Monday, November 10, 2008

The Callings, a rambling review

In two weeks I'll be in Amarillo, Texas---about as different a place from Baton Rouge as can be reached in a day's drive. My destination is a log cabin on the north side of town. From the back porch you look out across the yucca dotted desert, rolling and smooth, toward the broken country of the Canadian River. The river transects vast ranch properties, two of which give us permission to hunt; in caravans of four-wheel-drive trucks we will spend most of a week chasing quail and ducks and rabbits there with our trained hawks.

When we are not on one ranch or the other, we'll be east of town in the cultivated plainlands. We'll hunt in tumbleweeds beside abandoned homesteads and beneath the great arms of wind turbines. We'll shuttle back and forth to small town diners for the bad coffee and good burgers. This is the Panhandle hawking experience as I've come to know it over the last dozen years. With the possible exception of new wind farms, the landscape never seems to change.

Of course, it has changed much nonetheless. Amarillo, the Panhandle capital, is a major interstate hub connecting eastern and western halves of the continent, a fact borne out by its hectic semi-trailer commerce and eclectic cultural mix. It has a fantastic blues station, among other surprises.

But in between the cracks in the asphalt and along the section roads north of town, that yucca dotted desert remains. Land there may not have changed at all in 100 years, or 500. Certain shrubs poking up from steep draws along the Canadian might have been seeded by the unshod hooves of Comanche ponies. That fact remains, too.

Our own Henry Chappell sent me a copy of his novel The Callings just in time for my annual pilgrimage to the high plateau. After reading it, my image of the country has gained an indelible bottom layer: Peel back a few feet of concrete slab and you'll find wagon tracks, bare native footprints and buffalo bones.

In The Callings, Chappell takes us to a strangely familiar place. It is the America of 1873, specifically the western frontier, which at that time split Texas in half, halted in its progress by great tribes of native American warriors, raiders and hunters. Collectively, the region was known as the Comancheria.

My knowledge of native tribes and 19th Century American expansionism ends right about there. But my faith in Chappell's research and local expertise is considerable and reinforced by his exceptional storytelling and moving prose. Chappell's story brings together a handful of memorable personalities---an aging Comanche warrior, a young pilgrim from Kentucky, a former slave and master plainsman, among others---and pits them in a conflict that would become one of the final chapters of an ancient regional history.

Along intersecting plot lines, the protagonists reveal themselves from every perspective: their own and that of each other. The differences are stark, and yet there is truth in all views. As widely acknowledged, the native warriors prove capable of extreme cruelty to their captives and enemies. In equal measure we see their merciful moments and displays of ingenuity, bravery, skill and endurance that are as much humanity's hallmarks as our capacity for evil. The white settlers, the US soldiers both black and white, the various mix of traders and immigrants all prove fully human in Chappell's engaging and fast-paced drama.

In a sketch of it, the young Kentucky pilgrim, Logan, picks up his father's calling as a faith healer and lay-preacher and, in search of new pastures, signs on with a small company of westward bound buffalo hunters. Leading the party is one Bob Durham, a former slave who took to life on the plains and made a name for himself as a scout and a fighter of Indians. In his 60s, Durham serves as mentor and protector to Logan, and as a fascinating counterpart to Cuts Something, the restless Comanche chief of similar age and with whom he has some history.

Over the course of several months on the southern plains, every one will be forced to take a side.

The Callings is a story of inevitable conflict and horrendous violence. It is a fiction that contains a great many terrible truths. But as it must do, it becomes also a story of faith and healing for a nation that has yet to see the last of its own making.


Lauren said...

Matt - Just loved your description of the Panhandle hawking experience. I was recently hawking in OK's panhandle - and your words immediately brought back the sights and smells. Not to mention fond memories of Amarillo meets past. Thanks!

Matt Mullenix said...

Thanks Lauren--will you be heading to the meet?

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt, nice review. We'll have to do some hawking in Amarillo, will you bring Trina along?


Matt Mullenix said...

Paul thank you. I'll be there but Rina will be staying home. I hate to do it to her, but it's just not worth the risk. I found a post about that very dilema from last year:

She is doing great for me this year. I hate to risk her any more than neceddary.

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, I really appreciate your kind words, and I enjoyed your writing about hawking in the Panhandle. That's rough, beautiful country up there. I often try to imagine what it was like when there were tens of millions of bison.

Lauren said...

I will indeed, Matt! It would be great to have a chat or hit the field. I'll send you an e-mail.