Geronimo's Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me

Overview

In Geronimo's Bones, award-winning author Nasdijj has written a love song to his brother, Tso--short for The Smarter One--and the powerful bond that sustained the two of them through the grim reality of their childhood. Filled with poetic intensity and unfiltered emotion, Geronimo's Bones is a visceral reading experience.

Born to migrant parents--his father a self proclaimed "cowboy" and his Navajo mother, tender-hearted and flawed--Nasdijj knew little of the conformity ...

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Overview

In Geronimo's Bones, award-winning author Nasdijj has written a love song to his brother, Tso--short for The Smarter One--and the powerful bond that sustained the two of them through the grim reality of their childhood. Filled with poetic intensity and unfiltered emotion, Geronimo's Bones is a visceral reading experience.

Born to migrant parents--his father a self proclaimed "cowboy" and his Navajo mother, tender-hearted and flawed--Nasdijj knew little of the conformity spreading across America in the 1950s. He was busy surviving the migrant camps in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, where despair and death were familiar faces. Nasdijj and Tso were boys racing trains and demons, whispering tales about Spider Woman, Sa, Geromino, and Coyote, the stories of their mother's people that they had heard at bedtime. Nasdijj writes: "Geronimo is a voice who comes to me at night, when all the other creatures are asleep and the universe belongs to us."

After their mother's tragic death from alcohol, the young brothers were left in the care of their sometimes indifferent, often abusive, and occasionally loving father. Nasdijj and Tso rarely attended school, but they picked cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, apples, peaches, beans, and artichokes. To escape this indentured servitude, Nasdijj and Tso eventually stole a car and ran away.

Told in brilliant flashes of poetry, narrative, and song, Geronimo's Bones reveals a world that to this day remains hidden from most Americans. But Nasdijj's work derives its special power from his ability to capture the universal emotions that we all share: hate and love, loss and remembrance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nasdijj (The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping) juggles sardonic anger and full-out hilarity in his lyrical memoir of two Native American boys fighting to survive the harsh, oppressive world of a Navajo reservation and countless migrant camps in the 1950s. The sons of an alcoholic Navajo mother and a brutal white father, Nasdijj and Tso used reading to while away the long hours between camps, but later became apprentice criminals, stealing books to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. After alcoholism killed the boys' mother, their father suffered an emotional collapse, leaving the boys homeless. Later, together again, the boys fell victim to their father's nightly sexual assaults, which Nasdijj poignantly recounts: "I kept the memories of his arrivals, his demented craving for that human touch and companionship he never had in the real world, only in the world of our warm beds, as secrets locked forever within a tomb, mine mainly, knowing in my heart that if the tomb were ever opened... not only would my universe implode, but my chances of ever being really loved by my father would be nonexistent." Through illness, poverty and racism, Nasdijj found strength in his people's culture, especially in the myth of the warrior Geronimo, until he and Tso finally escaped their father's tyranny and the cruelty of the crime-ridden camps for gritty adventures on the open road. Nasdijj's observations on his and Tso's arduous quest for redemption and independence are detailed, smart and clever. While Nasdijj's writing is frank and funny, he never fails to target the heart, even when writing about the most painful events. (On sale Mar. 30) Forecast: Expect strong sales, based on the success of The Boy and the Dog (it was a Book Sense 76 pick) as well as local media and bookstore appearances in North Carolina (where Nasdijj lives) and print ads. Ballantine will simultaneously publish a paperback edition of The Boy and the Dog. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This beautifully written memoir builds on Nasdijj's The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams and The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping, which both chronicle the author's love for his adopted sons. Here, he intertwines Native American legend with autobiographical narrative to tell the story of his abusive 1950s childhood (his alcoholic mother, Shima, died when he was eight, leaving him at the hands of his father, Patron). Throughout the years, he shared a deeply loving and caring relationship with his younger brother, Tso. The very graphic description and language of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse endured by the brothers will disturb many readers, yet Nasdijj's lyrical, almost poetic, writing entrances; we learn a bit about how a child copes with, and rises above, unbelievable pain, as well as life on the fringes of society in migrant camps, cowboy and carnival shows, and homeless enclaves. Recommended for mature readers in public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-Kay Brodie, Chesapeake Coll., Wye Mills, MD Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Back to the land of pure evil that Nasdijj revisited previously (The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping, 2003, etc.), for no other word can describe his youth. Yet here, readers will also witness an incantational summoning, as in a streaming prose poem, of the lifelines that saw Nasdijj and his brother Tso through. There was a grandfather and there were the prostitutes his father brought home, each of whom offers advice and protection against a cold, mad father: "What he took from us was any enjoyment or delight we might have had at any time in our lives upon this earth." Their father was a raging and enraged alcoholic who beat them mercilessly and raped them. "He swore he loved me. But it wasn't true. You cannot love the thing you would destroy." His mother, a Navajo and also an alcoholic, "loved us. Imperfectly. But she loved us." She died when he was eight; that left them, quite unfortunately, with their father. But there were the strangers who took them in and the tender love and enveloping cloak Nasdijj threw around Tso as best he could. There were also the native stories that Nasdijj gathered; and there was Geronimo, whose spirit offered cold comfort-"My children all rode with me," Geronimo said. Nasdijj asks: "Even the dead ones, they rode with you?" "Even the dead ones"-but comfort is where you can get it. Nasdijj will see the children in his life die, too, and they still ride with him. And Nasdijj is not well and may be joining them soon. Writing for the purpose of finding a way back into the grotesque swarm of horrors and a way forward to give a whole new breadth to the meaning of survival. Agent: Andrew Stuart/Stuart Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345453914
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/30/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 299
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Geronimo's Bones

A Memoir of My Brother and Me
By Nasdijj

Ballantine Books

Copyright © 2004 Nasdijj
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-345-45391-3


Chapter One

And a Tin Can of Worms

In the beginning we were two scruffy boys who owned nothing more than a couple of cane poles, some fishing line, two hooks, two bobbers, two sinkers, and a tin can of worms.

My brother is the real fisherman.

His formal name is Shawnee, but we hardly ever call him that. We call him by his Indian nickname, Tso. Mama said if Anglos can have nicknames, then Indians can have them, too. She would then proceed to suck on her bottle of whiskey, joking with the men, slapping her knees that outrageous way she carried on when she told stories, and she'd laugh her big hyena laugh. You could hear Mama laughing up and down the extinct volcano she grew up on with her goats and sheep. I loved that part of her. The part of her that demanded there be some music in her life.

She would sit in her rocker and she would squeeze my brother on her lap like she would never let him go although in time she would allow all of us to go, and, in fact, Mama was the one who left us. Worn to a shadow, she disappeared into a lost vortex of existence, and there was no one and nothing that could save her. There are some people who can fit perfectly into the quiet, eternal life of the sheep camp. Mama was not one of these people. She wanted more. She did not know what more meant, but she was willing to find out what the rest of the world looked like. So she took off with the man who was our father, and the two of them saw that world they sought, as migrant workers who lived in a state of perpetual movement. That hard life took its toll on Mama and on Daddy even if he was one tough, mad, cold son-of-a-bitch, and that life just about turned my brother into a lunatic who would have to live in institutions the rest of his life. But no.

It was up to me, Mama, to turn things around, and I did that, Mama, I did that. Every cold-breath morning when my winter's bones were in my beloved New Mexico, I would turn my eyes to gaze back at the volcano that was always there. Always waiting with its sheep camps, and quiet, dignified people. The people who walk the surface of the earth. There are no other people quite like them, the Navajo. The volcano waits, and the volcano watches. The minutiae and the vastness of our individual existences, our inconsolable sorrows, and the deep canyons with their rivers of memory running as they do into the sea.

I have forgiven her for that. Her leaving us. Mama, I forgive you. Mama, I understand. I know what it was you wanted. She would hold me in her lap like she had held my brother, and squeeze me like a rock as well. You had to value the part of her that would compress just about any situation to see if she could put her hands around it, and drip the humor out. As if we boys were her morning grapefruit. As if a laugh might be a pound of gold.

It was often like squeezing blood from stones: finding the humor in what was more likely tragedy. But we learned a lot from our darkly mysterious mother, and one of the things we learned was that, depending on your point of view, the humor in a thing could outweigh the tragedy two for one. Humor, she was apt to point out, was harder to locate, so therefore it stood to reason that humor was the more valuable property. "It will save you, too," she'd claim. Humor saved each and every one of us, if at different times. If we had not been able to laugh at ourselves, putting tongue in cheek, literally, we would not have survived the migrant life we lived. The life we lived made it just about impossible to form lasting, intimate relationships with anyone. It was no accident that my brother and I grew up as close as we did. Now that we are men, there is some distance between us, and that is good, and healthy. We are still able to laugh about it, and us. Mama liked nothing more than a good, old-fashioned, head-tilted-back belly laugh. We called it her whiskey laugh and then she'd throw the bottle at us. We were not supposed to draw attention to her drinking. We'd run. Laughing. She called him T-S-O.

"Stands for The Smarter One," she'd say.

"Why do we need so many names," I asked her.

You had your white name. You had your Indian name. You had your nicknames. "And," Mama would point out as was her way, "if you were born a Chiricahua, you could name yourself!"

Now, there was a radical idea. After passing the many tests of manhood the Apaches put their males through, an Apache male might name himself. I asked my brother, Tso, who he would be if he were a Chiricahua. He thought carefully. As a warrior might. Your name was important.

"I would be Stands in Middle of the River."

Now, there's a name. A good one. I liked it.

"I would be ..." I had to squeeze my eyes some to think about it. "... Geronimo," I said.

My brother scoffed. "You're a little late ain'tcha? Somebody already got that name." Eyes to the sky.

I didn't care. When you are five years old, you can be whoever you want. I wanted to be like Geronimo because Geronimo was brave and resolutely able to see into the deserts of his dreams. Geronimo was more than a childhood fixation. Speaking as he did of wisdoms and secrets, he was the only voice I knew who had the strength to chase the other voices in my head away. When Geronimo was with me, the cacophony of other voices, everyone telling me what to do, would disappear like smoke drifting out of the hogan and up through the smoke hole, where it mingles with the stars.

I had seen it with my eyes when Geronimo had come to me at night like the Trickster that he was. The cooking smoke would disappear and the voices would recede.

My brother was the only one who knew.

About the voices.

Tso, cool in the middle of the turbulent river. The rivers push, demand, and mandate. Seeking dominace as is their way, having cut through canyons and worn away the rocks. My brother, steadfast in the middle of some ice-mountain river.

My brother is the real fisherman.

I prefer soaking up the warmth of the rock. As a fisherman, I am usually faking it. I will even break the stupid rules and speak while men are fishing.

Fifteen thousand men in three thousand four hundred and sixty-two boats all trolling off the coast of Santa Cruz got on their radios and angrily shusssshhhhhed me-ssssshhhhh-quiet, don't you know the fish can hear?

Not really. Okay. Okay. The fish can hear. I am always amused by the fishermen who claim that fish can hear you talking. Do they really think the seventy-five-horsepower Johnson engine that got them there was silent on the way?

My brother is the better (decidedly more quiet) fisherman. If he asks me to go fishing with him, I always go. No one else especially wants to fish with me and I can't say I blame them. At least Tso knows it will be hard for me to keep my mouth shut all the time.

Odd. The two of us have always liked the same things. Even if we are very different. Football in the fall. The volcano our grandmother lived on. Coors before it went east. A Navajo Yehbechai (a sing). A well-drifted nymph (fish bait) on a brand-new line flowing slowly toward the ocean just south of Ukiah, California, as the sun burns the earth again in a rush of blue and radioactive red. Thunder in the distance like a call to arms. Fishing anywhere in Idaho. Fixing truck engines (especially early-model F-150s). Swimming. Girls. Worms. Tying our own fishing flies. Not working. Writing. Reading with flashlights under the Navajo quilts our ancient grandmother made long before her grandsons were due to arrive.

They were due. Those boys. They were overdue. They arrived.

We arrived one one year, and two, the next year, and to an infinity of hands to catch us, and arms to wrap themselves around us, screaming and crying, kicking and fussing, and making sure that the family of singers whose arms we had arrived into knew in no uncertain terms that we were here. All of it was so much bigger than we were.

We were.

That was a story in and of itself.

We were. Singers, too. Singing in Navajoland is not what singing is in the land of the bilagaana (white person). A sing in Navajoland would be seen as dancing or dancing the dances of celebration in Anglo culture. To be alive was to dance.

To be alive was to sing with color and light. To be alive was to embrace the night.

Now that we are men, and capable of looking back at those times when we only were, we are able, too, to see new paths through that deep and wild-with-clover woods. Where we landed into the arms of the People Who Tended to Their Sheep. These were my mother's People. The Navajo refer to Themselves as: the people who walk the surface of the earth.

Those words are the way my brother and I have lived our lives. We have walked in beauty all over the surface of the planet. We have never had a fight. Not a real one. Plenty of pretend ones. Plenty of pushing and shoving and rolling in the grass. We share everything.

Books. We wonder, too, if books have saved our lives. As men, we are always sharing books. We often make our own books. Tso is always sending me stuff he wrote, and I am always sending him stuff I've tried, anyway, to write. I have learned the hard way not to let Other People see that writing.

Daddy always said, "Nasdijj, you learn the hard way." He would shake his head. Then he'd turn me upside down and shake me to listen for the loose screws. At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. I do now though. I am always learning. The hard way.

There is nothing I can write or paint that shakes my brother. He is always kind. He is always steadfast in his love for me. His loyalty never wavers. He is always fun to make things with. My brother is the better writer (and the better painter) but he would be far too shy to put any of it into a public context. The good stuff, he claims, writes itself. When we make books together, we make our own covers and designs. Sometimes we put paintings and photographs in the books we make. My writing is instinctual and abstract-most of it has to do with love and loss-and he usually laughs when he reads it, not too unlike the way our mother would have laughed, because he understands the battles of the monsters I refer to.

That is the essence to writing this. The Navajo have a special saying. Walk in beauty. It is used as a prayer, a chant, a sing, and in the dances, too. Walk in beauty. You might walk in beauty to hodiyin, a holy, sacred place. Allow me to tell you about the man my brother is, and how the two of us struggled and loved to hold the relationship together is my way of saying to you, Walk in beauty. Tso's laughter is a healthy thing. It is, too, his sword in the last battle between good and evil before the day of judgment. Armageddon will be defeated by a giggle or a belly laugh.

When my brother laughs, you have to watch his eyes, for they will kidnap you, and take you places such as hodiyin where all living things come with voice. You can lose yourself within those eyes, in the sorrow of history, in the beauty of that eye-catching moment. We were fly-fishing in Canada once and I was asleep in our pup tent. Something woke me up. There he was inside his sleeping bag with his flashlight on. Reading one of my handcrafted books. One I had made just for him. The two of us-the brothers-cannot be divorced from the things we make to express ourselves. We have been taught by the spirits that we are the things we make.

Someone downstairs (usually our father) would yell: I said flashlights out!

Our eyes grew big. We would plunge ourselves back under our pillows. Click. Flashlights out. For now. Slipping under and into the darkness of those Navajo weavings we slept in as children, the rugs of the underworld, and slipping, too, into the strange world I was usually attempting to paint for the imaginary reader, a phantom of the flashlights, who had never seen my world of horses and sheep and volcanoes and the voices that came from there. I want words to be like wings so you might see from higher up.

Tso was my first test audience. He still is.

My brother and I were so close growing up that we were addicted to each other's presence as brothers. We never needed chemicals. We had each other. When he is not with me, I catch myself looking around for him.

"He's not here," my wife will tell me. "He went back to Mexico for the winter. But you knew that."

Yes. I did know that. Still, I look. He could be hiding in a corner somewhere reading books.

We have been addicted to the journeys that we found in books ever since we figured out that even with our visual impairments, and our even longer list of learning disabilities, our accumulated inabilities, our perpetual struggles to live our lives in such a way as to be able to deal with authority versus always failing-always, and always, and always failing, the failures of our lives another long list of demented missing links, most of which can be directly connected to the indubitable certainty our mother was inebriated during both her pregnancies, nevertheless-we could and we did teach ourselves to read.

We had to. There were no other options. Reading was a matter of life and death. When I am teaching children how to read, I tell them this. Reading is a matter of life and death. There is a deadly serious part of any child, buried under layers and layers of the deadening cuteness society assigns to childhood, that wants to believe it, that does believe it: Reading is a matter of life and death. The beauty to it unfolds when the child asks when does he begin and how.

When do we begin and how?

Here. Now. Let us sit together and read this. Let us write about what we have seen. How simplistic. How complex. The universe the child knew was there-although he was not quite sure where-unfolds. Teaching children to read has been one of the passions of my life.

There were times when I was not sure that learning how to read was going to work for us. Even today, letters appear to me to be upside down. I have this vision of my brother, Tso, and I swimming intrauterine, upsidedown insideout mermen, surrounded by a sea of Bombay gin. Olives gurgling upward toward the ice. Our wrists are bound together with chains. Our mother did not come to marriage with the idea she could control her pregnancies, and the number of babies she might have. Navajo women are taught that the more babies you have, the better things will be. This is not so insane as one might think. The idea of big families has brought the population of the tribe up from less than one thousand individuals to more than two hundred and fifty thousand Navajo. In 1900, the dawn of the twentieth century, the Navajo stood at the precipice where they were either going to multiply or disappear. They multiplied. They refused to go gently into that good night.

Continues...


Excerpted from Geronimo's Bones by Nasdijj Copyright © 2004 by Nasdijj. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 And a tin can of worms 1
2 This is the story I have to tell 21
3 I am in blood 43
4 The freak show was a serious business to me 50
5 To walk in beauty when it came to the cowboy who was my dad was an enormous contradiction 65
6 In the summer of 1963, my younger brother and I stole a Corvette 86
7 The first car I ever stole 114
8 We were there 121
9 I had grown scattered like a scarecrow 135
10 There were no roads on the way to Sa's hogan 148
11 Traveling west is like following the sun 181
12 It was a pilgrimage 197
13 A dust storm blew through Texas 202
14 The comic microwave background (CMB) is a perverse radio emission appearing to have a truly diffuse origin 211
15 We took Dancer to the gravel pits 221
16 In 1963, the desert blacktop to Los Angeles unfolded like a quivering, silver apparition 230
17 In the beginning it was not at all what I expected 235
18 We rode sticks and brooms for horses 239
19 I should have known 246
20 We had always known our father was a coyote 253
21 That night you and Daddy buried that dead baby in the sugarcane 262
22 Geronimo's moon lit the desert 286
23 I had been shot 295
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Reading Group Guide

In Geronimo's Bones, award-winning author Nasdijj has written a love song to his brother, Tso--short for The Smarter One--and the powerful bond that sustained the two of them through the grim reality of their childhood. Filled with poetic intensity and unfiltered emotion, Geronimo's Bones is a visceral reading experience.

Born to migrant parents--his father a self proclaimed "cowboy" and his Navajo mother, tender-hearted and flawed--Nasdijj knew little of the conformity spreading across America in the 1950s. He was busy surviving the migrant camps in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, where despair and death were familiar faces. Nasdijj and Tso were boys racing trains and demons, whispering tales about Spider Woman, Sa, Geromino, and Coyote, the stories of their mother's people that they had heard at bedtime. Nasdijj writes: "Geronimo is a voice who comes to me at night, when all the other creatures are asleep and the universe belongs to us."

After their mother's tragic death from alcohol, the young brothers were left in the care of their sometimes indifferent, often abusive, and occasionally loving father. Nasdijj and Tso rarely attended school, but they picked cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, apples, peaches, beans, and artichokes. To escape this indentured servitude, Nasdijj and Tso eventually stole a car and ran away.

Told in brilliant flashes of poetry, narrative, and song, Geronimo's Bones reveals a world that to this day remains hidden from most Americans. But Nasdijj's work derives its special power from his ability to capture the universal emotions that we all share: hate and love, loss and remembrance.


From the Hardcoveredition.

1. In chapter one (page 8), Nasdijj makes the decision to jump from the moving truck to be with his brother, Tso. What realization does Nasdijj have that enables him to jump?

2. How does Nasdijj's imaginary relationship with Geronimo help him cope throughout his childhood?

3. What role or roles does Geronimo fill for Nasdijj?

4. In chapters three and four, Nasdijj repeats, "I am in blood," talking about his bones, his father, and the cycle of life. What does Nasdijj mean?

5. Nasdijj is particular about his placement of the old Navajo stories throughout Geronimo's Bones. How does the story of Changing Woman and Coyote (pages 86--87) relate to the main event of chapter six--the stealing of the car and subsequent escape?

6. What character in the Navajo tales does Nasdijj associate with his father?

7. On page 88, Nasdijj writes, "We hated him--our cold, mad father--and always remembered the sound of the horses going up that wet wooden ramp. Where do you begin your life? In an odd way, mine began the night of the death of the horses." In what way did his life begin that night?

8. Nasdijj writes in great depth about migrant life in the 1950s, which was supported mostly by big business. Using the experiences he relates in the book, do you think migrant life today is much the same, or have times changed?

9. Consider Tso's and Nasdijj's personalities as they grew up. How are the brothers different?

10. How do the two brothers use those differences to rescue each other?

11. At the end of Geronimo's Bones, Nasdijj writes, ". . . and the world and the world and the world is mine through pain and love and time. The sky is breaking." How has writing this memoir helped Nasdijj to own his world?

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