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 .
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” 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?
“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