An exploration of what it means to be a Woman of the West, then and now
Winner of the 2018 Riverteeth Nonfiction Prize
“’We are at times hardwired by our own histories to act in ways we spend the rest of our lives desperately untangling,’ writes Debra Gwartney in this meditation on home, family, and loyalty. She has always found herself the odd one out in her family of conservative Idahoans, questioning what they take on faith. In her stubbornness to both love her people and demand the truth, she embodies the determination and fortitude we expect of a woman of the West.”
— Bonnie Jo Campbell, National Book Award finalist, author of American Salvage and Once Upon a River
I Am a Stranger Here Myself.
By Debra Gwartney.
Apr. 2019. 296p. Univ. of New Mexico, paper, $24.95 (9780826360717). 920.72009796.
“I’m a churner,” Gwartney (Live through This, 2009) admits in her second commanding and many-branched family portrait, referring to her habit of puzzling over her past and its part in the overarching story of the land and culture of her birth. A “fifth- generation Idahoan,” she takes a sharp look at women in the West, candidly sharing her experiences and offering a bracing account of the zealous and tragic life of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808–47), a missionary whose journey West opened up the Oregon Trail and led to her brutal murder. Like Joan Didion in Where I Was From (2003), Gwartney explores her own clan’s place in the mythology and reality of white settlers, which included raging racism and rigid gen- der roles. Gwartney reflects on the emotional duress of being a misfit with outsider values and dreams as well as the accidental child of teens whose subsequent marriage was ever- contentious. This prize-winning, beautifully crafted, deeply involving, and astute historical chronicle and anatomy of estrangement pulses with dramatic tales of hubris, risk, and bloodshed, repressed feelings and hard-tested bonds. —Donna Seaman
By Anita Gill for Brevity
Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story explains that when writing memoir: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Debra Gwartney knows this. It’s evident in her extensive body of work, including her first memoir, Live Through This, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Oregon Book Awards. Since then, she’s published essays in journals and anthologies that turn the lens inward, confronting her own vulnerabilities.
Gwartney’s second book veers from the traditional structure of memoir, using a lesser-known historical event as a springboard for her own personal narrative. In I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Gwartney juxtaposes her memories with the story of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first white women settlers to journey westward. This genre-bending manuscript won the 2018 River Teeth Nonfiction Prize and publication this past March.
A fifth-generation Idahoan, Gwartney first learned about Narcissa in fourth grade. As an adult, she moved away, raising her family in Arizona and Oregon. Every trip back to Idaho, Gwartney confronts her complicated tie to her ancestors’ land. She writes this book with a burning desire to prove she’s part of the land where her family once had shops with their surname proudly displayed, and where her relatives hunted, rafted, and served in the community.
The book is structured into four sections, relating events in Narcissa’s life to Gwartney’s life. Clearly the writer differs from Narcissa. She lacks the pioneer’s religious fervor and her proselytizing ambitions. “But like Narcissa, I stayed. I did what was expected of me. I stepped into the only adult life I would let myself want,” she writes. Gwartney’s interest in Narcissa comes from a deeper place, especially looking closer into the first few years after Narcissa has arrived in Oregon and her only child drowns. Gwartney links to her own near-death accident, making a risky choice to raft along Idaho’s Salmon River. Chapter after chapter, Gwartney uncovers differing accounts about Narcissa, each contradicting the next and molding the independent pioneer woman into a more and more complex character.
Narcissa isn’t a role model of western expansion, but rather Gwartney’s conduit to understand her own complicated relationship to the land and her own family. During a trip back home as an adult, she inherited a book about Narcissa from her grandmother’s library, “a version of history set down in black and white, never to be altered,” she writes. “And hadn’t I done the same with my own? Told and retold the stories of my childhood so often that the memories finally calcified. Probably time to break it apart, my own past and, for some reason I had yet to decipher, hers.”
In a story which Gwartney narrates with such detail, richness in description, and thoughtful reflection, she also embarks on her exploration fully aware of the stakes involved. Even though this story is about white pioneers venturing into the wilderness with the earnest ambition of doing God’s work and saving the “savages,” Gwartney acknowledges the unforgivable displacement of Native American tribes. She points out the faulty political rhetoric that diminished the natives’ claims to the land, along with the post-Whitman vengeance laws allowing U.S. Marshals to kill “any Native American deemed a threat to life and/or property.” As Gwartney passes the problematic art in a hotel that portrays Native Americans as inhumane, she recalls in her research when two chiefs of the Cayuse tribe were forced to sign the treaty in 1855, thereby handing over their lands to white settlements.
On the surface, my life is nothing like Gwartney’s. Contrary to the author, I lack the generational roots to a place, because I’m the daughter of an immigrant. But the driving force in Gwartney’s memoir is the need to claim her place in the family and the land she came from, a people and life that she was raised in but then left. When reviewing my own essays, I’ve noticed that same desire shines through my words. I hoped that in returning to my father’s home country, I could unearth my link to my own ancestors. I wanted to know that even with my father’s decision to move to the other side of the world, I could touch down in India and feel an innate bond to home. Everyone wants to belong, so maybe it’s not a surprise that this memoir exploring home in the American West resonates with me, a second-generation immigrant.
Gwartney’s latest book reshapes memoir, adhering to its central tenets, yet branching into new forms that enhance the narrative. In this hybrid of memoir and history, Gwartney has created her own style of storytelling.
Anita Gill is a teacher and a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay, “Hair,” was the winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, selected by Kiese Laymon. Gill’s wolrk has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She will be a Fulbright Fellow to Spain for 2019-2020.
By Mary Ann Gwinn Special to The Seattle Times
Narcissa Whitman paid a terrible price for her place in history. Her name is synonymous with the 1847 Whitman Massacre near Walla Walla — she was one of 13 white settlers killed by a group of Cayuse Indians enraged by broken promises, a flood of white settlers and the white-carried diseases that were killing their children.
But Narcissa’s tragic death was just the last link in a long chain of startling stories. Burning with religious fervor, Narcissa agreed to marry her husband, Marcus, just a few hours after meeting him, because only a married woman could serve in a Western mission. She traveled thousands of miles — on a steamboat, in a wagon, on horseback and on foot — to southeast Washington, enduring hunger and thirst, illness and pregnancy in the name of spreading her Christian faith.
There, at the mission called Waiilatpu, the Whitmans tried to spread the gospel and convert the Natives to their way of life, but they were devastated when their only child, a beloved 2-year-old girl, drowned in the Walla Walla River. After fleeing the mission and suffering from a bout of deep depression, Narcissa returned to a mission roiled by internal dissension and external threats. Tensions peaked, and Narcissa was ultimately slaughtered in front of the very orphans she had dedicated the rest of her life to bringing up.
Every student of Washington state history knows these facts, but Oregon writer Debra Gwartney has gone beyond them, going beyond the facts of Narcissa’s story to examine its emotional core. In the process, she revisits her own fraught relationship with her libertarian-style Idaho upbringing. The result is her new book, “I Am a Stranger Here Myself” (University of New Mexico Press).
A National Book Critics Circle finalist for her memoir “Live Through This,” Gwartney is an empathetic writer. She resurrects Narcissa as a human being, enduring a flood of homesickness, fretting about middle-age weight gain. But Gwartney is unblinking in her assessment of the Whitmans’ blunders and what they portended for the history of the American West.
Gwartney appears at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Friday, March 22. She answered some questions about Narcissa and her own evolving understanding of a star-crossed woman:
Q: Where did your interest in Narcissa Whitman begin?
A: Ranging through my grandmother’s library, I picked up a book about her. I sort of remembered who she was, but then I realized she had an incredible story. At the same time I had been working on essays of my personal experience growing up in the West and how unsettled I felt about it. … I think she really became a pry bar to let me open up a context for what it meant to be in the West.
Q: I was shocked to read that Narcissa and her husband, Marcus Whitman, knew each other for less than a day before they announced they would get married. What was going on there?
A: Isn’t that wild? I think it was because they wanted desperately to go West and do good things for the Native people. The missionary board wanted married couples. They didn’t want (male) missionaries to get involved with Native women. … At 28, Narcissa was thought of as an old maid. They went into a parlor, talked for a couple of hours and then the agreement was made.
Q: You write that Narcissa and Marcus had a “scratch post of a marriage.” What did your research suggest about their relationship?
A: I didn’t go at this book as a historian or scholar. But just from reading their journals and the survivors’ journals, I think they didn’t have much to do with each other after their baby died. She was very angry. He was gone all the time — he left on horseback and was gone for days and days. I think they didn’t choose to have any more children.
She spent all her time on the Sager children (a group of orphans left at the mission for the Whitmans to raise). … I think Marcus was single-minded. … He wanted what he wanted. And of course she was notoriously hard to get along with. None of the other women (among the missionaries) could stand her.
Q: One of your themes is how myths drove the white settlement of the American West. What was it about Western expansion that made people prone to believe stories that weren’t true, such as the largely made-up narrative that the Indians were begging for Christian instruction?
A: Again, I’m not a historian, but I would say the dispute between the American government and the British government and who was going to get which part of the Northwest had a lot to do with it (the Northwest was jointly claimed by the United States and Britain until 1846, when the U.S. assumed control; the massacre helped spur Congressional creation of the Oregon Territory in 1848). (White expansion advocates) thought, “If we just filled up this land with American settlers, the British would have to go.” There were lots of brochures, town meetings, false advertisements — it would be a fabulous trip, you could shoot buffalo every day, no one would ever get sick. They knew they had to get rid of the Native people for the land to be settled. There was no sympathy for the Native way of life at all.
Q: What did you like about Narcissa?
A: I don’t know what, if anything, I liked about her. I could relate to how lonely she was — the force of loneliness and how it shapes a person. She became so hard and callous because she didn’t know how else to be.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to really understand her? I can’t comprehend the variety of religious faith that to drove her to such extremes. How can we, in the far more connected and skeptical 21st century, understand that kind of conviction?
A: I love this question because I would often stop and say to myself, “I can’t put my modern sensibility on her.” I admit that if I had been alive in that time, I probably would have done exactly the same thing. … I think No. 1 for Narcissa was her mother. Her mother was not going to allow her to be anything but a missionary. She groomed her to be a missionary from God.
Q: How did writing about Narcissa affect your own feelings about being “a woman of the West”?
A: I think she helped me understand my discomfort with things in my family and my own culture. … It always bothered me that the Native (Lemhi Shoshone) people in my community (Salmon, Idaho) were not treated the way I wanted them to be treated. … I started seeing my family and where they came from and why they believe what they believe. That message that “we’re going to go out there, and what is yours is yours,” I think that has lingered in the West. That libertarian movement is so powerful in Idaho, the belief that the government has no business telling us what to do. … getting to know her helped me understand why I love and adore and honor my family but am so unsettled in it.
This is the story of growing up in a family of strong men and tough women. Sturdy Westerners attached to the landscape and their heritage in Salmon, Idaho. The title, I Am a Stranger Here Myself, is a not-so-subtle clue to the author’s sense of alienation from that heritage, an emotional distance that drives the narrative.
But Debra Gwartney takes a nontraditional path with her memoir, weaving a key figure in the history of the American West — Narcissa Whitman — into her own story, fusing memoir and history. It’s an ambitious and tricky goal that leaves the reader wondering at times how the author can possibly make this work.
Gwartney pulls the reader into her story on the first pages with a fluid and revealing opening as she drives along remote Highway 93 heading to a family gathering in Salmon. We get snippets of backstory through an imagined conversation with a truck driver bearing down on her. We want to know more.
Soon we learn of her childhood interest in Narcissa Whitman, discovered after pulling a book off a grandmother’s shelf. Then, suddenly, in a new chapter we are amid the gruesome massacre at the Whitman Mission, which ended with the death of Narcissa and 12 others, including her husband, Marcus. Gwartney has done her homework on Narcissa, the first Caucasian woman to cross the Rocky Mountains, and returns to her throughout the book, almost as an alter ego, the first woman to experience displacement in the rugged West.
But it is Gwartney’s own story that captures the reader, even as she makes the occasional foray down the what-if trail to reflect on whether, like Narcissa, she would have had the passion and the gumption to leave the comforts of family in the East to make the covered-wagon journey westward. That’s a reverie many of us who grew up in the West have fallen into, including me. (And here I will disclose that I know Debra Gwartney; she was an advisor as I was working on my own memoir as an MFA student.)
Leaving aside the history portion of this memoir, its strength lies in the author’s honest appraisal of her early life as a lonely girl, a misfit who yearns to belong. Complicating her search for herself is a deep attachment to the landscape of home — the mountains, the rivers, the valleys, a place she knows “about as well as the lines of my face.” Gwartney deeply experienced the place, but not the culture. She writes that she never shot a gun or aimed an arrow and had little use for horses and whiskey.
She captures this dramatically in the book’s most memorable scene, a family midsummer outing on the swollen Salmon River. All her life, she’d resisted joining others on rafting trips and endured the teasing that went along with those refusals. Finally, as a young mother of two girls, she decided to give in to the family tradition. Here she makes the most poignant connection to Narcissa, whose 2-year-old daughter Alice had drowned in a river near the mission house in what is now the Walla Walla area. Readers like me, who have rafted the Salmon or its Middle Fork with equal measure of thrill and fear, will relate to Gwartney’s experience. Father, grandfather and brother, all experienced boatmen, enjoyed the sunshine and beer until debris in the high water spelled trouble.
Gwartney writes the terrifying details of spilling into the water, struggling, finally feeling solid ground, and waiting to be rescued.
A Northwesterner through and through, Gwartney has lived in Boise, Spokane and now in western Oregon. But it is Salmon, where she was born, that haunted her. With this book, she finally makes peace with the place she “loved best on this earth.”
♦Mindy Cameron is a former editor at the Seattle Times who now lives in Sandpoint. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Debra Gwartney talks about structure and self-awareness in “I am a Stranger Here Myself”
I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Debra Gwartney’s new memoir, considers her childhood in Salmon, Idaho, alongside the life of Christian missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, the first white woman to cross the Rockies. Gwartney, a former reporter, is equally at home describing the complexities of Whitman’s personality and circumstances—so hated she was killed by the members of the Cayuse tribe she’d given up trying to convert—as she is describing her own mother, father, and extended family.
In an early chapter comparing her two (now deceased) grandmothers, Gwartney wishes she could converse with her Grandmother Lois—a flinty westerner, to be sure, but also a reader of novels. “Mostly I like the idea of hatching with her what I’d make new, how I’d start over if I were forced to begin again, creating something fresh out of the rubble. No more glancing up at the clock and thinking, Where did this day go, so little accomplished? No more wondering if I’ve done enough to earn my life.” Though Gwartney’s rendering of Whitman’s demise is compelling, it’s her inquisitive vulnerability about her own history that fuels the memoir’s urgency.
I Am a Stranger Here Myself won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. Gwartney is also the author of the acclaimed memoir Live Through This and one of the editors of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. She teaches in Pacific University’s MFA in writing program and lives in Western Oregon. —Mary Rechner
Mary Rechner: Your first full-length memoir, Live Through This, about the years your teenage daughters ran away from home, is told in chronological order. The reader desperately wants to know how things turn out— for them and for you. In I Am a Stranger Here Myself, the structure and content is more complex and wide-ranging. You move between your own story of your birthplace and childhood in Salmon, Idaho, a place you deeply loved, but where you never felt you belonged, and the story of missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman. You switch back and forth between your story and hers. At what point in the writing did you realize you would be combining these stories? How did you choose this particular structure? Once you chose this structure, how did the writing of each of these stories influence the other?
Debra Gwartney: This question delights me, because when I submitted Live Through This to my agent, way back when, she insisted that I return to the draft and put it in chronological order. My original idea of the book’s structure was to be more thematic and less concerned with linear time—an attempt to emulate memory, which pings (as we all know) from the recesses of our minds at unexpected moments, triggered by a sound or smell or word. I do think one of the primary responsibilities of the memoirist is to recognize and explore the nature of memory and I was quite invested in such an exploration. That said, I got my agent’s point and I revised the book so that it flowed more logically through time and thus was easier for the reader to track.
When I began work on I Am a Stranger Here Myself, I immediately ran into the mega-challenge of how to handle time. There was no distinct through-line I could follow as in the first book, where daughters leave and then daughters return. And I very much wanted to figure out—an arduous series of attempts in the end—how my personal story might meld with the historical narrative of Narcissa Whitman, particularly her role in the expansion of the frontier West. I was juggling many daunting layers of time. So how to rise above temporal strictures? At some point, I decided that I would organize—though fairly loosely—the book around the tangible items I’d discovered related to Narcissa Whitman. Her hair, her trunk, a trite novel written about the children she had rescued after their parents died. Also, a red wine named after her and a note I’d found in a book while researching. These and others became my structural building blocks. I say “loosely” structured because I had no interest in a tidy organization, such as each chapter focused on a different NW item. Instead, I wanted these moments of discovery, these things I stumbled upon during years of research, to rise from the narrative when it felt right and natural. I hoped the structure would come off as more instinctual than anything else, so I relied a whole lot on gut feeling for where and when to disclose each discovery, both about Narcissa Whitman and about my family.
“I don’t encourage students I work with, or myself for that matter, to rely on memoir writing as a path to catharsis. Memoir is not therapy.”
Rechner: What do you think about the idea explored in a recent review by Claire Dederer in the New York Times Book Review that “in order to balance its innate narcissism, a memoir ought to instruct?” Dederer disagreed with this idea, writing, “It is the job of the literary memoirist simply to write down her experiences with as much art and truth as she can muster.” Do you ever think about the “purpose” of memoir when you are writing? As a fiction writer, I simply want people to be enthralled enough/find the work pleasurable enough to keep reading. People seem to have more exacting expectations of memoirists. What do you think?
Gwartney: I am in total agreement with Claire Dederer’s disagreement of the “instruct” admonition and I am a huge fan of her work as well as her sharp mind (and terrific sense of humor). “As much art and truth as she can muster” rings absolutely true for me. I remember when Phillip Lopate, who I was lucky enough to study with in graduate school, said that for him the one goal of memoir is self-awareness. That’s been my lodestar ever since, backed up by Vivian Gornick’s idea that all memoir seeks to answer one question, “Who am I?” Still, I don’t encourage students I work with, or myself for that matter, to rely on memoir writing as a path to catharsis. Memoir is not therapy. Therapy memoirs, in my view, often clunk and clank and tell the reader how to feel when the reader prefers to reach those feelings on her own. My favorite memoirs, and the memoir I attempt to write, are those that fundamentally ask, Why do these certain moments in the past still have their hooks in me? And, What do I have to face in myself to move on from this stuck place?
It seems to me that many memoirs could have the same subtitle: How I Coped. Because coping involves dynamic interaction between and among characters, and dynamic is what holds the reader in its thrall.
Rechner: For many years you worked as a journalist. How does writing memoir compare with journalism? Which of your journalist’s skills do you bring to your work in creative nonfiction? How is the writing/writing process similar/different?
Gwartney: When I was young and considering graduate school, I asked a writing teacher for guidance and he promptly suggested a masters in journalism, as it would teach me “economy of language.” I believe that’s exactly what I learned over the course of study and then years of practice, plus for those years I worked as a reporter and editor, I managed to figure out some handy research methods. Those skills helped with this project for sure. The sections that deal with the distant past, with westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, the Whitmans and their mission, the Cayuse and other tribes, required substantial research and I feel lucky to have had the skills. I’m also glad that I returned to school in my late forties to get an MFA and to study with the likes of Vivian Gornick and Phillip Lopate and Sven Birkerts, all of whom taught me what it means to write memoir. This book strikes me as a nifty balance of my dual writing life.
“For women, the West can be a two-hearted place—a place of belonging and alienation, a place of history and its erasure. In this brilliant exploration of what it means to be a woman of the West, Debra Gwartney interweaves her own story with that of Narcissa Whitman. The result is a beautiful hybrid—a genre-busting book that takes a profound, relatable, and riveting look at Western identity, then and now.”—Claire Dederer, author of Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning
The University of New Mexico Press
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