Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Indian Country (A Man Called Horse) by Dorothy M Johnson 1953 French title: Contrée indienne (translated by Lili Sztajn)

I started Indian Country because I wanted to read short stories in French between chapters of The Grapes of Wrath which turned out to be difficult to follow with its constant somepin, purty and other spoken words. Contrée indienne is again a book published by Gallmeister. It’s a publisher I’ve already mentioned and I really really like their picks. They’re specialised in American literature and you can see the map of the writers they publish here. I’m a fan, everything I’ve read coming from this collection was excellent. Back to Indian Country, a collection of eleven short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1953 that includes the following short stories:


Johnson_Contrée_indienneAlthough I’d never heard of Dorothy Johnson, I had heard of her famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When I started the book, I thought I’d read one short story sandwiched between two chapters by Steinbeck. Big mistake. Dorothy Johnson’s stories are addictive and sound like bedtime stories when you want to say “please, another one. Just one, I promise”.

All the stories are set in the Great Plains. Although not defined in time, most of the stories happen at the arrival of settlers and in the second half of the 19thC. They either describe the settlers’ life (Prairie Kid, Beyond the Frontier or Laugh in the Face of Danger) and the harshness of their living conditions or they explore the interaction between the Whites and the Native Americans. I have absolutely no idea if what Dorothy Johnson describes about Native American customs is accurate. It seemed non-judgemental to me and since she was made honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe, I assume she knew what she was talking about.

The issue of identity is central in this collection of short stories. Through her characters, Dorothy M. Johnson questions the essence of our identity. Who are we? Are we deep in and forever a member of our childhood culture? Can we merge into another culture and live our birth culture behind?

1010_NavajoSeveral stories revolve around the integration of white people in an Indian tribe, temporarily or not. The men or women came to live with the tribe as prisoners and managed to assimilate their culture…or not. In The Unbeliever, Mahlon Mitchell would love to leave behind his white culture to become a Crow in his heart and soul. But he has trouble with the spiritual side of the culture, not that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s at ease among the Crows; he respects their culture and believes they treat old people better than the American society does. Still, he can only state that he remains “white” in his reflexes, ways of thinking and vision of the world. War Shirt is another example. It’s about two brothers, one coming from the East to look for his long lost brother. He’s led to believe that his brother has become a fierce Indian warrior. When they meet, the question is open: is this man his brother although he denies it? Has that man who had been rejected by his father and sent to the new territories turned his back to his past up to the point of pushing back his brother?

Another side of the identity quest is: can we reinvent ourselves? As a Native American, as a mountain man, as a farmer. Are the new territories of the West an opportunity to become someone else? Is it even possible?

And above all, are we only the sum of our actions? This idea is explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Warrior’s Exile, where Smoke Rising is not considered as a man because he never had his vision and never killed an enemy. He’s a nonentity. Dorothy M. Johnson shows that both culture value bravery and the capacity to kill as an abacus to measure the value of a man. Basically, the identity of a man is based upon violence. Do I sense a feminist criticism here? Since Ms Johnson prided herself for her independence after a nasty marriage, I can’t help wondering if she purposely put this forward.

Although Dorothy M. Johnson doesn’t hide the violence among settlers and between the settlers and the Native Americans, her tone is moderate and the stories never too harsh. The times are difficult and dangerous but there’s hope. I’ve also read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx and her vision of the time is a lot darker. People die in horrible conditions, the weather is deathly, the settlers are isolated from one another. When you read Proulx, you realise that what she writes is totally plausible and that make the short stories even more unsettling. One mistake can cost you your life. Make the wrong decision and you freeze to death. Johnson is not that dramatic but sounds plausible too.

Oddly, Indian Country is out-of-print in English but used copies are available. I understand that westerns are out-of-fashion but it’s not a reason to dismiss Dorothy M. Johnson as a writer. Luckily, there are always libraries and I’ve heard they’re quite good in America.

  1. September 7, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    I’m wondering if you’d like one of those captive narratives (true stories) of children captured by the Indians, brought up by them, and then how they tried to integrate back into their original culture?


    • September 8, 2014 at 10:42 pm

      No I’m not tempted. I’ll stick to fiction.


  2. September 9, 2014 at 1:45 am

    Fascinating. I’ve never heard of her, and had no idea her stories served as the basis for one of my favorite westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) and for that other one that traumatized me when I was a kid (A Man Called Horse). It’s too bad she’s out of print here. Coincidentally, I’ve just read a 19th century American novel – Who Would Have Thought It?, by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, involving a child kidnapped and raised by Native Americans then integrated into white society. The twist? The child is Mexican.


    • September 10, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      You’re not going to read this in French, are you? It’s a pity she’s not republished in her own country, really.

      I can understand why A Man Called Horse traumatized you. I should see the film although I still haven’t found out how to watch old movies on demand here. Perhaps they have the DVD at the médiathèque. (Is there an English word for this?)

      How was Who Would Thought It? I don’t think you’ve reviewed it. The risk with this kind of story is clichés about the Native American. Are there any here?


  3. leroyhunter
    September 9, 2014 at 11:29 am

    A great discovery Emma – like Scott, I recognise the two landmark films, without having known she wrote the originals. Sounds well worth a look, thanks.

    I love westerns (films) but haven’t read much that you could call by that name. Butcher’s Crossing I guess. I have Wallace Stegner and Oakley Hall on the shelf.


    • September 10, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      I hope you can find it somewhere, it’s worth reading. I love this publisher, I don’t know who chooses the writers but he/she is good.

      I think the only other western I’ve read is Riders of the Purple Sage. It’s nice to read for fun.
      Dorothy M Johnson is deeper than Zane Grey in her characterization. (People are more subtle, less black & white)


  4. September 9, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    It sounds shameful this is out of print, as it sounds very good. I rather like Westerns as a cinematic genre, so I suspect I’d like these too. Something about those big vistas…

    I wouldn’t be tempted by the true life stuff either.

    A Man Called Horse is not a movie for kids, not surprised it traumatised Scott.

    Presently my Westerns category has one book in it, The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe. Clearly I need to read more of them.


    • September 10, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      I know what you mean about the big vistas. Riders of the Purple Sage is full of them.

      A Man Called Horse is the illustration of what Johnson is capable of. She goes beyond the folklore of the big vistas, the horse runs and the Native American customs. She tries to show what this country does on human souls.

      Another suggestion for a western! I know someone who loves them, I’m going to write a list and find the books in French. Thanks for giving birthday gifts ideas!


  5. September 10, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Like Scott and Leroy, I’ve seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but had no idea that it was based on a Dorothy M. Johnson story. Shame this collection is out of print, but it might be one of those books that turn up in a charity shop at some point.

    Have you read any of Ron Rash’s stories? The stories in his ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ collection are set in the Appalachian mountains, and there might be some similarities with Johnson’s work (although Rash is a contemporary writer). I have a copy of Butcher’s Crossing on my ‘to-read’ pile, too.


    • September 10, 2014 at 9:39 pm

      It may be available at the library.

      I’ve never read Ron Rash. Thanks for the suggestion. I’m definitely doing a list now.


  6. leroyhunter
    September 11, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I’m reading a collection of essays by Joan Didion, all from the 60s. One of them is about John Wayne:
    ‘There was Wayne himself, fighting through [film] number 165. There was Wayne in his thirty-three-year-old spurs, his dusty neckerchief, his blue shirt. “You don’t have too many worries about what to wear in these things,” he said. “You can wear a blue shirt, or, if you’re down in Monument Valley, you can wear a yellow shirt.”‘


    • September 19, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      I’ve read this collection. In French it’s entitled L’Amérique. I thought some essays were difficult to read, mostly because they’re full of details about events I ignore and people I’d never heard of. Is it the same for you?


  1. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am

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