Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America

Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America

by Ivan Doig

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156972154
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/15/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 260
Sales rank: 461,924
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Ivan Doig (1939-2015) was born in Montana and grew up along the Rocky Mountain Front, the dramatic landscape that has inspired much of his writing. A recipient of a lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association, he is the author of fifteen novels and four works of nonfiction.

Read an Excerpt



The Boston Bird

HOOYEH (The Crow)

Day One

His name was James Gilchrist Swan, and I have felt my pull toward him ever since some forgotten frontier pursuit or another landed me into the coastal region of history where he presides, meticulous as a usurer's clerk, diarying and diarying that life of his, four generations and seemingly as many light-years from my own. You have met him yourself in some other form — the remembered neighbor or family member, full of years while you just had begun to grow into them, who had been in a war or to a far place and could confide to you how such vanished matters were. The tale-bringer sent to each of us by the past.

That day, whenever it was, when I made the side trip into archival box after box of Swan's diaries and began to realize that they held four full decades of his life and at least 2,500,000 handwritten words. And what life, what sketching words. This morning we discovered a large wolf in the brook dead from the effects of some strychnine we had put out. It was a she wolf very large and evidently had five whelps. Maggs and myself shinned her and I boiled the head to get the skull. ... Mr. Fitzgerald of Sequim Prairie better known as "Skip!" walked off the wharf near the Custom House last night and broke his neck. The night was very dark, and he mistook the way. ... Jimmy had the night mare last night and made a great howling. This morning he told me that the memelose were after him and made him crazy. I told him the memelose were dead squid which he ate for supper very heartily. ... Mr Tucker very ill with his eye, his face is badly swelled. This evening got Kichook's Cowitchan squaw tomilk her breast into a cup, and I then bathed Mr Tucker's eye with it. ...

I recall that soon I gave up jotting notes and simply thumbed and read. At closing hour, Swan got up from the research table with me. I would write of him sometime, I had decided. Do a magazine piece or two, for I was in the business then of making those smooth packets of a few thousand words. Just use this queer indefatigable diarist Swan some rapid way as a figurine of the Pacific Northwest past.

Swan refused figurinehood, and rapid was the one word that never visited his pencils and pens. When, eight, ten years ago, I took a segment of his frontier life and tried to lop it into magazine-article length, loose ends hung everywhere. As well write about Samuel Pepys only what he did during office hours at the British admiralty. A later try, I set out carefully to summarize Swan — oyster entrepreneur, schoolteacher, railroad speculator, amateur ethnologist, lawyer, judge, homesteader, linguist, ship's outfitter, explorer, customs collector, author, small-town bureaucrat, artist, clerk — and surrendered in dizziness, none of the spectrum having shown his true and lasting occupation: diarist. This, I at last told myself, wants more time than I ever can grant it.

Until now. Here is the winter that will be the season of Swan. Rather, of Swan and me and those constant diaries. Day by day, a logbook of what is uppermost in any of the three of us.

It is a venture that I have mulled these past years of my becoming less headlong and more aware that I dwell in a community of time as well as of people. That I should know more than I do about this other mysterious citizenship, how far it goes, where it touches.

And the twin whys: why it has me invest my life in one place instead of another, and why for me that place happens to be western. More and more it seems to me that the westernness of my existence in this land is some consequence having to do with that community of time, one of the terms of my particular citizenship in it. America began as West, the direction off the ends of the docks of Europe. Then the firstcomers from the East of this continent to its West, advance parties of the American quest for place (position, too, maybe, but that is a pilgrimage that interests me less), imprinted our many contour lines of frontier. And next, it still is happening, the spread of national civilization absorbed those lines. Except that markings, streaks and whorls of the West and the past are left in some of us.

Because, then, of this western pattern so stubbornly within my life I am interested in Swan as a westcomer, and stayer. Early, among the very earliest, in stepping the paths of impulse that pull across America's girth of plains and over its continental summit and at last reluctantly nip off at the surf from the Pacific, Swan has gone before me through this matter of siting oneself specifically here: West.

The companion I feel an urgency to spend this winter with, meet day by day on the broad seasonal ground of time, here along the continental edge that drew us both.

If Swan attracts me in the way that any oracle among the coastal Indians of the Pacific Northwest inevitably attracted him — that here flashes the bard of a vivid tribe, worth all amount of attention — it is the diaries which throw his particular needle-sharp glints.

The diaries dazzle and dazzle me, first simply by their total and variety: Out of their gray archival boxes at the University of Washington library, they could be the secondhand wares of an eccentric stationer dreamed up by Charles Dickens. Some are mere notebooks with cheap marbled covers, and occasionally even a school exercise book sidles into the collection, but most are formal annual volumes (for the purpose of registering events of past, present, and future occurrence, announces the opening page of the 1860 version) and a good number of them display deft clasps to snug themselves closed from outsiders' eyes. It exaggerates marginally to say no two Swan diaries look closer alike than cousins, but I haven't yet turned up three of any single kind. Black-covered and green, tan and faded maroon, what they do present in common is that nearly all are small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, or a busy pocket. Those that won't are actual ledgers, such as the aristocrat of the congregation, 1866, some nine inches wide and twelve high, weighing four and a quarter pounds and displaying an elaborately hinged and embossed spine and a cover panel of leather into the middle of which has been tooled in rich half-inch letters J. G. Swan. I can scarcely wait for 1866 — lay it open to the first of its 380 lordly pages, and handwriting neat as small embroidery instantly begins to recite: Diary and private journal of James G. Swan, being a continuation of daily record commencing July 1862 at the Makah Indian Agency Neah Bay, Washington Territory — but what browsing I have done into any of the diaries has been seductive. Opening the pages of Swan's years is like entering a room filled with jugglers and tumblers and swal-lowers of flame, performance crowding performance. Went to see Capt John this morning, found him better. All the Indians except his squaws and children have left the lodge. John is alone in one corner, surrounded by a mat screen. He tells me that the small pox will collect in his head and when it leaves him it will come out of the top of his head like a puff of smome. To prevent it spreading he has a large hole left open in the roof directly over his head, through which the sickness is expected to escape. ... Last evening when the gentlemen from the Cutter were here, Capt Williams asked me for a drink of water. I handed him a dipper full from my pail, and he found a live toad in it which I had dipped up from the brook. ... Bricktop the blacksmith and some other roughs got on a spree & took Hernandez the loony shoemaker to Hunt's Hotel and made him treat. John Cornish was there and stripped himself to his drawers to fight. ... Swan records the weather morning-afternoon-night; notes down when salmonberry has popped into spring bloom, when autumn's geese begin to aim past to the southern horizon; logs all ships that sail past his eyes and on along the Strait of Juan de Fuca or Puget Sound; remarks his off days (Severe attack of neuralgia today Dr. Minn tried to cure it injecting morphine or something of the sort under the skin on my left cheek — This checked the pain but made me feel dizzy & sick at the stomach — the remedy was worse than the disease) and the other coastal days that shone as doubloon-bright as the most exhilarating hours anywhere; keeps account of letters written and received, and books borrowed and lent, and of his exceedingly ramshackle finances. His jottings overflow the day-by-day pages onto the inside covers of the diaries: mailing addresses of relatives in his native New England, Indian words and their definitions, sketches. On one back page a little Indian girl on the wharf at Seattle, the child prettily prone on the planks as she directs a tiny fishing stick-and-string to the water and a level stare at the pencilman creating her. Elsewhere the unmistakable pyramidal outline of Mount Baker, dominant peak of the Strait country; how many thousand times Swan saw its wide white cone. On an inside cover inspiration of one more sort, a pasted-in clipping of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier: Though dim as yet in tint and line / We trace Thy picture's wise design / And thank Thee that our age supplies / The dark relief of sacrifice / Thy will be done!

Terrific as the various expended diary energy is, page upon page and volume after volume, the simple stubborn dailiness of Swan's achievement seems to me even more dazing. It compares, say, to that of a carpenter whanging an hour's hammerstrokes on the same framework each morning for forty years, or a monk or nun spending that span of time tending the same vineyard. Or to put it more closely, a penman who a page or so a day writes out a manuscript the equivalent length of five copies of War and Peace, accomplishing the masterwork in frontier town and Indian village and sometimes no community at all.

For example, this: This is the 18th day since Swell was shot and there is no offensive smell from the corpse. It may be accounted for in this manner. He was shot through the body & afterwards washed in the breakers — consequently all the blood in him must have run out. He was then rolled up tight in 2 new blankets and put into a new box nailed up strong.

Swell was a chieftain of the Makah tribe of Cape Flattery, that westmost prow of this coast. He also was Swan's best-regarded friend among the coastal tribes of Washington Territory, a man Swan had voyaged with, learned legends from. The diary pages show them steadily swapping favors: now Swell detailing for Swan the Makahs' skill at hunting whales, now Swan painting for Swell in red and black his name and a horse on his canoe sail. Swell said he always went faster in his canoe than the other Indians ... like a horse, so he wanted to have one painted .... On yet another diary end-page there is the roughed outline of a galloping horse and above it in block letters the name SWELL, with five-pointed stars fore and aft. If Swan carried out the design, Swell sailed under the gaudiest canvas in the North Pacific.

I know the beach at Crescent Bay where Swell's life was snapped off. Across on the Canadian shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca the lights of modern Victoria now spread as white embers atop the burn-dark rim of coastline, and west from the city occasional lighthouses make blinks against the black as the Strait seeks toward the Pacific. But on Swell's final winter night in 1861 only a beach campfire at Crescent on our southern shore flashed bright enough to attract the eye, and Swell misread the marker of flame as an encampment of traveling members of his own tribe. Instead, he stepped from his canoe to find that the overnighters were from a nearby village of Elwha Indians, among them chanced to be a particular rival of Swell, and his bullet spun the young Makah dead into the cold quick surf.

The killing was less casual than the downtown deaths my morning newspaper brings me three or four times a week — the Elwhas and the Makahs at least had the excuse of lifetimes of quarrel — or those I might go see in aftermath, eligible as I am for all manner of intrusion because of being a writer, were I to accompany the Seattle homicide squad. James G. Swan did go hurrying to be beside Swell's corpse, and there the first of our differences is marked.

A morning soon after learning of Swell's death Swan strolled into the Elwha village. Charley, the murderer, then got up and made a speech. He said that he shot Swell for two reasons, one of which was, that the Mackahs had hilled two of the Elwha's a few months previous, and they were determined to kill a Mackah chief to pay for it. And the other reason was, that Swell hadtaken his squaw away, and would not return either the woman or the fifty blankets he had paid for her.

Swan was not swerved. I could not help feeling while standing up alongside this murderer ... that I would gladly give a pull at the rope that should hang him. ... The day's chastisement was administered with vocal cords rather than hemp, however. My object was not to punish or kill Indians, but to recover property. Swan haggled out of Charley the potware Swell had been carrying as cargo for a trader, several blankets, and a dozen yards of calico, and as I had no authority to make them disgorge any other plunder called it sufficient.

Swan next carried the matter of Swell's death to the federal Indian agent for Washington Territory. Met inconclusion there. Sent a seething letter to the newspaper in the territorial capital of Olympia ... an Indian peaceably passing on his way home in his canoe, laden with white men's goods ... foully murdered ... too good an Indian and too valuable a man ... to have his murder go unavenged ... agents of our munificent government have not the means at their disposal to defray the expenses of going to arrest the murderer. ... And at last canoed once more along the Strait to accompany Swell, still nailed up strong, to burial at the Makah village of Neah Bay.

At Neah, Swell's brother Peter came and wished me to go with him and select a suitable spot to bury Swell. ...

I did as he desired — marked out the spot and dug out the first sand.

And this further: Peter also brought up the large Tomanawas boards — the Makahs' cedar tableaus of magic which would stand as the grave's monument — of Swell's for me to paint anew. ...

There, then, is Swan, or at least a shinnying start on him. A penman from Boston asked to trace afresh the sacred designs of a murdered Northwest chieftain. I can think of few circumstances less likely, unless they are my own. The onlooker who has set himself this winter's appointment back into the last century and across geography to the Olympic Peninsula and elsewhere along the coastal tracery of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and indeed into the life of a person born ten dozen years before him.

Day Two

... Capt John was here today, Swan writes from a century ago, and I related to him a dream I had last night, in which I saw several Indians I formerly knew who are dead. John scud it was a sign the "memelose" or dead people are my friends and I would soon see that they would do something to show their friendship. ...

Fifteen past nine. Out in the dark the Sound wind visits favorite trees, is shaken off, hankers along the valley in stubborn search. The gusting started up hours ago, during the gray fade of daylight that is December evening, and by now seems paced to try to last the night. Until the wind arrives with dusk, these past days have been at rest: sunless but silent and dry. The neighborhood's lion-colored cat, inspector general of such weather, all morning tucked himself atop the board fence outside the north window as I began to read Swan. Out of his furry doze each several minutes a sharp cat ear would twitch, give the air a tan flick just to be certain it still could. Then the self-hug into snooze again.

The breakers, now Swan the third day after his dream, tore up the beach and rooted out immense numbers of clams which were thrown up by the surf. I gathered a few buckets full and soon the squaws and Indians came flocking up like so many gulls and gathered at least fifty bushels. ...

Nine-nineteen. I see, by leaning to hear into the wind, that the night-black window which faces west off the end of my desk collects the half of me above the desktop and its spread sheaf of copied diary pages into quiet of my own.

Nine-twenty. Capt John told me, this the morning following the beach bonanza, that the cause of the great quantity of clamson the beach yesterday was the dead people I dreamed about the other night and they put the clams there to show their friendship. ...


Excerpted from "Winter Brothers"
by .
Copyright © 1980 Ivan Doig.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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