JUNE 30, 2020
I’VE BEEN READING big chunks of White Poison, a magnificent historical novel about Northern California, as they drifted out of the mists of Michael Harris’s imagination and his dogged research over several years. Mike has been a friend for a long time. Now that White Poison is published and I can read it in a single run and in the order Harris intended — he masterfully moves us forward and back in time — I’m gobsmacked. The book has invaded my dreams.
Harris did this by luring me into the life of an appealing and self-aware 17-year-old boy, Alexander Wells, on a wagon train to California in 1852 — an adventure at first, but then Harris hurls the boy into one unexpected wrinkle of history after another. His parents were struggling German Irish tenant farmers who wanted their own land, and of course gave no thought to the fact they were setting out to occupy land already fully occupied. The consequences of that come later. As John Wayne said in 1971 in an infamous Playboy interview: “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
As Alex’s wagon train enters Northern California near Tule Lake, it’s attacked by Modoc Native Americans, and his parents and others are killed in front of him. He, too, is wounded. Some of the wagons are rescued by vigilante rangers, and as Alex recovers in town, he hankers to join the rangers for revenge. The rangers are financed by a scalp bounty from the new state of California and are led by an Indian-fighter named Ben Wright, a historical character, flamboyant in fringed leather — one of many touch points Harris introduces between history and his fiction.
The book in fact opens in 1911 before it slides back in time. Alex then is a respected 76-year-old lawyer who has just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. His memory problems are symbolic of the cloud of uncertainty that surrounds the novel’s title event: did “we,” the white settlers in Northern California, intentionally poison to death thousands of Shasta Indians in 1851, as their oral history says, or did we not? Our written archives are frustratingly mute. Alex first heard about it only in 1908, at the deathbed of Tyee Bob, a Shasta tribesman who once worked for him. Nearing his own death, shocked that such an atrocity could have been so thoroughly buried, he feels compelled to write everything down, searching for clues he might have missed.
As the Marxist critic Georg Lukács suggested in his classic The Historical Novel (1955), an epic like this often follows a character who is swept along and reshaped by unseen social forces, who serves as an individual focus for the conflict of classes and peoples of the time, whose story is a shadow play about those who will win and those who will lose. We know the ultimate losers here are the Indians, but it’ll take an eventful lifetime for Alex to come to terms with this.
In late 1852, recovered from his wounds, young Alex rejoins Ben Wright and his rangers, who trap the Modocs in a battle at Lost River (also a historic touch point), and the hatred and revenge become phantasmagoric, a take-no-prisoners drunken rage that includes scalpings and worse. This battle will forever haunt Alex and transform or destroy some of the others involved — close friends, and sharers of secrets, for the rest of their lives. For the moment, the horror is partially redeemed for the boy (or maybe just for us) by his observations of how he and others behave in battle.
In the earlier attack, which robbed him of his parents, Alex had seen the wagon master reluctantly take command: “This was my first experience with the mysterious quality of leadership […] about which I would later meditate so often. […] Why does one man, in a crisis, consider himself fit to give orders, and other men just as unthinkingly agree and follow him?” But at Lost River the young Alex watches Ben Wright, who relishes his role: “[T]his was a far rarer quality of leadership, one I had not seen before and seldom have seen since — a positive joy in command, an eagerness to do battle, that did not contradict Ben Wright’s severity but seemed a part of it. His face fairly shone.”
In the heat of revenge, Alex himself, oddly aware of what he’s doing, scalps Indians he’s killed, including a woman and two children. In old age, he reflects:
I do not think it is possible for any person to absorb as many shocks as befell me that day and make sense of them any time soon. […] [C]oming as they did, so heavily and so fast, they tended to cancel one another out, to numb the soul and bewilder the mind. […] I was finding out that suffering blunts, rather than sharpens, our sympathy for others. The world narrows until nothing is left in it but our pain.
A note on Alex’s voice as narrator. Harris has flavored the novel convincingly with the diction, idioms, and rhythms of the time, but hasn’t clogged it to distraction with archaisms or cute rural sayings. You believe you’re reading the memoir of a weary old man of 1911, self-educated late in life, who feels compelled to bear witness to his life before he dies, even as he knows some of that life is not to his credit.
After the Lost River battle, Alex returns with the rangers to town — Shasta Butte City, soon to be renamed Yreka — as a hero, wearing a necklace of Modoc ears and noses. He’s shamed out of these souvenirs during an episode with a Chinese prostitute named May. He falls in love with her, though he has no money and must move on after a few days. Her gentle farewell is: “Goodbye, Alex. You a bad boy, very bad — but maybe not always, I think. I hope. Good luck.”
Still adventurous, the young man does indeed have good luck. He finds a pocket of placer gold on the Klamath River worth $10,000, enough to buy himself a farm-ranch. One of his Lost River compatriots, the storekeeper Nelson Cromartie, suggests he invest the money and make even more, but business is not in Alex’s nature. Nonetheless, his good fortune continues. Returning from another Indian battle north of Yreka in the winter of 1854, in which the historical future General George Crook takes part, Alex is introduced to a pretty and well-born young woman named Eliza. She falls for this rough but handsome young man in hopes of polishing him up.
Alex builds his dream ranch along the Klamath and marries Eliza. Has his good luck settled in for good? If not, what marks a person out for bad luck? Could it be the curse of history? The marriage begins to fray as life on the frontier proves to be a lot harsher than Eliza’s genteel life back home in Tennessee.
In 1855, only 20 but already a seasoned soldier, Alex seizes a chance to join in the Battle of Castle Crags (yet another historical touch point). He rides away from domestic life, conflicted and secretly unsure if he’ll come back. The fight involves a rabble of miners chasing Indians who looted a trading post on the Sacramento River. One of its owners is Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, later known as Joaquin Miller, the “poet of the Sierras,” whose writings — the only major literary project of that time and place — reflect some of Alex’s own divided feelings.
Alex returns to his ranch and a wife suspicious that he was off with another woman. The couple soon have a daughter, Amelia, on whom he dotes. He hires a hand, a starving young Shasta Indian who calls himself Bob and brings his family from the hills to set up a rude camp nearby. Eliza, however, is increasingly overwhelmed by frontier hardships, as so many people were. Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973) comes to mind — a numbing compendium of newspaper articles about pioneer loneliness, suicide, and madness — but also Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971), Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules (1935), Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), Wright Morris, and many other chroniclers of the grueling frontier life.
Unfortunately, Eliza focuses her frustrations on Bob, the unknown — a different kind of “dangerous” dark-skinned Other. She convinces herself that Bob is spying on her, and worse, exposing himself to Amelia when he pisses in the woods. Continual demands to chastise Bob wear Alex down until his own ambivalence about Indians — they killed his parents, after all — drives him into a horrifying whipping of his hired hand. A part of him will never recover from this — the part he realizes actually enjoyed it: “All the self-control I had exercised for so long — toward animals, toward my wife and child, toward Bob himself — could be released in a moment of ecstasy.”
It’s the kind of frenzy that few of us acknowledge but few are immune to. Staggered and needing to escape, Alex takes Amelia on a long-promised camping trip, but an unexpected late-spring blizzard catches them and turns the girl’s minor cold into pneumonia, as if by godly retribution for the whipping and Alex’s other sins. Despite desperate efforts to get Amelia to town, she dies. Alex begins to drink the guilt away. Eliza is pregnant again — a child conceived the one time she turned to him, on the very night after he whipped Bob. This child, Charlie, is late and over 10 pounds and has to be pulled from the womb with forceps, leaving indentations on his head. Eliza dies after the ordeal.
Alex eventually returns disconsolate to the ranch, where Bob soon shows up: “He had matured in just the year he had been gone […] well-knit and strong. […] ‘Mr. Wells,’ he said quietly.” He’s now Tyee (Chief) Bob. With Alex virtually acquiescing out of shame and grief, Bob beats him as savagely as Alex had whipped him, inflicting a broken arm, a broken leg, and other injuries. A neighbor finds him and takes him to town, where he slowly convalesces. But he turns to drink with even greater abandon, selling the ranch for enough money to keep on drowning his sorrow and shame.
He’s deep into self-destruction when his wife’s uncle, a kindly judge named Alex Rosborough, takes him under his wing as a law clerk, on the condition that Alex get sober, buy a small cottage in town, and start taking care of his son, Charlie, whose forceps birth left him with brain damage. The boy never learns to speak or control his bowels, and spends much of the rest of his life walking a circle in the yard.
Alex accepts. He applies himself to the study of law and eventually becomes a lawyer himself. Some of his early clients are indigents or Indians. We see his moral sense slowly developing. In one case, an Indian woman thinks her husband, Joe Lone Tree, sentenced for a minor crime and then loaned out to a corporate mine nearby as free labor, was never released after his time was served. Alex follows up and has to confront the brutal mine supervisor, a former cotton slave-driver from Texas who brags about how he used to get maximum work out of every slave, a practice he proudly continues in the mine.
With boldness and bluff — the “grim face” that Alex learns to cherish and use in pursuit of justice — he manages to extract Joe from this mine, and he also frees one of Joe’s fellow Shastas, who’s caught in the same web of collusion between the justice system and corporate slavery — to his surprise, his own Tyee Bob. Bound yet alienated by their past, Bob and Alex barely speak on the ride back to Yreka and the chief slips away as soon as he’s safe.
Alex does another favor for the same Indian woman by bringing her sister, Jenny Hathaway, home from a reservation in Oregon. This favor helps crush one of his last remaining illusions about the heroism of early rangers like Ben Wright. He discovers that Jenny lived with Wright and was terribly abused. Wright (in historical fact) stripped her in public and whipped her — which of course touches the “Tyee Bob nerve” in Alex. It turns out that Jenny lay in wait and helped kill Wright during the Rogue River Wars in Oregon in 1856, terrified that this legendary Indian fighter might rise up again.
Alex’s moral sense has one more growth spurt. As the 20th century approaches, in order to protect Charlie and Jenny, he has to threaten his businessman pal, Nelson Cromartie, who’s now a powerful California politician. The threat is to reveal the brutalities they both committed at Lost River: “Did each of us not hold a match to the fuse of a powder charge big enough to destroy us all?” Alex succeeds in the short run, but Cromartie finds plenty of ways to punish him, relenting only a decade later by inviting Alex to invest in the fledgling McCloud River Lumber Company.
The company imports hundreds of workers from Italy, believing it can bully them — and it does, until in 1909, the heyday of the Wobblies, they strike over an arbitrary pay cut and various forms of discrimination. The company asks the obliging state government for help, and National Guard troops arrive by train. A bloodbath seems imminent.
Alex is summoned to McCloud by another of his old Lost River companions — a man so shattered by his killing of Indians a half century back that he went far away and eventually became a priest. Father Tony is close to the strike committee now. So Alex witnesses the standoff from both sides. He has access to management as a lawyer and stockholder, but can do little to influence events, despite his strongest arguments. The workers are forced out of their company houses and sent away.
Alex’s final moral challenge is the story the dying Tyee Bob told him — the mass poisoning that present-day Shastas still insist is history, not legend. As Alex himself is dying, he has a morphine-fueled vision in which he witnesses the massacre and tries to stop it, again in vain. There are no white saviors even in dreams.
In the end, smallpox, measles, and battles of revenge too numerous to count have left the state almost empty of Indians: “We made the Shastas suffer, one way or another — that could not be denied; then we turned away, lest the sight of their suffering inconvenience us.”
Earlier, in the depths of grief for his wife and child, Alex has a thought that he rejects as “mad” but that seems, for the moment, to be nothing but the truth: “Maybe we white people were like locusts, consuming all we touched. Maybe we were indeed a disease, spreading over the globe.”
We know slavery and genocide poisoned America’s black and brown victims, but Michael Harris’s novel shows us that those sins poisoned the rest of us in ways we’ve never sufficiently acknowledged — or as Tyee Bob tells Alex: “Blood always rises.” White Poison is a gripping account of this American Moral Shrug, and it should be taught everywhere as American History 1.
John Shannon is the author of the critically acclaimed Jack Liffey detective novels, including The Concrete River (1996), The Cracked Earth (1999), The Orange Curtain (2001), Terminal Island (2004), and A Little Too Much (2011).