Thursday, February 21, 2019

Debra Gwartney's "I Am a Stranger Here Myself"

Born in Salmon, Idaho, a fifth generation Idahoan, Debra Gwartney is the winner of the 2018 RiverTeeth Nonfiction Prize, judged by Gretel Ehrlich. Her new book is a hybrid memoir-history, called I Am a Stranger Here Myself. Gwartney’s first book is a memoir, Live Through This (2009), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and the Oregon Book Award.

Gwartney applied the “Page 99 Test” to I Am a Stranger Here Myself and reported the following:
Narcissa Whitman was purportedly the first Caucasian woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. She did so in 1836, along with her missionary husband Marcus and another missionary couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa was the first Caucasian woman to settle in the frontier West, to establish a home, a compound, a way-station, a religious mission and school. She was also the first to give birth to a white child in a makeshift mud and grass dwelling, located just a few miles outside of current-day Walla Walla, Washington.

A whole lot of “firsts,” and yet Narcissa is remembered, too, for her stiffness, her stern comportment, her tight-lipped judgment of all ways but her own. The Cayuse Tribe, whose lands the Whitmans settled on—taking up swaths of acreage for themselves—soon began to call her “haughty.” A faction of the tribe grew to despise her, blame her for all they had suffered (a whole lot) and, on a bitterly frozen day in 1847, eleven years after their arrival, Narcissa, Marcus, and a dozen others were struck down by that band of Cayuse, a bloody slaughter that shaped the very formation of the frontier West.

My book is mostly about identity—a need at my ripe old age to understand myself as a Woman in the West, born to ridiculously young parents in the mountains of Idaho and raised in a strictly patriarchal and yet wildly raucous family. I turn to Narcissa to wedge open a keen sense of the early days of the West. She, after all, set the tone for the hundreds of thousands of white people who poured in after her. She was their icon, their martyr, the very symbol of endurance, fortitude. The representative of the tenets of Manifest Destiny. That’s how she’s been cast over the years, anyway, in service to the folklore of the West that trembles, still, through the definition of the region and the definition of my family.

Page 99 is a curious one, reminding me that I discovered, during years of researching this enigmatic woman, was a vulnerability she kept hidden from everyone. Mostly herself. Her hardness a fa├žade that began to crumble in sad and horrible ways after her only child, Alice Clarissa, drowned at age two in the river behind the family’s house. But early on, as described on page 99, she cloaked herself in her service to God, her only meaning and purpose. Her journal is full of praise of Him and the mandate she had taken on—to convert the “savages” of the West. She hides her abject loneliness, her fear, her ultimate sorrow. For instance, in this passage, she gives herself only the smallest opportunity to gripe, and it’s in regard to safe territory, food, “I thot I would tell what kind of dish we had set before us this morning. It is called black pudding. It is not a favourite with us Americans. It is made of blood & the fat of hogs, spiced and filled into a gut.” No one back home was going to fault her for that opinion.
Visit Debra Gwartney's website.

--Marshal Zeringue