Ghost Warrior, by Lucia St. Clair Robson

Buy Ghost Warrior, by Lucia St. Clair Robson

Lucia St. Clair Robson occupies an odd niche in Western American literature. Ride the Wind, her fictional biography of Cynthia Ann Parker and her famous Comanche husband and son (Peta Nocona and Quanah Parker) is an outstanding and popular historical novel, but it receives very little critical attention and continues to be marketed like a bodice ripper. Her new novel, Ghost Warrior, set in the nineteenth-century Southwest and recounting the story of Lozen, the sister of the Apache chief Victorio, may generate the kind of mainstream attention her work deserves. She is a better writer than James Michener, and her two "Indian" novels are better stories that any of the tedious sequels to Lonesome Dove.

Robson fills her new novel with the rich chaos of the Indian Wars. Her players are Victorio, Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, Nana, Juh, and Cochise, leaders of the many Apache bands of the period. The novel spans a half century from about 1840-1890. The personal center of the story is the life of Lozen, the historical tapestry is the culture the Apache people and the coerced passing of their traditional way of life. Like Ride the Wind for the Comanche, Ghost Warrior manages the complicated balance of making the Apaches sympathetic without mitigating or denying their cruelty and brutality in warfare. Her Apaches are not people you would want for neighbors, unless you were confident they liked you very, very much.

But the fact is, the white people of the novel are no less brutal than the Apaches they despise and hate. It is an irony of history that the same Spaniards who abhorred the cruelty of Aztec religion were busily torturing and burning heretics and Jews back home in Old Spain (and Indians in New Spain), and that the white Protestants who "saved the last bullet for themselves" and sermonized about heathen savages and red devils carried around—as souvenirs of their own predations on Indians—pubic scalps, breastskin tobacco pouches, fingers, teeth, and ears.

What emerges from the novel is a well-rounded picture of a demonized and stereotyped people.

It was a brutal time. The fresh-faced boys of My Lai and the excesses of contemporary Cambodia, Bosnia, and Africa should remind us that it hasn't passed.

What emerges from the novel is a well-rounded picture of a demonized and stereotyped people. Perhaps the biggest surprise in that picture is the Apache love of humor and practical jokes. Robson includes many slapstick (if a bit off-color) Coyote stories. She relies on a major character whose role is epitomized in his name (He Makes Them Laugh), and the pages abound in laugh-out-loud wonderful moments. The "surrender" of Geronimo hinges on a joke, and it is Lozen's wonderful stunt while stealing horses that inspirits the love story at the center of the book.

About half the narrative follows the life of teamster Rafe Collins, whose magnificent roan horse is the lodestone around which his relationship with Lozen spins. She covets the horse for twenty years. She manages to steal it once, only to lose it again within minutes through an accident worthy of Wile E. Coyote. Given a second opportunity, she chooses not to steal it because not stealing it is more fun. And she and Rafe share one of the most touching and unusual love affairs I have ever read.

I am tempted to say that they love each other for nearly thirty years without any physical contact. That is not quite true, but damned close. And the miracle is that Robson manages to make this "unconsummated" love both believeable and interesting. On the one hand, we can't imagine how these two people could ever create a life as a couple. The thought never even crosses Lozen's mind, and on the one or two occasions when Rafe thinks of it, he knows it's impossible. On the other hand, their relationship is so strong, so deep and honest and mutual, that we move from page to page hoping Robson will come up with a solution we can't imagine. And most miraculously, at the end we have no sense that an opportunity has been lost or a life diminished.

How accurate is Robson's picture of Apache life and the inner workings of her heroine's mind? That, of course, is anyone's guess, even a contemporary Apache's. The debate over "experienced life" versus "observed life" is nowhere more vehement than when thick cultural boundaries are crossed. Ghost Warrior passes the first test of truth: The People seem at once real and alien, believeable, three-dimensional, and unique. Robson neither excuses nor justifies their brutality, their hatred of Mexicans. She consulted Apache sources in her depiction of historical figures and they come across as a living mixture of nobility and cunning, the admirable and the reprobate. She establishes quickly that the animosity of the Apaches against Americans, however excessive, was in response to attacks, mistreatment, and injustice. There are, in that sense, no good guys here.

Robson has always specialized in pulling the worthy obscure to center stage. Where one might expect another novel about the heroic Peta Nocona or the brilliant and charismatic Quanah Parker, Robson finds a wife and mother as interesting as the men she loved. In The Tokaido Road, she focuses on the bastard daughter of a murdered daimyo in medieval Japan, and the woman's life is so interesting that it is almost anticlimactic when we realize, a hundred pages short of the end, that we are reading a version of The 47 Ronin, a Japanese historical narrative equal in drama and importance for the Japanese to America's story of the Alamo for Americans. The worthy obscure. Having met the incomparable laundress Sarah Bowman here in Ghost Warrior, I'm looking forward to reading Robson's novel about her, Fearless.

If there is a pattern in Robson's work, it is her talent for finding and illuminating "the woman behind the man." It is more than a cliché; what emerges from each book is a strong, intelligent, interesting woman on equal ground with the famous men around her.
Detail from Geronimo surrender photo. Reproduced from Sherry Robinson's Apache Voices
How fitting that in the famous surrender picture, preserved at Robson's web site, Lozen is present among the twenty-odd companions of Geronimo, but there is some uncertainty about which face is hers, and even some question of whether she is there at all.

Lozen was a woman who chose a man's work. The men around her had to cope with the challenge that presented to various orthodoxies, but for Lozen, and apparently for Robson, the choice is neither strange nor inappropriate.

Apparently, the reason the Apaches did not talk about Lozen was that for her to accompany war parties as an unmarried woman was rather scandalous, and although they accepted it themselves, they felt that white people would not understand and would disrespect her.

Unlike so many "woman warrior" stories, Robson's does not "explain" that choice by making her heroine some sort of transvestite/transsexual, real or symbolic. Lozen's story is asexual; she is a warrior and a respected "grandmother" of her people. She chose to be this person, setting her own boundaries, the boundaries of competence and desire, not the artificial boundaries of any culture's sociosexual dimorphism. She chose to do these things, and some are things men do. That is all.

One of the limitations of historical fiction is the necessity for accepting the historical ending. In Ride the Wind we watch Nocona and Naduah die separated, and it is a heartbreaking truth we cannot turn our faces from. The genocide perpetrated against the Apache has the same terrible inevitability as we watch it unfold in the novel, an inevitability prescribes by history, not by circumstance. It didn't have to be so, but so it was.

And Lozen's own death is painfully without drama, as it was in reality—a lingering illness in a foreign land, an unmarked grave. But Robson has given us a great image to carry with the pain, that of a fourteen-year-old girl, the equal of any boy, standing on the back of a galloping horse she has just stolen, poised as an Olympic vaulter who just scored a ten, snapping off a military salute as perfect as it is mischievous, and shouting to the white man who will love her from that day forward, "Hola, Capitán Pata Peluda! ¿Cómo estas?"

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Robson has her own web site with additional information about her books and their subjects, including Ghost Warrior. To learn more about Lozen, try Peter Aleshire's "conjectural biography" (i.e., thinly disguised historical fiction) Warrior Woman or Kimberly Moore Buchanan's pamphlet, Apache Women Warriors, from Texas Western Press. For books on the Apache, good starting points are Eve Ball's Indeh: An Apache Odyssey and In the Days of Victorio (memoirs of James Kaywaykla, the grandson of Apache Chief Nana). Also worth looking at, for a good brief biography of Lozen and a wealth of additional information, is Sherry Robinson's Apache Voices. For Apache culture, check out anthropologist Keith Basso's eminently readable books, notably Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache.

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