D’Arcy McNickle, Train time (#Review)

Continuing my reading from Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers, we now jump a decade from John M. Oskison’s 1925-published “The singing bird” to D’Arcy McNickle’s “Train time” which was published in 1936 .

D’Arcy McNickle

As before, I’m using both anthology editor Bob Blaisdell’s brief intro and Wikipedia’s article to introduce this author. D’Arcy McNickle (1904-1977) was, like the previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born on the Flathead Reservation in Montana to an Irish father and a Cree-Métis mother, and was an enrolled member of the Salish Kootenai nation. He attended schools on and off the reservation, then went to the University of Montana, before studying at Oxford University and the University of Grenoble.

He wrote a few novels, but is probably best known for his first, The surrounded, which was published in 1936, the same year as the piece I’m reviewing here. From the summary I’ve read, it sounds like it draws from his own life, like so many first novels. However, that same year, 1936, McNickle started working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a US federal agency. He worked under John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who encouraged self-government for Native Americans. McNickle became knowledgable about Native American policies, and in 1944, helped found the National Congress of American Indians in 1944. By 1950, he was publishing non-fiction works on Native American history, cultures, and governmental policies. Later, he worked in academia as an anthropologist.

Of his short stories, Blaisdell writes that “his quiet and intense stories seem to have been informed by a deep experience of Chekhov’s and Hemingway’s short fiction”. “Train time” is certainly quiet and, depending on your perspective, intense – with an ending that leaves many questions hanging.

“Train time”

“Train time” takes place on a train station, where twenty-five Native American (“Indian”) children from the local Reservation are waiting for a train to take them to an off-reservation boarding school. This has been organised by the local white Indian agent, Major Miles, who believes he is doing a good thing. He is, we are told, “a man of conscience. Whatever he did, he did earnestly”.

The trouble with earnest people – as I know a bit too well – is that they can lack imagination. He is thinking about these children who are about to leave the Reservation “and get a new start. Life would change. They ought to realise it, somehow-” It’s hot and stifling, the children are restless, and he is stiff and soldier-like. Not a recipe for the sort of inspirational words the situation needs. Then, he spies a young boy, “little Eneas”.

The Major remembers the moment, six months earlier in the depths of winter, when he had visited Eneas’ home to find out why his grandfather had not started the wood-cutting job he’d been employed to do. Turns out the grandfather and grandmother were no longer capable of such work. Not only that, they seemed ill, and the Major felt trapped. He feared catching pneumonia; he felt unable to help personally out of his salary, as where would it stop; and government resources were limited. Then, he had spied “little Eneas” who was doing his best to help the old people. Eneas’ “uncomplaining wordlessness”, his “loyalty to the old people”, had got the Major thinking. Here was “a boy of quality”. Surely he’d be “shirking his duty” if he failed to help him. So, he had come up with a plan to have the old people cared for and send Eneas off to boarding school. The trouble was that Eneas didn’t like the plan.

But, our Major was not to be dissuaded (so much so that “against his own principles” he had even bought “a week’s worth of groceries” for the old people):

Whether the boy understood what was good for him or not, he meant to see to it that the right thing was done…

You can imagine what that right thing was. The story concludes with our returning to the Major and the children on the railway station, and the Major trying to find those words to inspire the children. The Major knew that “none had wanted to go”, so he wanted to make them see “what this moment of going away meant”. What it meant of course, in the well-meaning Major’s mind, was a bright future.

There is no epiphany for the Major but the powerful imagery in the closing paragraphs, in which “a white plume flew upward” while the “flying locomotive loomed blacker and larger” conveys what the author thinks.

McNickle does a great job of evoking the Major. We see his good intentions, but we also see his stiffness and his obliviousness to the humanity of those he wants to help. This sort of well-meaning paternalism was pretty rife amongst those who wanted to do “the right thing” wasn’t it? I’d love to know how the story was received at the time. Did stories like this get the message across?

D’Arcy McNickle
“Train time” (orig. pub. Indians at work 3, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, March 15, 1936)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
pp. 40-45
ISBN: 9780486490953

17 thoughts on “D’Arcy McNickle, Train time (#Review)

    • Thanks Jim … glad you liked the review. I want to say though that I meant do-gooder in its most generous sense to mean those who are humane and want to do right by others versus the racists, sexists, etc, who care nothing for those who are different (and therefore “lesser” in their minds) than themselves.

      • I think my reference (subconsciously drawn – and not in commentary on your own usage) was to the straiteners (is that the spelling?) identified by Manning Clark – as opposed to the enlargeners – and as in his perceptive way – of contrasting mourners and mockers, of life deniers and life affirmers. Your writing and understanding is always impeccable, WG! Jim

  1. I’m happy that you reviewed one of the stories that I read and enjoyed. As for your final question, I read a little bit more about the author on encyclopedia.com and it seems that D’Arcy McNickle spent his life trying to fight governmental paternalism, but that it was often an uphill battle. In 1950 he resigned from the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it wanted to terminate tribal groups and relocate them to urban centers. I’m guessing that people in 1936 felt that there was no alternative to government paternalism, but due to the activism of the author and others, this attitude gradually changed. Not all is perfect for Indigenous Americans, but according to the National Congress of American Indians, “the US Constitution recognizes that tribal nations are sovereign governments” with the guarantee of ongoing self-government on their own lands.

    • Thanks very much for this Carolyn. I didn’t read encyclopaedia.com (I must check it more often) but that accords well with what this story is about doesn’t it. Wikipedia doesn’t say why he left BIA.

      The big issue here is our lack of constitutional recognition for our First Nations people, something we hope this year’s referendum might rectify.

      I am so enjoying this book … the chronological range of it makes it extra valuable for me, so thanks again.

  2. So often what ‘good’ white people thought was best for Indigenous children was to remove them from the influence of their own families, their own people.
    You can’t really forgive even ‘good’ people for being so sure that the white way was best. Though at least they were consistent enough to send their own children away to boarding school too.

    • Haha true Bill. I don’t think I’m talking about forgiveness, but simply about understanding the historical trajectory and the range of values and attitudes at different times. You would hope “good” white people listened to McNickle but of course it’s pretty clear not enough did. Why listen to the people themselves after all!!!

    • Here’s to continue with my comment… whom I rarely read, and this time, close to my backyard. Maybe some indigenous writers of Canada next? 🙂 BTW, have you seen the movie ‘Living’ with Bill Nighy? Thought you might enjoy it.

      • A kinship connection – (you know – someone who is connected by marriage but a step further on) is Julian Brave NoiseCat (google his name – though I think raised largely in the San Francisco area before his studies at Columbia NYC and Oxford – about 30 now I think – his beautifully passionate writing not so much fiction as based on First Nations issues – and more broadly on the Global Warming crisis – and as it applies to First Nations’ sovereignty over their traditional lands – pipelines and mining – not so different to the issues here in Australia – and elsewhere. I will be in Vernon, BC, later this year and will pursue these issues as well as seek further on First Nations writers from that western region.

      • Ha ha, Arti, I’d like to but my Californian friend sent me this book which has made it easy to read these authors. I haven’t had to track it down.

        I really want to see Living but I fear I will miss it. Too busy with moving at present.

    • Again, good questions. Right now, I haven’t thought about following them into novels, mainly because I have piles of books I already own to read. I am just loving having this survey of your First Nations literature through short stories.

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