Bohemian Girlby Terese Svoboda
Young Harriet’s father sells her as a slave to settle his gambling debt with an eccentric Indian—and her story is just beginning. Part Huck Finn, part True Grit, Harriet’s story of her encounter with the dark and brutal history of the American West is a true original. When she escapes the strange mound-building obsession of her Pawnee/i>… See more details below
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Young Harriet’s father sells her as a slave to settle his gambling debt with an eccentric Indian—and her story is just beginning. Part Huck Finn, part True Grit, Harriet’s story of her encounter with the dark and brutal history of the American West is a true original. When she escapes the strange mound-building obsession of her Pawnee captor, Harriet sets off on a trek to find her father, only to meet with ever-stranger characters and situations along the way. She befriends a Jewish prairie peddler, escapes with a chanteuse, is imprisoned in a stockade and rescued by a Civil War balloonist, and becomes an accidental shopkeeper and the surrogate mother to an abandoned child, while abetting the escape of runaway slaves.
A picaresque in the American vein, Terese Svoboda’s new novel is the Bohemian answer to Willa Cather’s iconic My Ántonia. Lifting the shadows off an entire era of American history in one brave girl’s quest to discover who she is, Bohemian Girl gives full play to Svoboda’s prodigious talents for finding the dark and the strange in the sunny American story—and the beauty and the hope in its darkest moments.
"Creating a western world as raucous and unpredictable as any imagined by Larry McMurtry, and teeming with characters as tragically heroic as those created by Willa Cather, Svoboda offers a vividly distinctive tale of the American frontier."—Carol Haggas, Booklist starred review
"Hollywood has handed us an American West of cowboys, cattle, train whistles, and Indian wars, but Terese Svoboda offers a different glimpse of history, from the perspective of a young girl abandoned by her own father to make her way in a world that has mostly cruelty to offer. . . . An eloquent exploration of the Wild West from the perspective of one of its victims who refuses to be victimized."—Andi Diehn, ForeWord
"With understate prose superbly composed, Svoboda has created a world that is both complex and simple. The reader comes away with a clear understanding that what we commonly refer to as simpler times were not at all that."—Robin Martin, issuu
Enslaved to an Indian to settle her father's gambling debt, a young girl escapes and makes her own way in mid-19th-century Nebraska.
Poet and author Svoboda (Black Glasses Like Clark Kent,2008, etc.) has an elliptical prose style that makes demands some will find irksome. Those willing to stick with her tough, resourceful narrator, however, will be rewarded by an unsentimental picaresque recallingTrue Gritin its matter-of-fact portrait of a harsh society that mirrors the West's vast, indifferent landscape.True Grit'sMattie Ross is a creampuff compared to 12-year-old Harriet, who doesn't tell us her real name but assumes the sobriquet of a fellow captive who killed herself. Tied to a tree and temporarily saved from being burned alive when her dancing brings rain, Harriet manages to slip her bonds and limps off (she's been hobbled to prevent flight) to find her Pa. She acquires a baby whose family has been struck by lightning and winds up in a town being looted by soldiers—no one knows from which side, since the chaotic first year of the Civil War has given rise to armed bands of no particular allegiance. Undaunted by seeing a shopkeeper shot dead at his door, Harriet starts selling his supplies, telling the townsfolk she is his niece and has just arrived with her orphaned cousin. Over the course of the war, she establishes herself as a canny businesswoman while facing down with aplomb such threats as the arrivals of a peddler who knew her as a captive and of her crazy Indian captor. She acquires a suitor, damaged veteran Henry, who proves to have secrets of his own. Pa never shows up, and the baby who kept her from roaming farther to find him grows into a 13-year-old whose dreams are at odds with hers. Yet we never doubt Harriet will seize as much satisfaction as this hard life can spare.
Difficult, but worth it for a marvelous heroine with an iron will and a unique voice.
Read an Excerpt
By TERESE SVOBODA
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2011 Terese Svoboda
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePa lost me on a bet he could not break, nor would, having other daughters to do for, and other debt besides. The bet with the Indian—really a race, Pa liked any kind of bet—was who could walk first to the mouth of this river that flows so flat into the distance that the eye starts to water following it. Too thick to drink, too thin to plow, he says every time we cross it. My Pa traps and knows the land but maybe not so much the river, or maybe he stopped to take refreshment the way he does and got himself confused because that bet was not won although he and the Indian spent most of one winter chasing the river down, with the Indian squat at the mouth by the time Pa showed.
A man of honor, my Pa.
If I look into the perfect face of the river, with no rock to make a muscle in its flow or tree stump to divide it, I see Pa in it, about to haul out a trap. He trapped on land too, but rivers were his favorite. I see his face in the water and not even my true self, nor Duschecka in my arms, that's how much I want to see him. He wears a sourdough coat, a sealskin cap, and Dutch socks up to the knee, winter, spring, and fall. In summer you can know him by his short leather breeches.
I am washing Duschecka all over. She is a tree branch that nobody knows how grew arms and legs just where you would. Well, most of one leg. She broke off from the only tree growing anywhere in this prairie, with a knot on one side that could be a face. Bone-white when I found her, all her bark gone to weather and storm, heat and hoppers and deer, she turned black being in the mud a lot, like me.
I scrub her and then sink her to the river floor but I hold onto her leg the way my Pa did, teaching us swimming until we almost drowned, then I use the sand from the river bottom to clean her back to white. This slip of deer hide goes over her shoulders and down under the place where I tie a Christ knot. I call it that for it has a cross twisted into the knot if you look close. But I am not a Christ person so much as the next person, you would be surprised. The Indian who keeps me gets along fine without the Christ god, so snug and bound with His rosaries and rules. He believes instead in his own. This is all well and good but the danger in any of those gods is that in believing, people forget to do for themselves.
This Indian is trying not to let people forget to do for themselves by building a mound. Somewhere east of here is where he first saw this kind of mound, where others of his Indian kin have built them, others like the kind of relation the French and the Russians and the Bohemians have. This Indian says nobody forgets those Indians, the ones who made those big mounds, they all go on talking about them because they can still see those mounds, some about as high as our one tree, and built in the shapes of bear or crab or snake. The Indian likes the snake mound especially. It is easiest to build is what I think.
The other Indians think he builds these mounds because he is not as happy with the gods as they are and he doesn't say no to that either. They let him go on building because he is the son of someone, and whatever he says is half his father's saying. What his father doesn't tell him but instead God, is that only women can build this mound. Since his women say he's never listened to any god before, his father's or his own, they won't build it for him, thus he is always happy to steal or trade or bet for more women.
While I am about the Indian's business, I am to keep my eyes open, Pa said, for the Indian's hoard. He said I am part of a plan to capture the hoard and make us all rich. I think Pa lost the bet so he could find out where it's hid, so I could tell him when my years are over. Four years are how many I have here to wait. The hitch is—where will Pa be when my four years finish? He's a wanderer. Some say only the French trap, but every country has its wanderers, and creatures that wander, cats with pelts people pay good money to wander after, beaver, and sometimes buffalo. Not too many trap all the way to Russia like Pa did once, or mate with people they don't have a relation to, like my Ma, who is French. One of those French soldiers who did not know Russia had the kind of winter it has, instead of marching until he nearly froze, he stayed where he saw one of Pa's traps and though he didn't die with my father's saving him, nobody could remember who he said he was afterwards. But he knew a Frenchwoman when he saw one and left a set of twins inside my Ma, twins who looked delicate like him my sisters said and who went off with him and ma.
Pa did not object after seeing how they matched, the twins and the Frenchman.
I was just small myself then, and looking like ma.
I haven't seen or heard from Pa since he whispered to me that good advice about the mound and the Indian's hoard and then left with my sisters to collect his traps and whatever else down some other river, one that Pa swore would have more luck and less debt.
His gambling habit started in Russia, a place that shelters more wolves than people. Pa is not one to save, and wolves, they never put by either which is what my brother must have meant, in resemblance. Or so my sisters said. Well, we hadn't but one slit in the Russian fort that you could watch out of to see if my brother was finding mushrooms fast enough to make up for calling Pa a wolf. All the drunk Russians crowded around the slit with us, saying he was lucky not to be beaten for saying such a thing, and some of them swore there was no wolf out there and got Pa to wager the footstool someone stood on to see out with. It turned out the mushrooms weren't everywhere near as much as they all thought, but the wolves were. Pa won that bet.
As if he wants to lose to set that straight, Pa is always saying I'll wager that the sun will rise between those trees there. Three times it happened, says Pa, that some people moved those trees, and he says he was drinking none of that clear liquor from Russia. He tries not to say vodka because it always comes out wodka and people here laugh. It is the medicine of Russia, he says. I am not Russian but this wodka of theirs is sometimes worthy of a person's debt, Pa says.
I'm a sight better off than my brother, yes I am—the Indian who keeps me, his people only talk to wolves. They don't even fear them because they say wolves are their brothers.
A brother is a little too close if you ask me.
Duschecka, Duschecka, help me dig. Tie me to a whirl-a-gig.
This Indian who keeps me is old. I am twelve and he has two wives already who make him old. All old people have their secrets because who can know who they are or what when everything happened to them before, with no one watching from then. So far I haven't seen a lick of a hoard in any of my time here, which I tell you is making me old. It's not so bad for me but that woman way yonder was left in a trade by a husband who was in need of an Indian wife instead, and the two more you can't see are from a foolish wagon train without enough water who had to be left off. The two left behind have a brother who cannot get soldiers to look for them because the governor is being elected and he needs all his troops to parade. A younger girl named Harriet died a month after I started, gone that quick and nearly forgot, except that the Indian buried her bones deep in the mound on the sandy side.
Except for me, these females have no fixed term so it is sensible to hobble them. The Indian ties our ankles together with hide, and keeps us apart so we cannot release each other. As if a knot tightening as it dries isn't enough to keep us. As if we don't know there is no one near enough for rescue, and what the Indian might do if he caught us in an escape. With our hobbling, we can just barely move the riverbank clay or fill the water pots to soften other dirt for the mound. But I am not a complainer like my sisters who would say their lips hurt from the salt on their food. That is why my father chose me to stay and not the others.
I am limping pretty good now.
The Indian is more like Pa and does not save or store, except for bones. I think the mound is the hoard. The Indian is making it to figure out the sun, that's what he says to the others. To know more about when to plant and hunt. How can the sun falling this way or that on a mound tell you when?
But if I turn over a hoard or the mound opens with a true cross inside, how can I tell Pa? I still have it in my head the way he made me whistle for him whenever the trees confused me. Pa used his lips, loud between his teeth, as if a bird were caught there. I try that and listen for him after. The question of where Pa is ends my talk every time, Duschecka.
At least I still have my bonnet and can keep my face white so Pa can tell me apart. With its face flaps, the bonnet improves upon the kerchief. Except for its shade, you wouldn't know me from the Indians if you came to the river to water your stock. I have the braids like they do, and my clothes are theirs, and out of them stick brown arms, strong ones from hauling river mud. Sometimes I lift whole pots, sometimes I have to put them on my back—they don't care how we move them. But to work without your bonnet and have your face turn brown—even the Indians like to make their faces white at times, in the disguise of the fool god.
She is gone.
Loose, she drifted from my hand. Pa is Bohemian, which means I am part of a people who fear not, but she sinks and is soon gone, and that I do fear. The water is dark from the swirled-up mud I make draining it off while I am sunk in thought. I know I will drown if I go in after her. Pa's lesson of my one leg kept out of the water taught me I will drown well enough in any water, slow or not. My hobbles prevent a chase.
Losing her makes me stop talking. I fear forgetting how with my Duschecka gone, and all the other females so distant they can't hear what flows through my head, a river in itself. I don't want to break off another branch or paddle a doll out of clay or twist her from straw like one of the other girls who had a real baby to protect and couldn't. Duschecka is just gone. Soon the land will be as dark as the water that took her and then I will go inside to forget and eat some Indian food and listen hard to what the Indian says.
I have seen no wolves here, but I have heard.
Chapter TwoThe peddler could be hobbled like me. The ropes that tie on his hunchback load slip and cause him to take small steps and curse in another language. I hear him well enough but instead of raising my head and risking Indian punishment, I bend lower so he can see the last light neckskin where the bonnet band bites. My hand-insides are light too, if he cares to look, but no more my face—the sun has stole around my bonnet flaps. I bend and rinse off clay.
He is young enough it is likely his first trip.
You would think a bonnet would calm a person and make him feel the woman is on the job like a horse with blinders but so often people startle, seeing features inside, and have to stare at them to fix the face. This peddler could be expecting to see a sick red-cheeked woman or a woman grown old, the apple all wrinkled.
I tip my bonnet back.
With that bonnet lying empty on your back, you look like you have two heads, he says. He tilts his own flat hat to let the sweat fall, then he sticks his hand out from under his load. Glad to become acquainted with the both of you.
To meet his hand's sudden thrust, I trip over my broken crock and its mud spills. Glad, I say anyway. A word I haven't heard in a long while. I untwist my bonnet and look up to his gawky black-suited self.
I have for you the finest linens, he says, and, tipping his load to the ground, he takes a seat. Even if you are not in immediate need. He stares at my hands. What lamb are you to tolerate this forsaken place?
I sit beside him and pull in my skin dress so it hides the big rip that is starting where it oughtn't. I shove my ankles together so the hide-hobbles look as if they are a part of shoes.
Who you be really? he says in the wait, until he looks around for an answer from somebody else.
Nobody else is what he sees. A beaver or a badger at best, relocating themselves downriver.
I work at a word. Camphor, I say.
I have that, he laughs. That's not your name.
I could read it on a box, when I could read, I say.
A reader, he hmmms. He begins to put out what he's brought in his load. Well, Missus Reader, this here is soap, this here is dry goods. I never met a lady who could resist the dry goods, especially one in a bonnet on a hot day with nobody to talk to.
He throws out a smile of such a size that I think maybe he has trouble with the selling. He must know he will have trouble with me, since he doesn't see a scrap of hide or fur I could barter, except what I wear. Maybe he's practicing. He is not much older than I am so he must need the practice.
You been selling long? I say.
He smooths a pantleg. It is the goods that sell themselves anyway, not me, he says. Some days Indians will take a bale of dry goods off my back with no apparent need, and the next day I will see the cloth I sold spread against the door of a tent, used as a spill fan. Once I traded a cattle brand for three buffalo hides. The Indian was in the possession of a bull he needed marked as he had rightfully gotten it in payment from white men looking around for what they would find if he would find it for them. He was a scout. I am hoping to make such a trade more than once.
He finds Camphor in his load and puts it down in front of me. Maybe the someone who jars it up is called Camphor, he says. I reckon it's Latin anyway for something to do with throats, or covering up smells.
I am sniffing his jar, big deer sniffs.
Say, he says, screwing the lid down tight as if I stole something. I hear there's a lot of Indians up this way. You know what kind?
My Pa warned me, I say.
Yes? he says. Camphor with rectified spirits, he reads. Take it to allay irritation.
Pa said I should listen to what Indians listen to and I would get along better. Be careful, he said to me, there's always someone coming who will try to tell you otherwise. I watch the peddler close. You know my Pa?
That is just the thing a Pa would say, he says, while he repacks one thing and another.
Pa, I say, and clutch at him. You got some idea where he's at?
The fellow backs down and confesses he does not know where my Pa is, or anyone like him.
They don't have the need or the want of goods like yours anyway, I say. Pa and the girls.
You don't know that, he says. He buckles on his load.
I have only a year left, I say. What exact year are we in?
He lurches to his feet with his bundles, slipping in the muddy sand. We are in the Christian Year of Our Lord 1861 and the month of June, the day of which I do not know myself, and I mean not to fall prey to unfriendly Indians nor to the vagaries of the war we are fighting which is probably where your Pa is today.
Vagaries, I say. It is only 1861, I say. The same year two years after I began. I grip my fingers tight to his coat flaps. Are you sure?
I must make talk with these friendly squaws yonder, he says, backing up the bank at a skip, his load almost crushing him, his ropes slipping while he wildly ties them.
I pull his pantleg so hard he falls flat to the ground, his burden crashing off his back. He lands on his tailbone, which landing affects his speech with curses flat out terrible. I get the gist: Oy, you bugger-eyed, squander-headed, mashed brain of a female, I curse you and your bonnet too, may your teeth get angry and chew off your head, Gehenna. Then he falls quiet, feeling for his aches and bones, his misery not wanting in pain.
I got no reason to torture you, I say, emptying my crockful of sand onto another pile of it. No apparent reason, I mean. I am in need of a disputation.
I give that word some spit, hardly remembering it.
What? he says, still feeling his bones.
I take a breath in quick as if only a lot of air will let me lift my hobbled leg, which he has not noticed before as I have kept them both so tucked. I want you to help them understand this. Pa gave me to the Indian to honor a bet. It is my honor that is bound, not myself.
You should run off, he says, and he leans back and finds a pocket in his pants where his knife is hid and takes it out.
No, I cry, seeing that knife. You don't understand honor either. The Indian must be the one to free me. Or why I am here is broken.
You don't know that, he says, feeling the knife edge.
I do. Make the Indians understand I am an honorable slave, I say. No one here has been able to do that, though some have tried.
Excerpted from Bohemian Girl by TERESE SVOBODA Copyright © 2011 by Terese Svoboda. Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Terese Svoboda is the author of five volumes of poetry and four novels, including Tin God (Nebraska 2006); a collection of short stories, Trailer Girl and Other Stories (available in a Bison Books edition); and a nonfiction book, Black Glasses like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan, winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize.
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