Prisoners Of War And Ojibwe Reservation Make Unlikely Neighbors In 'Prudence' Native American writer David Treuer bases the World War II camp for German prisoners on a real-life one that existed near the village of Bena, Minn., on the Leech Lake Reservation where he grew up.
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Prisoners Of War And Ojibwe Reservation Make Unlikely Neighbors In 'Prudence'

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Prisoners Of War And Ojibwe Reservation Make Unlikely Neighbors In 'Prudence'

Prisoners Of War And Ojibwe Reservation Make Unlikely Neighbors In 'Prudence'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest, Native American writer David Treuer, is a member of Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, but he spent his life and career straddling different worlds. His mother is Ojibwe, but his father was an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the states. Treuer has lived and still lives part of the year on the Leech Lake Reservation, but he also teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

His latest novel, called "Prudence," is set in the 1940s on an Ojibwe reservation where whites and Indians have complex relationships and where a prison camp for Germans captured in the war has appeared. David Treuer is the author of three previous novels and two books of nonfiction, as well as essays and articles published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Slate and other media. He last appeared on FRESH AIR with his brother, Anton, in 2008 to talk about their project to preserve the Ojibwe language.

David Treuer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought we might begin by having you describe the setting of this place, the Pines, in 1942. What kind of place is it?

DAVID TREUER: The Pines is a vacation home/resort owned by a Chicago couple. And the resort is in the middle of a reservation in northern Minnesota, and it resembles Leech Lake to a large degree. The reservation I'm from, Leech Lake, is a very large reservation with many native communities within the boundaries of the reservation, but there are also many resorts and non-native people who live there, too. So I was always captured by the ways in which native and non-native people mix and mingle and build lives together, which runs counter to a lot of our thinking about native and white relations.

DAVIES: And one of the first characters we meet is Emma Washburn. She's this woman who comes every summer to open up the little resort that has all these guesthouses. She hires a lot of the locals. I mean, it's sort of kind of like the downstairs staff in "Downton Abbey." She hires folks from the reservation. And there's a moment you describe when she's going to hire Felix, this - you know, this man from the tribe, as the handyman who will help her take care of the place, and she says, well, is he reliable? Will he whiskey up after we pay him and disappear?

TREUER: Yeah, she's very skeptical. She thinks that, you know, to be shrewd is the important thing when running a business, and so she doesn't even know how to treat the people around her. And so the person she's asking is a businessperson about town, and he said, well, you know, Felix is an important person. He's a big man in these parts. And she doesn't really take the hint, and she persists in seeing him as she wants to see him, as a simpleminded, quiet, stoic Indian, maybe from the movies.

DAVIES: And it turns out Felix is a wonderful employee. He gets so much done (laughter)...

TREUER: Yeah, he's very good.

DAVIES: ...Efficiently and quietly. You want to just tell us a little bit about him?

TREUER: Sure. Felix comes across, early on, as something very close to the stoic, closed-mouthed Indian of stereotype. And as we get to know him, we see beyond and behind that surface, and we see a wildly emotional man, a very deep feeling man, who's suffered some tremendous setbacks in life, and who, yet, tries to live a life that, to him, is a life of dignity and caring. He's doing the absolute best he can, and he does very, very well most of the time.

DAVIES: This is in 1942. World War II is underway. And Felix fought in World War I, as did a lot of Indians, right?

TREUER: Yes, especially Ojibwe and other border Indians who would walk across - travel across to the Canadian side and enlist in the Canadian army. And so there were Native Americans fighting in World War I as early as the beginning of the war, 1914. And America itself didn't join until, what, 1917.

DAVIES: I want to read a passage, here. And this is a moment when Felix is watching as Emma, the woman who owns the resort, is greeting her son who is away in Air Force training. And Felix sort of takes in their greeting, and we hear some of his reflections. You want to read this passage for us?

TREUER: Sure, yeah. I'd love to. So here we go. (Reading) And he'd watched as Emma came striding from behind the house, her arms open wide to receive Frankie. No one had greeted Felix that way when he returned in 1919. The shack where his wife and child had died did not open its arms to him. He had left for the war and walked into death, and death was what he'd come home to. His mother and father still lived in their wigwam on the trapping grounds. His father shook his hand. His mother made him sit and fed him. Later, they went to the drum dance where Felix was expected to tell the story of his kills. The old men who remembered 1862 and 1876 and 1891 listened and nodded. And when he was done, they heaped blankets on his lap and pressed tobacco plugs into his palm and shook his hand. One old man gave him a knife and three silver dollars, but no one - not one person - had clutched him and held him close as Emma had hugged Frankie. My son, my boy, Emma had said, trying to cup Frankie's face in her hands. But Frankie had reared back and taken her hands in his and said, mother, good - mother, good. That was when he'd looked up and nodded at Felix. Old Felix - old Felix, it's good to see you - really good. Mr. Frankie, Felix had answered. He felt like saying more, but he couldn't act like they did. It wouldn't feel natural. And he could see that Frankie was trying so hard to be a man, or to be thought of as one, so he'd left it at that.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, David Treuer, reading from his new novel, "Prudence," which is set on a Native American reservation in the 1940s. That is just such a powerful description of this man, Felix. Is he based on someone in your life?

TREUER: No, he's not. Growing up in the '70s, when I was a little kid, I knew old guys who had been World War I veterans. I think one of my namesakes, Clem Boleo (ph), himself was a World War I veteran. And I grew up around a lot of World War II veterans. My grandfather, and I think all of his brothers, served in some capacity. I know my grandfather did, for sure. He was an infantryman in the 2nd Infantry Division and fought in Normandy and then also in Belgium. So I knew a lot of older people. They were always around, and we were always around them. But no, Felix is - he's unique to the book.

DAVIES: The other fascinating thing about this setting - we have a reservation. We have this couple from Chicago that have this little resort which they invite family and friends to and hire some locals from the tribe. And there is a prisoner of war camp...

TREUER: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...This is 1942 - with German prisoners. Did that actually happen in the Leech Lake Reservation?

TREUER: It absolutely did happen. The village that my family's from is Bena, Minn., and within sight of the village, on the shores of Lake Winnie, there was a German prisoner of war camp. It was there for a long time, and the German prisoners would go out in the woods and cut trees and lay corduroy, as they say, to making roads. And it was a work camp, basically. And it was there all through the war. And it always struck me as so ironic that during the war, all these Germans showed up, and all the Indian men were gone fighting. And all these displacements were going on.

And also, it struck me as ironic, too because most people think of reservations as places where nothing really happens and are really just places of eternal suffering. It doesn't really matter when or where the reservation is, but for the past, say, 150 years, it's just a place where Indians suffer continuously. And so I wanted to - I was fascinated by the existence of this prisoner of war camp 'cause it shows that time and place matter, that there's more happening on reservations and in Indian lives than simply ongoing trauma.

DAVIES: You have an interesting background. You want to tell us about your parents?

TREUER: (Laughter) Sure, yeah. So my father's Jewish, and he's a European Jew. He's from Vienna, Austria, and - born in 1926 - and he fled in 1938 and - after a lot of difficulty and loss - and made it to the states. His mother survived as well, and also his father, which was something of a miracle, so they settled in the states. And then he wound up in Minnesota. At a certain point in his life, he was teaching high school on the reservation, and he made his life among native people, among Ojibwe people, and became a very, very important part of the community. My mother is from the reservation where my father taught high school and was actually, at one point, one of his high school students. They didn't date then - not to worry. And that's where we made our lives.

DAVIES: Was the Ojibwe language spoken at all in your house? Did your mom speak it?

TREUER: She didn't speak it very much. The government had done a very good job of eradicating the language in our family. But she did give us our Ojibwe culture and life ways as best she could. And so we were a ceremonial family. I've never been baptized. I'd never been to church except when I was stuck at a friend's house and my friend had to go to church, and so I had to go with him. A very non-Christian - and non-Jewish family, for that matter.

DAVIES: What kinds of ceremonies did you practice?

TREUER: Well, you know, those are things that we try to - you know, we keep close.

DAVIES: OK.

TREUER: But, you know, everything from small things to sort of rites of passage - making sure we had our names, making sure that we, you know, sort of advanced into adulthood, making sure that we had a kind of a faith and a religion to guide us through our lives and then to help us in the decisions we made. But that's about as specific as I can probably get with that stuff.

DAVIES: You said when you were growing up that your mom conveyed the importance of the Ojibwe culture to you in some ways. Can you - I wonder if you can think of any particular ways that you remember her making that important - food or, you know...

TREUER: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: ...Songs.

TREUER: Yeah, well, she took us to ceremonies, which was not something that a lot of parents at that time were doing. But she just took us whether we wanted to go or not, so we were just around traditional people. And so we were comfortable around traditional people. So there was that. And that's about as much as I probably want to say about Ojibwe ceremonies. But...

DAVIES: Sure.

TREUER: ...But she also made us do all sorts of stuff which I loathed. Dave, I loathed this stuff when I was a kid. She made us go ricing - harvesting wild rice...

DAVIES: Oh, right.

TREUER: ...In canoes. I hated it. It was itchy and hot, and there were rice worms which bit you and spiders. And I just wanted to be playing army with my friends or whatever. And then we had to go do this, and I just hated it. And then, in the fall, we'd go hunting. And I didn't care much about hunting. My older brother was more into it than - I became much more interested in it later on. I said, this is boring. And I said, I'm sitting in a swamp, watching more swamp. I don't want to do this. I don't want to be here. And in the spring, we'd tap maple trees and boil the sap down and make maple syrup and maple sugar. I couldn't stand it. The smell gave me headaches. And you know, but she made us do this all the time.

And I would - I teased her about it later. I think I must have been in college, I said, oh, mom, you know, you used to make us do all this stuff, and it used to annoy me so much. She said, well, I always felt that you should grow up and be and do anything that you want to do, any place in the world. But push come to shove, if you came back here, you could live off the land, and you would know how our people have done it for centuries. You will have it. You'll never have to looking for it because you'll already have it. That's my gift to you as a parent. I know you didn't like it, but I think that you do now. And she was absolutely right. I long to do all those things. I love doing those things, and I love doing them with my kids.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Treuer. His new novel is called "Prudence." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with novelist David Treuer. His new book is called "Prudence."

You have a book - a nonfiction book - called "Rez Life" about life on the reservation, not just Leech Lake where you grew up, but on reservations across the country. You tell about the history of the Ojibwe tribe. Give us a bit of that.

TREUER: Yeah, my book "Rez Life" is really just an answer to a set of questions. What are reservations? Why do they exist? Where are they going? What do they mean? What can they tell us, all of us, about native people, but also about America? Those were the questions that gave rise to the book.

In it, of course, being Ojibwe, I focus a fair amount on Ojibwe lives and Ojibwe reservations. I feel very lucky to be Ojibwe. We're a very large tribe. We're scattered all over the United States all the way from Michigan to North Dakota and all points in between and from as far south as almost Chicago to as far north as Hudson Bay. I mean, I think the land area that comprises Ojibwe country is probably the largest cultural area - you know, native cultural area - in North America. And...

DAVIES: And, for context, they're also referred to as Chippewa by some, right?

TREUER: Right, by some. Ojibwes, Ojibwa, Chippewa - those are, you know, three different ways of referring to us. We refer to ourselves as Ojibwe. And it's great being a part of a big tribe like that. There's so much diversity in our tribe - people who grew up on these remote fly-in reserves in Northern Ontario - reachable only by float plane - to people who grew up at Mille Lacs Reservation in Minnesota, an hour and a half from Minneapolis, going to Vikings games. We have lawyers and trappers and homemakers. I mean, there's so much diversity just in my tribe. I just - I revel in that. I love that.

DAVIES: You write that the Ojibwe - I think they came from the Eastern part of the United States and actually drove out the Sioux, who end up becoming - how did you put it? - cornering the market on Indian cool.

TREUER: Oh, yeah, yeah. Those plains tribes, you know, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Arikara. Those are really cool tribes (laughter). And, you know, they're sort of - when people close their eyes and imagine an Indian, well, they tend to imagine some Plains Indian on the back of a horse. And they don't tend to imagine, you know, stocky Ojibwe people living in swamps, trapping beavers and eating rabbits, you know? So, yeah, I will say that some of our neighboring tribes are in some ways cooler than we are, but in some ways, you know, of course - course not.

DAVIES: Right, well, you talk about the names, for example.

TREUER: Oh, yeah. Those Plains tribes have great names. And - like Crazy Horse, you know, Sitting Bull, those are awesome, you know? And some of our famous Ojibwe chiefs have names like Moose Dung, Little French Man, Bad Boy, Curly Head, Flat Mouth. And, I mean, those are interesting, but not quite as cool as Sitting Bull.

DAVIES: Your grandfather has quite a story. Do you feel like telling us a bit about this when you write in the book how you went through in 2007 after his death?

TREUER: Yeah, "Rez Life" - I start the book by talking about how I was - I returned to my family's village on the day that my grandfather committed suicide. He was an 83-year-old veteran of World War II and he'd endured and survived so much. And it came as such a shock that he would kill himself, he would shoot himself in the head. It's so painful. What I don't talk about in the book is that in the last decade or so of his life, he and I had become very, very close. This was an unexpected blooming of our relationship. I'd never thought that would happen while I was growing up. It wouldn't have seemed possible. So when I lost him, it was incredibly painful.

My grandmother asked me to eulogize him at his funeral and that was easy to agree to. And then she also asked me to go up to his house into his bedroom and clean it up - clean up the mess that he made when he shot himself. And I agreed to do that too, and that proved, you know, both liberating and difficult in ways I couldn't have imagined. No one - nothing prepared me in life really to clean up my grandfather's blood and his - you know, his brain. I don't know how else to put it.

DAVIES: How was it liberating?

TREUER: Well, you come face to face with what your lives mean. I had to think really hard about what his life meant. I was challenged right - cleaning up after his suicide pushed me in ways I didn't expect. So cleaning out his room and removing his furniture and his clothes and ripping out the carpet and - I had to - it was as though I was digging for something else. I was trying to dig past his death. I was trying to dig past the tragedy of his death and trying to find something else, and I found something else down there. And what I found was that I was able to reject - reject the version of his life that told - that told it as a tragedy. I rejected the temptation to define his life by the split second it took for that bullet to travel through his head, to put it very literally. That he'd - I found it possible to remember that he lived 83 years in the only place that mattered to him, surrounded by the only people that mattered to him, that when I really tried, I could see that his life was a life of surplus and beauty and bounty. And I don't think I would've gotten there if I'd not been face to face with his end. The end was brief. There were 83 years before that and those were not easy years, but those were good years, and he got to spend them with us.

DAVIES: Why do you think your grandmother asked you to clean up the house rather than, you know, hiring somebody or finding somebody else? Or...

TREUER: (Laughter) Yes, she asked me to clean up the house, and I don't think it occurred to her to hire somebody. It's not - no one's ever probably hired anyone to clean anything in my grandmother's family. It's just you do it yourself. Even the grave, we dig the graves ourselves typically. And we don't hire that out. It's just not done.

DAVIES: David Treuer is the author of "Rez Life." His new novel is called "Prudence." He'll be back in the second half of the show. And we'll learn about making movie trailers from Mark Woollen, who's made trailers for many Oscar-nominated films, including "Boyhood," "The Theory Of Everything," and "Birdman," which last night picked up the award for best picture. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Native American writer David Treuer. He's a member of the Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, but he spends part of every year teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His latest novel, called "Prudence," is set in the 1940s on an Ojibwe reservation where a camp for German prisoners of war has appeared.

The new novel is named "Prudence" after a woman who was a character - there's an interesting story behind your picking this name.

TREUER: Yeah. She's based on a real person of that name. In a biography of Ernest Hemingway, the biographer quotes - I forget the title of the biography - but the biographer quotes Hemingway as saying "the first woman I ever pleasured was an Ojibwe half-breed girl named Prudence Bolton," end quote. Now of course (laughter) this is Hemingway, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. And I think we could probably assume that Hemingway's never pleasured anybody.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

TREUER: You think Hemingway, you don't think pleasure. You think other things. And the biographer did some due diligence to see if this were true, if this were possibly true. And he found that in fact there was a woman - a girl - named Prudence Bolton, who lived near and around Traverse, Mich., and her path would have crossed Hemingway's. The only other thing he was able to find out was that she and her lover, Richard Castle, committed suicide when they were 19 by drinking strychnine and that Prudence had been pregnant at that time. And I thought, I came across this nugget - I don't know - 20 years ago, maybe? And it always stayed with me, and it stayed with me because it betrayed a kind of systemic unfairness that we live in a society that will give us thousands and thousands of pages about Ernest Hemingway and about people like Ernest Hemingway, but that people like Prudence get one sentence. That's all she gets. That's it. And I was really curious about her. What was her life like? Why would she do something like that?

DAVIES: And when people read the book, they will see how this Prudence came to encounter the other characters that we've been talking about in the book - the people who lived on this reservation, the woman who had the family who ran the small resort, and Felix, the handyman. And the encounter is - well, there are hard times. There's, you know, hunger. There is abuse. You know, I've read that you are troubled by writing about Native Americans which uses trauma narratives to, you know, as a way of understanding Indian lives. Prudence's story is pretty traumatic here, isn't it?

TREUER: Sure. I mean, her story is. She has her fair share of hardship. Of course, you know, characters in novels need to experience hardship. There needs to be conflict or there's no novel, there's no story. So yes, I suppose in some ways Prudence's life is traumatic. But I like to think at least - and this maybe is a question for critics down the road - that I avoid falling into what I think of as writing trauma porn, which is basically trotting out hardship which provides a kind of catharsis, right? There's a cathartic reaction on the part of the reader to it, this sort of - this unleashing and this unburdening of emotion, like, oh, my God - of pity and fear. And then once unburdened, you know, the reader is - their burden is lightened. They've expiated whatever guilt they have, right? That's the kind of emotional math of reading a kind of book which I try not to write.

So in Prudence's life, yes, there's lots of hardship on one hand. On the other, I don't think I let the reader off the hook. I don't think that I provided cheap or easy catharsis. And it's all leading up toward - the book is leading up toward Prudence's attempt at self-possession and recovery, and how she does that is not how you'd think. But I hope I haven't done what I...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: No, no.

TREUER: ...Been so fond of accusing other people of doing...

DAVIES: Yeah, no.

TREUER: ...Of having done.

DAVIES: Right. I don't feel expiation and catharsis...

TREUER: Oh, good. Oh, good.

DAVIES: ...When I read about Prudence's way of dealing with this. One more thing - terminology. You use the term Indian often. A lot of people will, you know, prefer Native American. Do these words have any particular meaning to you? I mean, are there any particular ways that you think they should or should not be used?

TREUER: I think they should be used in the way that whoever you're talking to feels appropriate. Personally, and I'm only speaking for myself and this is not the final word on anything - I want to make that clear to anyone listening - I personally don't care whether it's Indian, American Indian or Native American. The important term to me is Ojibwe. You know, that's the name of my tribe. So to me they're interchangeable, and I use them interchangeably. And it's just easier to say Indian. It's fewer syllables. And I'm all for fewer syllables. To some people it matters a great deal and they've put a lot of thought into it, and they have very compelling reasons why they prefer Native American or American Indian, what have you. And they should be respected and listened to. But for me, that terminology is used interchangeably. That's just me, though.

DAVIES: And, as a writer, more than one term is always good. Well, David Treuer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TREUER: Thank you.

DAVIES: David Treuer is a member of the Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, and he teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His new novel is called "Prudence." Coming up, Mark Woollen tells us about making movie trailers. This is FRESH AIR.

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