The Rock Childby Win Blevins
An unlikely trio comprised of the Shoshone Indian Asie, a Tibetan nun, and Sir Richard Burton-the famous soldier and explorer-flees from the Utah Territory to California in 1862. The Destroying
Packed with drama, humor, the lore of American Indians and Tibetan Buddhists, plus unforgettable characters, this book is a dazzling tour de force and a deeply moving story.
An unlikely trio comprised of the Shoshone Indian Asie, a Tibetan nun, and Sir Richard Burton-the famous soldier and explorer-flees from the Utah Territory to California in 1862. The Destroying Angel of the Mormon Church, Porter Rockwell, pursues them relentlessly.
The journey is packed with colorful characters, including a fledgling journalist named Mark Twain. In the end Asie discovers why he was named the Rock Child, what it means to be a man of color in America, what spiritual path will nurture him, who his people are, and the strength of love.
"Blevins has stated his aim is to write 'mythic novels of the American West.' He meets that goal in The Rock Child. The voices shift between an Indian-Anglo musical savant; Sun Moon, a virginal Tibetan nun shanghaied into American prostitution; and Sir Richard Burton, real-life explorer, linguist, and Arabian Nights translator.
"Joining Burton in rescuing Asie and Sun Moon from a dreadful fate is Mark Twain, a comedic catalyst that surprisingly few historical novelists have thought to exploit. Like Twain, Burton is well drawn. He's a cultivated, Sean Connery-type sinner who feels badly about his appetites, and the picaresque passages told from his perspective enliven this ambitious narrative." - Library Journal
"A colorful novel set among the Mormons in 1862, featuring such real folks as Sam Clemens, Sir Richard Burton, Brigham Young, and Porter Rockwell, by the author of Stone Song, Win Blevins.
"Half-Indian Asie Taylor, a musical prodigy who has been accepted into the Church of the Latter-day Saints, drowns when his delivery wagon is overturned in a flash flood. He experiences an out-of-body experience, returns to life, and is amazed to see the scarred but beautiful face of Sun Moon above him. Sun is a Tibetan Buddhist nun who was kidnapped in Asia and shipped to America to be sold into prostitution. Tarim, the tavernkeeper who bought her, expects to resell her for a hefty sum.
"When Porter Rockwell, a Mormon known as the Destroying Angel buys Sun Moon, he attempts to satisfy his lust. Frustrated by his inability to do so, he disfigures her face. Sun Moon flees and falls in with Asie, who has decided to go in search of his origins and the meaning of his Shoshone name, Rock Child. Meanwhile, Rockwell is in pursuit of Sun Moon, determined to kill her-and anyone who gets in his way.
"Tibetan-speaking Sir Richard Burton, a brilliant opium addict, is in Salt Lake City to persuade Brigham Young to form a separate Western Confederacy. Burton saves Asie and Sun Moon from Rockwell and joins their quest. For a while, Brigham Young gives them sanctuary from Rockwell, though Rockwell later follows the trio to San Francisco.
"The climax would satisfy the Buddha himself as his teachings resoundingly bring the murderous Rockwell to heel. The historical detail serves a charming treasure." - Kirkus Reviews
"'Life is a flabbergaster,' says Asie Taylor, hero of Win Blevins's The Rock Child, a story that will flabbergast every reader who opens it. This is a rich, funny, fascinating, meaningful, and memorable novel from the author of that incredible masterpiece about Crazy Horse, Stone Song." -Rocky Mountain News
"Win Blevins-that master yarn-spinner-has done it again with The Rock Child. A wonderfully wild one which you don't want to miss." - Tony Hillerman
"Win Blevins displays an antic imagination, not only in mingling actual and invented characters, but in melding gritty action-adventure with metaphysical musings." - Dale Wasserman, author of Man of La Mancha
"Win Blevins's new book is a risqué and veritable romp through the history of the Old West! Highly enjoyable reading! -Clyde M. Hall, Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Judge
"Historical detail serves a charming treasure." Kirkus Reviews
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Read an Excerpt
The Rock Child
By Win Blevins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Win Blevins
All rights reserved.
First off, Sun Moon and me each came close to dying, stars and cornicles, and got sprung back to life. Seems like a good place to start. Me first.
I was in the yard of Boss John Aldrich's General Mercantile loading up the wagon, and he was as impatient with me as usual.
"Asie, get a move on!"
"Yes indeedy." It pleased me to say it that way, a little pflumphed up, because it would irk him. Then I started whistling. I knew what annoyed Boss John. He'd been annoying me since the day I came to work for him, and the Mormons longer than that.
"You'll be late!"
I switched to a new tune as I smoothed the breast collar flat and rubbed the mare on the chest, which I believed she liked. Heckahoy, no sense in asking what late would be, because Boss John never told customers any special hour, just "tomorrow morn" or "long 'bout noon" or "in the latter half of the day." I never figured out why John Aldrich then acted so determined to rush everybody and everything. I suspected it was because the man had antsy blood, roily bowels, or hot hair. Boss John always hurried. He'd rush the sun even if it shortened his own life, that was just his way. First it kind of tickled me, but not any longer.
I started arranging the load in the wagon. Boss Aldrich never paid no attention to what weight was where. Of course, Boss Aldrich didn't have to drive it out to the Alpha farm today.
"You on Injun time, boy?"
That stopped my whistling. I bit my tongue. I didn't care to be called an Injun, even if I was, and I didn't like the usual Mormon word, Lamanite, any better. My years in the Kingdom of Deseret had taught me that being a Lamanite among the Saints was no privilege. Boss Aldrich didn't agree, of course. "You're lucky to get to be a Saint." But then Boss Aldrich was in too much of a hurry to see some things.
I set the sack of pinto beans next to the flour.
Heckahoy, I thought I'd as soon be an Indian, the way I was born and started growing up. But I really didn't know. Folks said maybe I was Shoshone, but I hadn't been around them enough to know what they were like. Last time someone asked me what tribe I was, I'd answered, "I'm a whistler."
I switched to whistling "Come, Come, Ye Saints." Whether Boss Aldrich liked me whistling or not, he wouldn't have the nerve to shut down the Mormon anthem.
Stars and cornicles, I was a whistler. I could whistle any tune anyone ever heard, high parts and low parts, brassy as a trumpet, piercing as an oboe, soothing as a flute. It was my ambition to whistle a whole band, or at least a calliope, at the same time, drumming with my hands and feet.
This whistling started when the oldest of my adopted brothers, Little Peter, got a tin pipe for Christmas when we were both ten. I never wanted anything so bad in my life, but Little Peter wouldn't share. I took to whistling harmony with him. Before long I could do virtuoso stuff and Little Peter could barely finger the notes. Little Peter quit, and later gave me the pipe. By then it was one of my musical weapons. I had a banjo. I played the piano in the parlor. And I had my whistling. To me music was ... It felt like a kind of glory.
I even learned to imitate birds with my whistles, except that wasn't exactly whistling. Twice I even got an osprey to converse with me. I kept that part of my music to myself.
"You gonna take them groceries to the Alpha or turn into a band?"
I nodded amiably in Boss John's direction without meeting his eye. I climbed onto the spring wagon, started the mare with a cluck, and launched into "Green Grow the Lilacs."
The time is out of joint. That's the phrase I said to myself sometimes, irritably. At twenty-one I wasn't sure what all it meant, but I felt things weren't right.
This morning, for instance, the moon and the sun were up at the same time. This happened regularly, once or twice a month. Every time I saw the moon in the daylight sky I thought of that phrase: The time is out of joint. What exactly did it mean? It was a line the bishop often quoted, from the Bible or The Book of Mormon. Well, seemed to me the sun and moon shining at once meant the time was out of joint, or else I couldn't think what would. Even the day and the night mixed up.
The morning was fine after a solid week of rain, I liked that. Sun on my back, mud under my wheels, squishing. I was headed north along Bear River with this wagonload of supplies to the Alpha farm. "Be on time," Boss John kept saying. "You might get stuck, you might be late." The time is out of joint. Worry, worry, worry—white people were always worrying about time. Stars and cornicles, I told myself, if I don't watch out, I'll turn white.
I'd been feeling out of joint for years, maybe ever since I came to the Mormons. Recent-like it was worse. I kept having a feeling right at the bottom of my ribs, in the center, that said something was wrong. Sometimes it gurgled up, sometimes it sank down. Sometimes it was somewhere else, in my head, like out-of-tune music. Usually, though, if I paid attention, a bad feeling was somewhere.
I wished my blood was red, every drop of it. Even if I was half-Indian, I'd lived among white people ever since I could remember. Was it crazy to want to be red? I didn't know.
I wasn't a man to take things apart in my head. To me that was what white people did, especially the bishops in their preachments in the meetinghouse every Sunday morning. I just listened to my insides. What they said was, Something isn't right.
The mare was lagging. I flicked the traces against her lazily. She didn't like hauling for Boss John, and neither did I. Alpha farm was several miles ahead on the other side of the Bear River. Don't be late!
What do I care?
The time is out of joint.
The symbol of the Mormons for themselves was the beehive. They were busy as bees, it said, creating their divinely revealed utopia, the state of Deseret. This was a great source of pride.
I didn't want to grow up to be a bee.
Wait! Is that music?
I could almost make out a melody.
No, it's the wind.
Yes, the wind. A lane bordered with poplars ran toward a farmhouse to the west. The wind was moving in the poplars, murmuring, making the slender leaves into thousands of bells.
It really does sound like music.
It wouldn't be that strange. In a way I heard music in my head all the time. It was part of what made me different from everyone else. But this wasn't the same, this wasn't the music in my head, it was only half music, and it wasn't inside me, it was ...
Suddenly I felt wild, excited.
It must be a fever.
I came to a turn. Straight north stretched the road to Fort Hall and Eagle Rock. To the east reached a narrower road, rockier, less traveled. I geed the mare around to the right. Something swelled up in me. I almost laughed out loud at myself. Something, something like the spirit, I guessed, the spirit that rose under the tent at that gospel meeting I went to in Ogden, something that fiddlers got going whenever they played, something ... Whatever it was, my hands sent it down the traces to the mare, and she whinnied and jumped into a trot.
Fifty yards ahead the road crossed the river on a bare bridge of rough, clackety planks.
The half music came back—whistling, humming, singing, tinkling, beating, but only half-sounding, only half-heard. This time it couldn't be the wind in the poplars, they were far behind.
It was the wind soughing, the wind almost singing.
No, the river, it was the river, swishing, burbling, splashing ...
The horse's hoofs clattered onto the bridge. The planks banged and rattled and clanked, a din even louder than the hoofs.
In the middle of the bridge I stopped the mare. I looked into the water as it rushed downstream, away from me. It was high, torrential from the rains and the runoff, rushing and roaring and taking up too much space in my head.
The music teased my ears, the music teased my mind.
The waves tossed themselves like white heads. I could imagine their mouths, open and calling, calling out to me, all crying out the same eternal song of ... I cannot hear. The mouths were rushing downstream, turned away from me.
I heard a roar.
I swiveled my head upstream.
A wall swept toward me, a wall of water.
I watched. The wave proceeded toward me, majestic as a monarch. It raised itself, gleaming, curved.
I was transfixed. Through time and timelessness I waited. A word from the tent meeting plunged wildly in my mind: Baptism.
The axe of my fate cocked itself over my twenty-one-year-old life, hesitated, and cut downward.
I pell-melled into the river.
I was underneath the water in a calamity. Rocks were battering my body, and the river knocked at my mouth and nostrils, hammering to get in. I flailed to preserve my human life.
Then, suddenly, sound saved me from calamity. I heard ... music, glorious music.
I swam in a spirit of welcoming into the music and into my death and into ...
I said this story started with us each, Sun Moon and me, coming close to dying and getting sprung back to life. Her turn was way back the autumn before, the day she came into Hard Rock City, Idaho, against her will. Here it is, the way she told it to me.
Hu - u - u - u - ung. Her consciousness sang with this sound. Hu-u-u-u-ung. It was the seed syllable of Akshobhya, the immovable, the unfluctuating, that which cannot be disturbed.
Sun Moon sat with her back straight, her hands resting below her navel, palms upward, right on left, thumbs forming a triangle. Her neck was slightly bent, eyes slightly open. Hu-u-u-u-ung. Though the wagon bumped and the world passed through her field of vision, she kept her mind empty. Hu-u-u-uung. She did not yet feel the center of the wheel, that which cannot be disturbed. She breathed. Hu-u-u-u-ung.
"By God and by damn," began Jehu the freighter. The iron band squeezed her throat. It grabbed her there when her bad troubles started, began on the road to Chengdu, in China. An iron band that felt like it was not around her throat but inside it. It came and went unpredictably, and always it squeezed. She was afraid of it, and steeled herself against it, against it.
"By God and by damn," Jehu repeated. The man had a voice like a metal wheel rim on rock. She opened her eyes wide, blinked rapidly, wriggled her trunk. Over the weeks she'd found it was best to bring herself back to the world of impermanence voluntarily, not wait for Jehu to bang her down. Besides, she couldn't concentrate through the clamp of the iron band.
"Best we get you fixed up." He reined the mules to a stop. Sun Moon shook her head, trying to get rid of the clamped feeling. Far below the road she could see Hard Rock City, a village of tents and shacks deep in a twisting canyon. It was as ugly as she expected. She pulled the mantle farther onto her left shoulder. Her nun's clothing was the emblem of her dedication, which no one in this land understood. If I cannot regain the world of the center of the wheel, this incarnation will be wasted.
She ordered herself, Stop! Since that day near Chengdu, she seemed to have no control of her thoughts and emotions. Or none except to squeeze them till they obeyed. My gods have abandoned me. Sometimes she felt so empty she gave in to despair. Then she would demand obedience from her foolish feelings again. Only on this long wagon trip, when she had turned to regular meditation, and started remembering the goddess Mahakala, Paldan Lhamo, protector of women in danger, had she begun to regain a little peace. Unfortunately, as a nun in her twenties, she was stronger in book learning than in the practice of meditation.
Then why be swamped with dread now? This is giving in to fear.
Pictures, smells, and sounds flickered through her mind—the glow of butter lamps, the smell of incense, the endless reverberation of the voices of countless monks and nuns—om mani padme hu-u-u-u-ung—the freedom of a world without lust, jealousy, ignorance, and anger.
She looked sideways at Jehu. His grin was mad brown teeth, his hair was wild and scraggly, his eyes filled with lust for flesh, money, and power. Why do I let such a creature affect my inner self? She took a deep breath, let it out. The air was cool and wet, and felt like loss.
She made her eyes follow the dark line of willow bushes along the creek at the bottom of the canyon. She shaped words for them in her own language, not in uncomfortable English. It was the time of when the season arced toward winter. Willows curved sinuously as a serpent down the canyon, painting the undulating colors, tangerine and wine against the dun grasses. Above, pines, firs, and cedars darkened the mid slopes of the mountains with their mysterious greens. Autumn aspens daubed brilliant gold, the color of monks' robes, onto the evergreens. Higher yet the slopes prophesied the coming season—they sang in chaste white of change, winter, death. On the topmost ridges the setting sun painted the snow the pink of meadow blossoms.
She felt a pang. Home. Home did not feel like the halls of the convent where she had spent a decade, not even the good times of the celebration of the Lamp-Burning Festival on the twentieth day of the tenth month. The rhododendron color reminded her of the meadows where her family camped in the summer, where the people gathered for the Zharejia each summer. In this cold, mountainous country summer felt remote. On this continent the meadows of the summer camp were as far away as one half of a heart cleaved from the other. I want my home.
Her mind flooded with pictures of the last Zharejia, Boiling-Tea-among-the-Flowers Festival, she had gone to with her family. The cluster of white canvas tents with the black or purple stripes on the seams and ruffled borders of green, yellow, and red, appliquéd with the eight auspicious symbols. She saw the curing meats (butchered always by non-Buddhists) and smelled the rich foods like milk and butter from the yaks, sausages, mutton, wheat cakes, and qingke wine. She heard the sounds of the several families of relatives gathered together for pleasure after the hard summer's work, the gaiety, the inviting looks of the young people seeking lovers, the happy talk on the embroidered cushions, and the dancing to the jingle of the copper bells. She remembered the people dressed in their best clothes and sporting their gold, silver, jade, and ivory jewelry. Young men played Tibetan flutes, old men made music on their yak-hide zithers, women danced—it was a time of pure joy.
Most of all she remembered the flowers, worlds and worlds of flowers, splotches of yellow, pink, violet, and red in a green carpet stretching from timbered mountain to timbered mountain.
That summer she'd ridden out on horseback with a dozen relatives and friends simply to admire the flowers. A young man had tried to catch her eye, an attractive fellow, actually, and she'd had to suppress her response. Many monks and nuns, when visiting their families, indulged in love—it was not a violation of the vows at that time. But not Sun Moon. She had decided to keep not only chastity but virginity.
She reveled in her mind's eye picture of her country, a mountain country so different from this one. Not dry, harsh, full of spiny cactus. A country lush with grass that fattens the ponies, brimming with water until some meadows became bogs.
Virginity, a woeful choice.
Jehu had taunted her with it. "Yes, this Tarim paid a thousand pieces of gold for you, he bought you, he ordered your abduction, he had you shipped like freight halfway around the world. And next this Tarim, this man who desires you, he intends to throw your virginity to the vultures."
She had spent long hours wondering what sort of man this Tarim could be, to commit such an act. Tarim was an odd name for a Chinaman. He must have a spirit utterly foul.
The men who seized her had permitted her to keep it. The contract, they explained, with lecherous glee. On the great ship, in Gam Saan, San Francisco, her virginity remained to her, and on this trip far into the interior of a continent she knew nothing of. All for the contract Tarim had made. Which contract was to come to fruition tonight. Hundred-men s-wife. That was what they called it, or in the English she was learning daily, a whore. She had been abducted and shipped across the Pacific Ocean to become what the contract demanded, a whore.
No virgin. Her mind twisted nastily. Hundred-men's-wife.
She brought up in her mind a picture of Mahakala, the dark woman of dreams who wore a necklace of human skulls and ate men, so that they might come back as something higher, and as creatures neither male nor female. Help me, Mother Mahakala.
"Stick out them hands, Polly. We're gonna make a little show."
Though she still missed many of Jehu's words, she knew his meaning. She held her hands hard at her sides. "Not China Polly," she said. "Sun Moon."
Jehu grinned. "Sure, Sun Moon," he said mockingly. "Now stick them hands out."
Excerpted from The Rock Child by Win Blevins. Copyright © 2013 Win Blevins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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
"I came naturally by my yen to wander far places, physical, imaginary, and spiritual..."-Win Blevins
Win Blevins, of Cherokee, Irish and Welsh descent, is from a family that was on the move, always west. Win's childhood was spent roaming, his dad a railroad man. Win went to school in St. Louis, and the family spent summers in little towns along the tracks of the railroads. He listened to the whistles blow at night and wanted to go wherever the trains went.
Seldom has a young man been in more of a hurry. Using scholarships, Win ran through a succession of colleges, receiving his master's degree, with honors, in English from Columbia University. He taught at Purdue University and Franklin College, then received a fellowship to attend USC. Win became a newspaperman - a music, theater, and film critic for both major Los Angeles papers. In 1972 he took the big leap-he quit his job to write out his passions-exploring and learning wild places-full time. His greatest passion of all has been to set the stories of these places, their people and animals, colors and smells, into books.
Win climbed mountains for ten years. A fluke blizzard caught him on a mountaintop and froze his feet, an end to climbing mountains, but not to exploring them. He's rafted rivers in the west, particularly the Snake and the San Juan, and was briefly a river guide. His love of the great Yellowstone River gave him a fine appreciation for the people who first loved these wild places. Along the way, Win lost the use of his legs and learned to sail, deciding a boat was a good place for a man without legs. He regained the use ofhis legs, and maintains his love of the open seas.
His first book, Give Your Heart to the Hawks, is still in print after thirty years. Other works include Stone Song, a novel about Crazy Horse, for which he won the 1996 Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award and the 1996 Spur Award. He's written 15 books, including a Dictionary of the American West, numerous screenplays and magazine articles.
He lives quietly in the canyon country of Utah. His passions grow with time-his wife Meredith, the center of his life, their five kids and grandkids. Classical music, baseball, roaming red rock mesas in the astonishing countryside, playing music. He considers himself blessed to be one of the people creating new stories about the west, and is proud to call himself a member of the world's oldest profession-storyteller.
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