The Crown of Columbus

The Crown of Columbus was written by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, a husband and wife team of authors with Native American roots... sort of... well, more on that later. Both Erdrich and Dorris are individually noted for their own accomplishments (Erdrich mostly for her novels, Dorris for his poetry as well as his nonfiction activism), but they frequently collaborated. They wrote together under the pseudonym Milou North, though The Crown of Columbus is the only novel where they publish using their individual names. It's impossible to not speculate on how they wrote this book, as it is told from a variety of perspectives, particularly weighted towards that of the two main characters: Vivian Twostar and Roger Williams. As a result of this, I immediately pictured Erdrich and Dorris as writing about themselves in slightly adjusted terms... two intelligent and passionate academics at Dartmouth who think quite highly of themselves and each other.

Louise Erdrich-- I mean Vivian Twostar is an untenured professor at Dartmouth College, heading up the Native American Studies department and clashing regularly with the administration, who might be less hesitant in their dismissal of her as an unconventional professor if it weren't for the fact that it would look bad to let go of the only Native American on staff. As a bit of a peace offering (no pun intended... well... not much of one) and to add to her meager list of published work (which might help her bid for tenure and secure some stability to her existence), she has agreed to write and publish an article on Columbus for the approaching quincentennial celebrations. Naturally, the college administration would hope for a Native American perspective, to which Vivian responds, "I told them to advertise on reservations for a series of 'Discover Spain' tours. Twenty-eight days, flamenco included. I said the government should erect a huge neon sign near Samana Cay that flashed morning, noon and night: 'Wrong Way to Calcutta.'" Clearly, Vivian marches to her own drummer, refusing to submit to stereotypes from any of the number of people who lay claim to her. She has a teenage son named Nash, whose father has long since left to start his "real family" out in California, and they share their home with Vivian's Grandmother, who raised young Vivian after her own mother left. Being left seems to be a theme in Vivian's life, so when she finds herself pregnant with the baby of fellow professor Roger Williams, she preemptively ends things with him, explaining that she knows he'll be frustrated, be disappointed, and abandon them soon enough, so they might as well end things now.

More about Michael Dorri-- ahem. Roger Williams. In most reviews of this book that I've read, they cite Roger as being everything Vivian is not. Well, this is true, except they're both intelligent professors working on pieces that have to do with Columbus while living in Hanover, New Hampshire, so let's keep it in perspective. They approach life from different perspectives. A very white poet and English professor with a stereotypically wealthy WASP family, Roger lives the life of a bachelor with means. A creature of habit, he has a very specific routine and keeps a clean home, without clutter and without much complication. For some time now, he has been working on an epic poem about Columbus entitled "Diary of a Lost Man." Vivian completely disrupts his life, from even the first moment of their meeting. They quickly become lovers, enjoying their secret liaison until Vivian announces her pregnancy and, therefore, the end of their affair. It is Vivian who puts an end to things, but Roger does not follow her or demand to be part of her life. She has read him right in the sense that her family and their baby would entirely upend his existence but the question then becomes whether he wants to adjust and find value in this new life (or really, if he's even capable of doing so).

Vivian falls asleep in the library one day, to awake around midnight and find that she's been locked in. Heavily pregnant, experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, and worried about her somewhat troublesome teenage son, Vivian deals with her situation by continuing to research Columbus (um, because aren't we all this rational?). She stumbles across letters from the Cobb family, a Dartmouth dynasty that, according to these letters, seem to emphasize a family trait of feeling that the college has stolen something from them by misplacing a gift from one of their ancestors. During the course of that same night of Vivian's library imprisonment, Roger had a somewhat different encounter with an angry relative. He enters his home with the distinct feeling that a person who lives alone can have when they feel that someone else has been there. His fear is confirmed when he finds his personal diary missing (a diary with extensive discussion of his relationship with Vivian and his feelings about impending fatherhood). He's unable to focus on this theft when Vivian's Grandmother calls Roger, looking for Vivian. Alerted to her disappearance, Roger starts combing the campus and finds a different Twostar -- Vivian's son, Nash, who is ripping pages from Roger's diary and taping them to the doors of student dorms. Roger has to go through four different buildings to collect them all, but at the end, he is more than aware of Nash's negative feelings about Roger impregnating his mother. Vivian reemerges from the library somewhat anticlimactically and some time later, after giving birth (a girl named Violet), she makes steps towards reuniting with Roger. At the same time and with incredible ease, Vivian finds the missing Cobb donation (in a box so confusingly mislabeled that it's shocking anyone could ever understand that "Cabb" really meant "Cobb"...), which turn out to be possible pages from the diary of Columbus. Roger, already riled by Vivian's encroaching on his academic territory, finds their authenticity hard to imagine, but Vivian goes ahead and contacts the latest in a long line of angry Cobbs about this discovery. Henry, a businessman with a somewhat unsavory reputation, immediately wires Vivian a thousand dollars so she can come to see him in in the Bahamas (his ability to step foot on American soil without being seized by authorities is in some question). So naturally, Vivian, Roger, Nash, and Violet all head down to the Bahamas to discover the secrets of Columbus.

The Crown of Columbus jumped to the top of my queue as a result of book club. It might be the first time that I've showed up to book club without finishing the book (or at least to the point where I couldn't finish the handful of pages while I sat and waited for people to arrive). As a result, I asked my fellow members to summarize the ending for me so I could participate fully in the discussion and my response to their summary was "Um... WTF?" When you read the summary that I've provided above, using only this information, can you guess where this all ends up? You might think you can, but I promise you that you can't. Yes, you might be able to predict the fights that Vivian and Roger get into and yet love conquers all. Yes, you might be able to predict that somehow, Violet ends up washed ashore from the sea, given the opening chapter that foreshadows this. Yes, you might be able to predict that Henry is up to no good and he believes there's some treasure in all of this. Yes, you might be able to predict that these academics suddenly go all Indiana Jones on us just because they can! But you, too, will still wind up going "WTF?" I would tell you the ending so you could understand this immediately, but I wouldn't want to rob you of what I consider the strongest reaction this book elicited in me.

So, I can't absolutely say that I enjoyed this book and I would heartily recommend it, though there were several mildly amusing and interesting parts. (The scene where Nash rips up Roger's diary and pastes the pages to various dorm room doors sticks out in my mind.) I've read a number of high praise reviews online, so perhaps I'm in the minority (and maybe I can avert the fate of the college administration by offering criticism to Native American authors because I, too, am a teensy bit Native American?), because I only found this book to be so-so. Three and a half stars out of five feels generous, and if kept to whole numbers, I'd downgrade to three. The reason for it is this: no reader will every be as interested in these characters as I'm sure Dorris & Erdrich were. It's absolutely impossible. Vivian = Louise and Roger = Michael, fictionalized and with a few little twists (like Roger being white, except Michael was likely all white, too... more on that later). Clearly, these characters were drawn from their experiences and the amusing idea of "hey, we could do an Indiana Jones thing!" And much like Indiana Jones, we get all Biblical at the end, even when we thought we were just chasing something that belonged in a museum. I wasn't ever necessarily bored, but it was very easy to set this book aside for something else until the action scenes, and even then you kept reading because the end was in sight. The majority of the book is spent in Hanover, going through some semi-realistic relationship issues and some of the most detailed descriptions of pregnancy that I've ever encountered in literature (granted, I don't seek these out). We set ourselves up for complication. Personally, I feel that Vivian's dismissal of Roger is much too abrupt to be believable, but I made some allowances for this when she ends up returning to try things again. The whole Columbus plotline? It almost intrudes on the bigger issues surrounding Vivian and Roger's relationship and Nash's teenage rebellion. The only thing that made the Columbus plotline acceptable was the fact that Erdrich and Norris went to a great deal of trouble to look at the issue from a number of perspectives and even the characters themselves are open to new ideas. Vivian is looking for vindication of native people; Roger is looking for a man with ambition and poetry; Henry is seeking a clever entrepreneur. Eventually, we fly down to the Bahamas, find ourselves in an adventure novel (with quite limited adventure, though), and, by the end of the book, just when things look grim, everything turns out okay! And on top of that, silent and grunting Nash (Vivian advises Roger to think of her son as "Gnash" at one point) is ridiculously eloquent and observant in the one chapter that is narrated from his perspective (so Louise and Michael--I mean Vivian and Roger--are good parents, too!). Oh, and Henry Cobb is a terribly one-note villain. And Roger's poem sucks. Dorris is a much better poet than Roger Williams.

Frankly, I found that the story behind the novel about Erdrich and Dorris was far more interesting than the book, though incredibly tragic. Michael Dorris was the first single man to be approved for adoption in the United States, adopting a Lakota boy who turned out to suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Dorris brought the issue of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to a wider audience, particularly as an issue important to the Native American community, and wrote a memoir on his experience. He ended up adopting other children who likely suffered from the same issue. Dorris met Erdrich while teaching at Dartmouth (he was a teacher and she was a student). They married and eventually had three daughters together, living what appeared to be quite a lovely life, before the story takes a dreadful turn. Dorris's son who inspired his memoir was killed the same year that this novel was published. A few years later, the second son that Dorris adopted accused both parents of child abuse; Dorris and Erdrich were unsuccessful in pursuing an extortion case against him in court. Shortly after, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings before Dorris committed suicide. The literary world was shocked, though later, it came to light that more abuse allegations were stirring, this time from one of their daughters. Since then, Erdrich has continued to receive acclaim for her work and only last year was nominated for a Pulitzer. Oh, and one last thing -- as for the Native American roots, clearly Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe tribe, but while Dorris claimed Modoc roots, this remains somewhat questionable. Evidently, since he is not enrolled in any tribe and there is no documented proof of ancestry, some people find his claim tenuous at best. What cannot be denied, though, is his devotion to Native American culture, and frankly I think this counts for a lot. Then again, I'm a very white redheaded girl with Acoma and Hispanic roots, so I know a few things about one's questionable origins.

As far as The Crown of Columbus is concerned, ultimately, the varied perspectives on Columbus and what he means for different groups of people were interesting, but the book wasn't as delightful as it could have been. Certainly it was pleasant, but there's a wealth of other fiction out there that have similar themes of solving historical puzzles... and you don't need to go to Dan Brown for it. If this is a genre you enjoy, then it's likely that you'll also enjoy this one. I'm just not sure I'd put a hugely enthusiastic recommendation behind it.

No comments: