Book review: ‘Magpie’s Blanket’
The novel Magpie’s Blanket begins this way: “The sky swallowed the sun, wrapping the yellow orb’s brilliance in moody, slate-colored tones, pressing it down close to the earth and preventing it from arching high in the sky.”
The poetic beauty of author Kimberly Schmidt’s prose is a striking contrast with the death and destruction of Native Americans in the last half of the 19th century as white settlement and their military reinforcements pushed west across the United States.
The story is organized around two historical events, the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeastern Colorado in 1864 and the Washita massacre of southern Cheyenne in western Oklahoma four years later.
But the heart of this novel is a young Cheyenne woman named Magpie, living with her family and others in traditional camps. She is on the cusp of adulthood, still playing with her younger sister but curious about her own future, daring to believe she could hunt and shoot like a man. She is also romantically drawn to a young man, Big Hawk, and wonders if he will court her.
Magpie and Big Hawk live in a tumultuous time. “The earth has changed. The waters are bitter. . . . The great buffalo herds have been split by the ve’ho’e (white) trails.” Their people are starving and struggling.
Before she goes to bed each night, Magpie’s mother tells her to check her bundle, “a constant reminder of the threat under which Magpie’s family lived.” Her bundle contains basic provisions. “If the ve’ho’e should ever come, riding through their camp and shooting their guns, the children knew to grab their bundles and run, run as fast as they could and hide.”
Hailed by the publisher as a rare book to show a female perspective on the historical massacres, Magpie’s Blanket brings us into everyday Cheyenne life and its particular customs. It offers a glimpse to white readers of a different way of thinking. “The [dance] circle magnified the courage and resolve [Big Hawk] brought to it.”
Schmidt layers the story with complexities of the time, including the tensions within Native groups on how to respond to white incursion. Magpie lived with a cluster of families under the leadership of Black Kettle, a Cheyenne peace chief who believed he must compromise with white people in order for his people to survive; he signed treaties and flew a white flag.
The incident at Washita was a massacre, in part, because the Cheyenne Dog Solders who were actively fighting back did not want a “white sympathizer” like Black Kettle close to them.
Schmidt’s thoughtful storytelling also includes perspectives from the men of the U.S. Cavalry and some of the internal tensions they faced as soldiers on the western frontier after the carnage of the Civil War.
The last third of Magpie’s Blanket jumps forward 100 years to 1968 when the descendants of both southern Cheyenne survivors of the 1868 massacre and the 7th U.S. Calvary meet in a historical re-enactment at the actual site of what the latter calls the “Battle of the Washita.” The dramatic meeting is chaotic and painfully realistic, bringing tears to my eyes as I read.
The redemptive conclusion of that day — based upon actual facts, as is most of the book — draws upon the spirit of Magpie, a bold young woman who survived two massacres.
Why should Schmidt, a white woman, write such a sacred and important Cheyenne story?
Ten years ago this spring, scholars and interested people met in Clinton, Okla., to examine the history of native groups and Mennonites, a relationship that began when Mennonite educators responded to the federal government’s initiative some 120 years before that.
At the center of the conference was Lawrence Hart, a contemporary Cheyenne peace chief and Mennonite pastor. On a field trip to the site of the Washita massacre on a beautiful sunny morning with a cool breeze, Peace Chief Hart, a direct descendent of the massacre’s survivors, sang to the four sacred directions. Schmidt was there and drew upon that experience for a character in Magpie’s Blanket, based upon Hart’s life.
Hart, his wife, Betty, and others urged Schmidt to the write the story. Cheyenne tribal members gave input and read the manuscript for historical accuracy. Proceeds from the author’s royalties will be donated to the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton.
Schmidt is a professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and director of the Washington Community Scholars’ Center. Her father grew up in the same Mennonite community that I still call home for part of the year. Schmidt and I shared the Mennonite ancestors who started churches among the southern Cheyenne. I was a friend of Lawrence and Betty Hart’s daughter, Connie, while we were both students at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.
If modern life is the story of intersections, like the myriad presented here, the question is always: Where do we go from here?
In this compelling and imaginative novel, Schmidt provides us with some direction. In her introduction, she writes, “this story is for all of us to tell, and tell it we should.”
Ardie Goering is a Christmas tree farmer and freelance writer living in both central Kansas and Albuquerque, N.M.
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