Finding Truth in Fiction

Vivid memories of childhood summertime vacations in Saugatuck, Michigan are inspiration for my current work in progress. I was only five or six years old when I began traveling there with my grandmother. My grandmother’s friend, Shirley Lockhart, a single working woman, would pick me up after work on Friday night and we’d take the trip together in her gigantic ’55 Oldsmobile. It took more than three hours to go from Dearborn to the west lakeshore town back in those days. It was during a trip I took with Shirley that I had my first cheeseburger. She pulled into the Redwood Drive-in in Douglas and asked me if I liked them. I said I didn’t know. “We’ll share it, then,” she said. I’ll never forget how delicious it was. (There’s food again, making its appearance in the second paragraph of a blog post.) We’d pull up to my great-grandfather’s bungalow on Hoffman Street. The house was torn down in the 1990’s and is now a concrete block building next door to Uncommon Grounds, a wonderful, non-Starbucks kind of coffee shop.

During the 1950’s, the town was a seasonal resort where people came to play. At night, my grandmother would tuck me in on the screened sleeping porch. Can you imagine your child sleeping outside in this day and age, with lurkers and kidnappers? But in that era, it was an experience that would leave me with memories so rich that I can still feel the way the summer night air felt on my skin, the sheet she’d ironed under my body. The couples leaving the bars and restaurants after dark, walking down to the river to go dancing at the Pavilion, were dressed for an evening out on the town. All the women wore full skirts and the men, short sleeve sport shirts with ties. I can remember lovers hiding in the shadows cast by the streetlights, and their laughter ringing out. I was the observer of a summertime-long party.

There were also confusing memories, which resolved as I got older and understood the dynamics of relationships. Young people will twist the most innocent words into intrigue.  As my character, Brent says in Pam of Babylon, “Be careful what you say around small children; the boogeyman might be lurking there, whispering lies.” Family gossip reaching my ears became the basis for a book I started writing last August.  I won’t give too many details. Trust me when I tell you that the book is completely fiction; it was only the suggestion of something which lead to my fantasy.  A woman my age is dying of cancer, and she discovers while on her deathbed that she was adopted. The book is about her daughter, who goes in search of the dead woman’s birth parents and what circumstances surrounded it.

Of course, the woman and her family are Greeks. But the birth mother is a Native American who lives on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. This idea came from a poem I found that was written by my great grandfather, the same one whose house I used to visit. He was a poet of some renowned in the area.

Autumn Pictures of Saugatuck

Spirits of Indians, idols and gods

Silently hover over the beautiful Michigan dunes

While muses begin their autumn dance with music and song

And with gaiety

Greet the charming village of Saugatuck.

Pine trees waft their delicate perfume

Over the historic harbor,

Where shy nymphs bathe in summer

And nature lovers bow in prayer.

White-capped waves kiss the coast

Of great Lake Michigan.

Winds blow the shifting sands,

Changing old wonders into new beauties.

Falling leaves decorate the earth

With autumn colors

To welcome the White King—

Beloved son of Nature.

The father of dunes,

Old Baldhead,

Moves slowly.

He sees the last of Indian youths

And of white pioneers that yet remain.

The calmly flowing Kalamazoo

Still keeps the mystery of magic nights

While moon and stars join

To yield true love that never dies.

Saugatuck, dear Saugatuck,

Charming dreamland of artists and lovers.

by George Coutoumanos

“Where shy nymphs bathe in summer, and nature lovers bow in prayer.” Those few words started me on a journey that is becoming all-consuming. So much beauty in his words. But they don’t reveal the whole picture.

As I wrote, the story grew more than interesting to me. I felt I was meeting new people who already walked the earth. Their stories moved me as I began to understand the complexities of their history. I took a chance at developing some unorthodox relationships that I’m sure will be criticized, but they are staying.

But I got to a place where I wanted it to have more relevance, and not be just another chicklit novel. I Googled Indian Adoption and the discoveries I made as I researched made me sick. Now I am compelled to tell a story that will have some validity, I hope. It will be a fiction work loaded with annotation because I cannot write without backing my words up with truth. I found out things that are so shocking that when I tried to talk to my husband about it, I began to cry.

For instance, did you know that until 1934, hundreds of thousands of native children were removed from their homes and families, placed in boarding schools, for no reason except that our government wanted them to learn our ways? http://www.nativenewsnetwork.com/healing-the-scars-of-the-mt-pleasant-boarding-school-we-knew-bad-things-happened-here.html Evidently, I am among the last to learn this. A phrase I keep coming across in reading is historical trauma. One of the boarding schools is in my home state of Michigan. Groups of people who are the offspring of victims meet yearly to honor the dead and try to make sense of the post-trauma effects. They even have a Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Native-American-Indian-Boarding-Schools/302085170203

 

Less known is the Indian Adoption Project, which lasted from 1958-1967.  Thousands of children were given up for adoption or taken from their families and placed with non-Indian families in what was called trans-racial adoptions. “In the Southwest, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints took thousands of Navajo children to live in Mormon homes and work on Mormon farms, and the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations swept many more Indian youngsters into residential institutions they ran nationwide, from which some children were then fostered or adopted out. As many as one-third of Indian children were separated from their families between 1941 and 1967, according to a 1976 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs.” Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/article/native-americans-expose-the-adoption-era-and-repair-its-devastation-65966

I came across this fabulous book if you are interested in learning more about the aftermath of the Indian Adoption Project. One Small Sacrifice: A Memoir (Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects) http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0041OSFXK/ref=oh_d__o02_details_o02__i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1 It’s a good read, well written by Award-winning Native American journalist Trace A. DeMeyer  who’s known for her exceptional print interviews. She details the long journey to find and meet her father and other relatives and offers a glimpse into the struggle adoptees are faced with.

2 thoughts on “Finding Truth in Fiction

  1. Great blog, as usual, Suzie. And now I just want you to FINISH THIS BOOK, so I can read it right now!
    I did know quite a bit about the Americanization of the Indians, and it was the same with the First Nation people in Canada. In fact they still have boarding schools there, but enrollment is voluntary, unlike decades ago when children were ripped from their families. The communities in the northern wilderness literally have nothing to spare for public education, so the children can go south to residential schools.
    Can’t remember if I ever told you that my great grandmother on my dad’s side was a South Dakota Indian. We don’t know which tribe, probably Black Foot or Souix. Somehow she was adopted by my grandmother’s family and was fully integrated, so a generation later, no one would even admit that there was an Indian in the family history. But when I see the family photos–BAM, there she is. A beautiful older woman with astonishing cheekbones. My dad looked 100% Native American with his deep eyes and slicked back black hair.
    So can’t wait to read your book.
    Love you,
    Marilynn

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