or even, gasp, make reparations for past mistakes?) but might mean the death of America as we know it. Looking back can make us, or break us. Sometimes both.
In the 2010 debut novel Deep Creek by Dana Hand—the pen name for co-authors Will Howarth and Anne Matthews—the Chinese protagonists repeat the word, shebude, over and over. Lee Loi, the American-educated, Chinese-appointed investigator into an Idaho massacre, explains: “Canton people, Toisan people—you think it to yourself, leaving behind some place you love. Or someone. Shebude. Can’t bear to let go. So best not look back.” For the victims of a horrific crime in the novel, their way of moving forward into a new life, to pioneering in a racist West, was to never look back. The authors of this novel, however, take the opposite approach: it’s a crime to forget, so we must look back.
Deep Creek is the fictionalized account of a true event—a horrifying massacre that took place in 1887 on the tenuous border between the Idaho and Oregon territories. The event that launches the story is the discovery of the bodies of almost 30 Chinese miners, brutally tortured, murdered, and discarded in the river. The novel opens with Judge Joe Vincent and his daughter fishing for sturgeon in Hells Canyon, Idaho Territory; the girl pulls out a dead man on her line. We are guided through the event, the investigation, and the resulting court case to try the accused murderers. The Chinese (and others) had been mining the area for a while, but their murder was exceptionally brutal and heartless, and was then the largest massacre to occur on American soil to date. But in the eyes of many citizens, and the courts, it wasn’t exceptional enough to prosecute, simply because the men were Chinese.
Joe Vincent (based on the actual Lewiston Judge Joseph Vincent) emerges as the protagonist of the story, as he embarks on his journey—reluctantly at first—to find the killers. His initial inquiry into the killings is juxtaposed with flashbacks of life in the Chinese mining camp, presumably to give voice to the soon-to-be massacred miners. The men are humanized, but unfortunately the reader isn’t particularly invested in them through these flashbacks. Who were these men before they came to Idaho? How did they get there? What was life like in Canton, and what drove them to make such an extreme journey to a place so hostile, but with so much promise? In the end, although Deep Creek is the story of their massacre, it isn’t the story of their lives. In any case, the story belongs to Joe Vincent and his colleagues, and that’s where the book gathers strength.
Though the actual historical facts are debatable, it is believed that Joe Vincent did travel up the Snake River towards Deep Creek, with others, in an attempt to investigate the crime. The addition of Lee Loi (a Yale-educated Chinese man employed by the Sam Yup company in San Francisco), and the character of Grace Sundown (the fictional sister of the actual Nez Percé cowboy, Jackson Sundown, an active participant in the Nez Percé war and the Battle of Little Bighorn, as well as a rodeo legend), begins to give the novel life. Together, this improbable trio travel up the river to Deep Creek, with Grace Sundown navigating the river, Lee Loi attempting to overcome his citified, Yale education in order to survive in the lawless wilderness, and Joe Vincent navigating the implications of his own conscience. Once they reach the site of the massacre, Joe disguises himself as an old miner and infiltrates the camp of a group of horse rustlers. The leader of the gang is Bruce Evans, who Vincent quickly identifies as blatantly evil enough to be the one who instigated the torture of the Chinese men. The three hustle back to Lewiston to build their case against this ragtag group of young hoodlums—who apparently turned into methodical, savage killers when faced with a group of foreign men and a pile of gold.
Oregon has had a particularly aggressive and disturbing history of systematic racial discrimination. If you visit Portland today, you might find a charmingly hipster, and startlingly white, city. You may find African Americans newly relocated into suburbs reminiscing despondently about 50 years of family history in Northeast Portland, and the gentrification that recently pushed them out. If you are willing to look into history, you might read about the redlining that essentially kept people of color out of Oregon until World War II; you might discover the forgotten city of Vanport, built on a floodplain in Portland to accommodate shipyard workers, many of whom were black and recruited to work in Portland during the war. You may read about the flood that wiped the city out in 15 minutes, and how Northeast Portland, by default (and unstated redlining), became Portland’s largest (and essentially only) African American neighborhood. And you might better understand why gentrification now feels so insidious to a community who, just 50 years before, were also pushed out of their homes, back then by a flood of water in an area never built to last, and this time by a flood of affluent people and food co-ops and bike shops. To understand gentrification in 2013, you have to understand housing laws in 1944.
And to understand why Grace Sundown and Joe Vincent have such a strained relationship all throughout Deep Creek, you have to look back and see the history that divides them. To get a whole picture of America, you must see what happened in a small creek 150 years ago, on the border of the territories of Oregon and Idaho.
Historical context is essential to understanding the present. Perhaps to illustrate this very point, the authors structure Deep Creek in such a way that it’s hard to understand Grace and Joe until the context of their relationship (and the best details) is revealed in the last third of the book. Although it is a profound commentary on the nature of history (and the confusion that results when we don’t have historical context), this structure seems to come at a cost to the story. Late in the book (too late, I would argue), it is revealed that Joe Vincent and Grace Sundown were in love, decades previous. In Deep Creek, faced with the opportunity to marry the love of his life—a half-Indian and half-French woman with no “people”—or choose a marriage of convenience—to a woman with stature and connections, who also needed a husband—young Joe Vincent chose the latter. It is revealed to us that Joe Vincent not only compromised his heart by choosing a woman he didn’t love and abandoning Grace Sundown, but that he later met Grace on the battlefield, in the midst of the very real Nez Percé war, where he again made a compromise—acting against his instincts to fight with his friends and lover, and remaining with the United States Army to take part in the pursuit and massacre of the Nez Percé Indians. The metaphor isn’t subtle, but it is meaningful: Joe Vincent, obsessed with tracking and prosecuting the perpetrators of the Deep Creek massacre, was himself involved in the massacre of Native Americans by the United States government, and with Grace Sundown at his side, it’s hard to escape the irony of his position.
In the end, although the authors of Deep Creek don’t fully voice the lives of the Chinese miners who were so brutally killed, they do explore the themes of convenient racism, border-shifting, and corruption in business and westward expansion. Grace, one of the few characters not based on an actual person, is free to be the most fascinating character in the book: she acts as Joe’s foil, his love interest, and his conscience. She is also the conscience of the book; without her, Deep Creek is simply the historical narrative (with a few interesting fictional details) of an actual event. With Grace Sundown, Deep Creek becomes a meditation on identity, nationality, and belonging. Through her story, and the repetition of the phrase by the Chinese characters throughout the book—shebude—the novel is a story about how impossible it can be not to look back, how deeply past events can explain where we find ourselves today—and how we can then move forward.
History is easy to forget. Grass grows back over bloodstains; screams cease echoing. If you have ever visited, for example, the Lorraine Motel, and stood underneath the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, or if you have walked through the barren wasteland of the Auschwitz memorial, it can be hard to reconcile the sound of birds chirping, or the cameras of the tourists clicking. Life goes on. If you visit Deep Creek today, you will see a quiet curve in the Snake River, maybe some white-water rafters or fishermen. After learning the story of the massacre, it’s incomprehensible that you don’t hear screams, or see the residue of a battle or injustice.
Will Howarth and Anne Matthews, the dual authors of Deep Creek under the pseudonym Dana Hand, have been successful non-fiction authors for years. Both authors seem, through their previous work, to be fascinated by the idea of place, especially intersections of culture, urbanity, and nature. Will Howarth taught for over four decades at Princeton, a historian focused on nature, literary non-fiction, and the environment. Perhaps the most telling of his pursuits is his position as the editor-in-chief of the 25-volume Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Anne Matthews, also an academic with teaching positions at Princeton, Columbia, and NYU, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with her non-fiction work Where the Buffalo Roam: Restoring America’s Great Plains, about the changing demographics of the American West. Howarth mines history for stories and facts about specific American places; Matthews roots herself in those places, exploring changing relationships and society. Their collaboration on their first fictional work, Deep Creek, in this sense, couldn’t be more complementary.
In an interview about her book about wildlife in New York City, Matthews notes,
Yes, I think that place is the least appreciated, most important factor in shaping life and prose . . . A sense of place is also a sense of self. Readers often skip the landscape descriptions that writers labor over—which is too bad, since place, geography, landscape, can be as essential to a story as any human that inhabits it. As Eudora Welty says in The Optimist’s Daughter, “direction itself was made beautiful, momentous.”
Today, Hells Canyon is known more for its inclusion in Lewis and Clark’s route and its hydroelectric dams than for the story of massacred Chinese miners. Yet Howarth and Matthews—Dana Hand—manage to capture the untold story of this place, and to explore the implications for today. The venue of historical fiction allows them to engage not only the facts of the place, but also the social and cultural realities—often expressed more truthfully through fiction (think Grace Sundown and her position as the moral complicator of the story) than non-fiction could achieve. Perhaps this is why, after years of accomplished non-fiction publication, these two authors came together to fictionalize a story that either of them could have told without the other—but that certainly wouldn’t have communicated as much.
Until some court documents, likely hidden, were discovered around 2005, the Deep Creek Massacre was utterly forgotten, and the river doesn’t tell its secrets. It is the job of stories to help us remember what happened. To help us get our minds around why. To help us understand how we got to where we are, and how we can move forward in the most responsible way possible. To reconcile how a group of men, when faced with a literal or metaphorical “pile of gold,” can employ convenient racism to inflict unspeakable crimes, and get away with them. And how we can tell the story, in the hopes that such a thing will not continue to be repeated. Shebude. We who have the luxury must look back.
Alison Gazarek is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University. She is currently a high school English teacher and teacher-coach at a small, portfolio-based public high school in the South Bronx. She has recently led workshops on creating authentic assessments for students and “real world learning” for the Coalition of Essential Schools, the iZone initiative, the NYC Common Core Literacy Pilot, and the Children First Network 106.
Alison Gazarek’s previous features: Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Girl