I have a friend whose favorite question to ask, upon meeting a new person, is "what is your theme song?" This question usually confuses the heck out of the person he asks, so he continues, "in the movie version of your life, what song would be playing behind you when you enter a room?"
It's a great question, and I've long struggled to decide what my theme song is. I'd love it to be something edgy and dangerous that makes you want to strut just a little more--Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea," for example. Or perhaps, in my more romantic modes, it could be something heart-rending and full of longing, like Mother Love Bone's "Chloe Dancer." Or maybe even something peppy, but peppy out of desperation at the madness of the world: "Birdhouse in your Soul" (They Might Be Giants) or "Gone Out the Window" (Violent Femmes) or "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" (The Clash) or "Story of My Life" (Social Distortion) or "Steady as She Goes" (The Racontuers) or any other song that says or implies "This is not my beautiful house; this is not my beautiful wife."
Tonight, reading Alexie, I'm realizing that my long-standing debate over the question reveals the privilege I enjoy because of the culture into which I was born. For him, that music has already been provided. He writes, "In the movies, Indians are always accompanied by ominous music. And I've seen so many Indian movies that I feel like I'm constantly accompanied by ominous music. I always feel that something bad is about to happen."
I can't think of a single other American culture who has so consistently been scripted as brutal. Tonto is one of the few exceptions, yet even though Sherman Alexie doesn't give his reasons for rejecting Tonto, I feel like I already know them. There's an "Uncle Tom" quality to Tonto that the more savage images of Indians wholly reject--which makes Alexie's identification in the final line all the more painful.
The strange thing is, having grown up with the same stereotypes, I remember as a child how badly I wanted to be "Indian." One summer I walked barefoot daily on my gravel driveway because I'd convinced myself that Native Americans could do so, and I wanted to be that tough. I wanted to be able to sneak soundlessly along a ridge and descend on unsuspecting settlers. Though I never wanted to actually enact any violence, I wanted to be fearsome and ominous. They were never quite human, were they? Those soundless beings in the hills--they were more than human, and no degree of violence quite disturbed their silent *power*. I wonder if part of the reason its so hard to let these stereotypes and prejudices go is that, as abhorrent as they are, we have fallen in love with our own mythologies?
Of course, though, the power is only an illusion of the film. The reality was a far cry.
On finding that her fiance, Deadwood Dick, appears to have drowned in quicksand, Calamity Jane is described as follows: "When he had told her to come to Death Notch to become his wife, all the bitterness of her strange young life had seemingly melted into glorious sunshine, and she was happy. Little wonder, then, that bitter grief now returned to torture her, when they told her that the famous brave-knight had met so terrible a fate, after so many years of safe passage through constant peril" (Chapter VI).
We've talked a lot about how the damsel-in-distress is the dominant narrative regarding female characters in 19th century texts. (We'll ignore the Becky Sharpes of the world for now.) Deadwood Dick opens with three such ladies: Vergie Verner, Siska, and Calamity Jane. Of these, only Jane seems at first to be able to hold her own in the rough company of Death Notch. It's ironic then that she, of all the characters, is the one whose narrative specifically references "brave-knights" who promise to rescue damsels.
I keep having the sense that these damsels in their various states of distress are offered to challenge the old, potent mythology of chivalry. Already, by chapter 5, the most feminine of the bunch, Vergie Verner, has pulled a gun on a man offering to marry her, telling him, "I comprehend your magnanimous offer, but emphatically decline. When in need of a husband, I shall select a man-not a wolf in the guise of a man. You may inform Carrol Carner of my presence here, if you like, and tell him, also, that I have been taking daily practice with the revolver, lately, and I shall take advantage of the first opportunity to blow his brains out. Now, or I'll open up practice on you. Go! I mean biz!"
In some ways, she's a typical Romantic heroine, fending off the evil-intentions of unworthy men, but with a very important difference: this girl fights for herself. In fact, in each of the three dime novels we have read, we find guns in the hands of women--often, these damsels are saving the knights-in-distress.
Ultimately, I don't know if dime novels are ever fully able to offer a fully independent woman, but the steps they take towards this strike me as fairly radical for the time.
Each of the first two chapters is dedicated to a damsel in distress, which is interesting for a novel which names Calamity Jane, one of the West's famous cowgirls, in its title. Death Notch is a town full of men of dubious character, and any women in the area are at risk for rape and perhaps worse--and I couldn't argue with this as a danger of the west, but I'm growing ever more curious to see how Jane will fit into this world of oversexed miscreants.
The racial politics of the early chapter also raises one's eyebrow. Siska, the distressed damsel of chapter II, is half white, half Native American, which seems to make her all the more alluring and vulnerable. The vengeful chief of the tribe who had possessed Death Notch before its capture is also an interesting figure. They note early on that he speaks English well, showing that he's"not untutored, like many of his race," and yet the dialogue that's written for him is strange to say the least. Take this speech: "Red Hatchet once great brave, but his limbs no longer strong for war-path. He can only meditate vengeance upon his enemies, instead of performing it." His first sentence reads like the worst of stilted "Indian" dialect ever written for fiction, but the second seems to come from a university scholar. It's like the writer couldn't decide how to write Red Hatchet. He wants him to be "tutored," but didn't know how to show his racial heritage without corrupting his dialogue.
I'm very curious to see how Red Hatchet develops. His character, along with the introduction of Hank Shakespeare in Chapter I, seems to highlight an interest in the presence of educated men in the West. I wonder how their education will help or hinder them?
"Curse you! do you carry a charmed life?" he hissed, through his gnashing teeth. "But now -- this time you are doomed!"
But again he reckoned without my lucky star. A carwindow was suddenly slid up but two or three feet away and a woman's jeweled hand was thrust out, holding a small pocket-revolver in its delicate but firm grip.
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed a silvery voice, as the timely little weapon flashed and barked in the outlaw's face. "I owe you an old score, Jesse James, on Dick's account, and here's one toward liquidation."
In reading these dime novels, I am over and over again discovering that it's a mistake to believe that women were seen only as damsels in distress. The 1950s TV westerns may portray them so, but in these 19th century novels, women are *savior* as well as saved.
I especially love the witty remark this woman makes as she takes a shot at Jesse James. The present day action and thriller flicks are indebted to lines like this from the Penny Dreadfuls, but typically, it seems to be the men that get to speak them. There's a delight here in the violence about to be committed that I don't believe was normally associated with women, even if they were allowed a role in the action.
"Then I simultaneously drew my pistol and bounded toward my horse, while giving utterances to an Apache yell." (Ch V)
Interesting that, as the detective is freed from his bonds and runs from the James brothers (who have discovered his deceit and are ready to kill him), he gives an Apache yell. If Deloria is right about whites "playing Indian" to get access to traits they associate with Native Americans, then what traits is the detective trying to access here? Rebellion? Obstinacy? The refusal to give up in the face of overwhelming odds?
I love that it's the figure of *law and order* who gives this yell here as he's freed. Perhaps, "civilization" needs its "savagery" if its to survive its own brutality--but then, that's not really the binary working here. I'd be better to say order must have its chaos if its own structures of good and evil are going to compete on more equal terms. After all, if the James brothers were as savage/brutal/evil as they seem to be proving themselves to be, then this detective should be as dead as those killed in Chapter 1, and good--or, at least, lawfulness--doesn't stand a chance.
"Personally, I don't dislike you. I admire your boldness and decision of character, in spite of your crimes." (Narrator to Jesse James)
This strikes me as the crux of every relationship with a good western outlaw. Despite their savagery and brutality, there is something compelling about these figures. A good outlaw attracts us at the same time his actions repulse us. Is it this "boldness and decision of character" that make us fall in love?