Frank Waters Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

The writing of Frank Waters is always concerned with the tensions that underlie human existence: male and female, reason and instinct, conscious and unconscious, progress and tradition, linear and nonlinear, matter and energy (or spirit). His fictional characters are involved in efforts to reconcile these tensions, either within themselves or in the world of events. The search for reconciliation is inseparable from what Waters called the spirit of place: Once one is able to embody the unconscious rhythms of one’s locale, one may move more completely toward the reconciliation of these tensions.

In another sense, Waters attempted to give literary expression to this spirit of place. Viewed sociologically, his novels show how this spirit imbues the various racial types of the Southwest. The spirit of place is found in the blood, experienced as a “blood-power” from which one can never quite break free. Because of these instinctual or biological ramifications, the novels about “racial types” are not mere sociological studies but expressions of a spiritual search.

Waters said that the three novels People of the Valley, The Man Who Killed the Deer, and The Yogi of Cockroach Court express his interest in the racial types of the West: the Spanish or Mexican, the Native American, and the mestizos, or those of mixed race. The Woman at Otowi Crossing, which deals primarily with Caucasians, completes this study of racial types. Pike’s Peak portrays the mingling of various racial types, but here Pikes Peak itself is portrayed as an active agent.

This late novel thus makes graphic what in the previous novels was a subtle but powerful undercurrent: In all of Waters’s work, the earth itself plays a dominant role. It is the matrix that reconciles polarity. Fruitful and destructive by turns, benevolent or menacing, it resists people’s efforts at domination or comprehension yet demands of them that continuing process of individuation that is inseparable from the reconciliation of polarity. The earth, the source of life, embodies a mystery that cannot be overcome but must be understood through faith. As the beginning and end of people’s essential polarities (such as life and death, summer and winter), it is both a material fact and a rhythmic energy with which one must be in harmony.

Harmony, however, does not indicate a static equilibrium. Waters’s novels end with reconciliation, yet the reconciliation leads to ongoing movement. As Waters points out in an explication of the Nahuatl hieroglyph “Ollin” (movement), the tension between dualities results in movement. This movement is found not only in the processes of the natural world but also inside the heart of people. This ancient Nahuatl concept is reflected in all of Waters’s novels. The central reconciliation is in the human heart, as the characters attempt to find that harmony in movement that enables them to be part of the great pattern of Creation.

People of the Valley

People of the Valley was Waters’s first nonautobiographical novel to be published. The most obvious social polarity—progress and tradition—is the main impetus of the plot. The government is going to build a dam that will uproot all the people of the Beautiful Blue Valley. The name is significant: The color blue symbolizes the abiding faith of the people in their traditional ways and in the faithful fruitfulness of the valley itself. (This symbolic use of the color blue returns in other novels, most notably The Man Who Killed the Deer, where Dawn Lake, the center of the Pueblo religious life, is referred to as the Blue Eye of Faith.) In this period, when their faith is threatened, the people of the valley look to Maria, a local bruja, for her reaction and her strength, her wisdom and her faith.

Maria has been in the Beautiful Blue Valley for as long as anyone can remember and has become, in the minds of its inhabitants, synonymous with the valley itself. She knows its secrets and its cures and has lived through its periods of fruitfulness and flood. She is, then, an embodiment of the spirit of place; by turns, she is a goad and a comfort, a shrewd businesswoman and a prophet. As the story progresses (a chapter is devoted to each period of her life), it becomes clear why she is the repository of the implicit faith of the people: She is trusted because of her own implicit trust in the earth, in the essential trustworthiness of its rhythms, even of its floods. Because she accepts the earth in all of its many moods, she is the spokesperson for its wisdom. Like the earth, she can be sharp and repelling, or healing and comforting. Like the earth, she accepts all who come to her, whether as lovers, questioners, or even husbands. Within change, however, she abides in a faith that grows, year by year.

In addition, Maria makes the welfare of the earth—of the valley—synonymous with her own welfare. She has reconciled the duality of self and other by making her own wealth inseparable from that of the valley, and hence of its people. The clearest example of this comes from her early life, when, destitute, she survived by gathering discarded wheat-seed from the local fields. This seed she divided into superior and inferior. The latter she used for food; the former she kept until spring, when she would trade it for a double measure to be collected at the next harvest. This process she repeated yearly. Because she kept the best seed for replanting, the wealth of the valley’s wheat increased; because she received a double measure at harvest, her own wealth increased as well. Her wealth, however, was never monetary; rather, it was in the natural yield of the earth, and in the faith that such a yield is sufficient for all purposes.

In the end, it is this faith that makes Maria significant. Faith, too, is the essence of the people of the valley, and of their traditions. Without such faith, life there is not possible. This faith, as she points out, is not a concept, but a baptism into life itself, into the rhythmic experience of harmony, which comes from giving oneself wholly to the spirit and energy of one’s locale, the spirit of place. The significance of the dam is that it stops the flow of faith, which is likened to water. Faith refreshes life and gives it meaning; the dam causes stagnation, a break in natural rhythms. The example of Maria shows, however, that if one’s faith is deep enough, it will not be disrupted by surface events. In the end, this faith is in the heart, and what one sees in the external world corresponds to one’s inner nature.

The Man Who Killed the Deer

The idea of faith carries over into Waters’s next novel, The Man Who Killed the Deer. Whereas Maria had grown slowly into her faith and had never been torn from it, Martiniano must find a faith within the exacerbated polarities of his nature. The disruptions of progress had not come to Maria until she was an old woman; they come to Martiniano during his formative years. Because of this, his search is one of finding what he has lost, not simply deepening what he already knows.

Half Apache and half Pueblo, Martiniano’s mixed blood indicates the duality of his nature, the spirit of independence and rebellion opposed to the spirit of acceptance and harmony. Sent away to a government school at an early age and thus deprived of his initiation into the kiva at the proper age, Martiniano must be taught to find harmony, not only with his world but also within himself, where the pole of masculine independence has not recognized the pole of the “female imperative.”

The story of the novel is, on the surface, a simple one. Martiniano has killed a deer out of season, against regulations of the U.S. government as well as against those of the pueblo. The matter seems simple, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the apparently simple event has many layers. It is not so much that Martiniano has broken the white person’s law, but that his insistence on his own independence of action indicates an inner disharmony and a lack of wisdom. It indicates, finally, a lack of connection with the mystery of life itself. In place of this connection is a belief that a person can be free when alone, when cut off from society or the earth, from the source of faith, symbolized by the lake in the mountains above the pueblo, “The Blue Eye of Faith,” the center of the pueblo’s religious-ceremonial life.

The deer that Martiniano has killed becomes for him a totem, appearing to him in various places and guises to demonstrate that there is something in his situation that he cannot defeat by confrontation, something that he first must understand, to which he must submit. Eventually, the deer appears in his wife, Flowers Playing; as she grows with child, with the mystery of life, Martiniano begins to lose connection with her.

Martiniano learns, slowly, that even his own sense of manhood is held in bondage to the feminine part of his being and that until he reconciles this polarity, he will never feel fully alive. This is best symbolized by the description of the Deer Dance (in a passage found in both The Man Who Killed the Deer and Masked Gods). Flowers Playing is one of the Deer Mothers in the ceremony, the embodiment of the mystery of organic life. The Deer Dance symbolizes how the male force of independence and escape is held bondage, unwillingly but necessarily, by the female imperative, the rhythms of Earth that are deeper than the ego. The dance offers another vantage on the spirit of place, here appearing as the “blood power” from which people can never break free and on which they are dependent for the development of wisdom.

There is another sense in which Martiniano’s action was not done in isolation: His killing of the deer has repercussions that are felt in the wider sphere of politics. It has made more difficult the pueblo’s case for restoration of Dawn Lake. As the pueblo elders point out again and again, one person’s action is like a pebble dropped into a pool; the ripples extend far beyond...

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