In Tim Tingle’s tender and luminous new novel, House of Purple Cedar, a Choctaw family in 1896 Oklahoma faces threats both to their birthrights and their lives when their small town becomes the target of big-boom railroad interests and white supremacy. Tingle’s skills as a trained oral story-teller and his Native American background converge to shape the terrors and the transcendent spirit with which Rose, the child narrator, navigates the past, as she resurrects her grandparents and her surrounding community. But what enriches the story beyond a more conventional coming-of-age journey is the texture of Tingle’s own life, and the metaphysical beliefs embedded in it. Here’s what he has to say about his Choctaw identity and his inspirations:
Did you grow up hearing stories told in your family?
Tim Tingle: Very much so. I was raised on the Texas Gulf Coast. My grandmother went to [Indian] boarding school, married a Scots-Irishman named Tingle, and moved to Pasadena, TX around World War I. My dad, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles all wanted very much for us to be aware that we were Choctaw, and everything that meant—our great-great-great granddad surviving the Trail of Tears. So every summer my dad and his brothers would pile all of us cousins in the back of the pickup trucks and take us to the Big Thicket. We would camp out there for about five days to a week; all we could bring were coffee, sugar, salt and lots of water, and eggs. Everything else we had to hunt and fish for. After supper they’d get real quiet, and we just knew that they would start telling us Choctaw stories—not folklore, but just about our family, about how hard it was, and about the boarding schools.
Is yours the first voice to give published substance to the memories and traditions of the Choctaw nation?
Tingle: In the early ‘90s I discovered Louis Owens, a Choctaw writer much more well-known in Europe, and especially in France, than he was in the States. I started traveling to Navajo and Choctaw country a lot at that time. Louis Owens was on the University of New Mexico faculty, so I picked up a novel or two of his, and then started seeking his books out. The Bone Game was the first book I read. When you start out writing, and you know traditions and you know beliefs, and you know of how people outside of your belief system will look at it, how they’ll call things that you feel are powerful and spiritual ‘supernatural,’ or they’ll label them ‘magical realism?’ Those are things that I grew up with. Louis Owens, in The Bone Game, gave me permission to write about some of these traditional Choctaw beliefs. Because you never really know how much the elders will feel comfortable with you sharing. So with my first book of short stories, Walking the Choctaw Road, I felt like I had some freedoms to talk about death, how existence doesn’t end and about coming back. Many of those things are also in House of Purple Cedar—like the panther, and Amafo’s belief that the panther is Pokoni returned, and that Pokoni is always with them.
You've structured this novel episodically, and gone into a detailed background for each minor character, especially the Anglos. But you've given us very little for the major characters such as Pokoni and Amafo. Is this a product of traditional Choctaw story-telling procedure?
Tingle: I wanted the reader to know Pokoni and Amafo as they are now, so that it’s obvious how they’ve survived. She’s a dominant, active character; she’s always going to be looking out, concerned for other people, dashing from one place to the next and he’s always the quiet one who will just nod and smile, clean up after her if she needs it. Although I didn’t model anyone in the book after a particular person, there’s a lot of my own grandmother in Pokoni. I wanted this novel to come across from an absolutely Choctaw perspective. I wrote it for Choctaws. From a Choctaw perspective, the people we’re going to know least would be the Anglo people.
You commence this novel with a horrible hate crime: the burning of a girls' school. But you go on to describe the assault against one elderly man (Amafo), the attack on Roberta, the preacher's daughter, the abuse of two white wives, and the picaresque romance of a good white woman, as well as other white citizens, including the sole murderous villain. Was it your plan to draw a portrait of an entire community and how their lives interlaced, white and Indian?
Tingle: Yes, absolutely. Because that’s how Oklahoma was, and that’s how Oklahoma still is. The relationships are complex. They come from background: history, greed, religion.
The specific events in this narrative are based on the many violent real-life persecutions against the Choctaw in Oklahoma. When New Hope Academy burned, was it ever ascertained that it was in fact an arson crime?
Tingle: It was never admittedly arson. But if you read the reported pattern of burnings, and what actually inspired that burning, it clearly was. Once I started researching this in Spiro and Skullyville, I met with about a dozen old-timers from the area--retired Ph.D historians, amateur historians. They all had old newspaper articles, old journals, old family letters. And there was no one there that had any question as to whether or not it was arson. None at all. That’s also when I really got confirmed the deaths of the [Indian] girls. That’s also not recorded in the official newspaper accounts: the deaths of the girls. It’s the same as it was in small towns in Alabama and Mississippi: the people there know who did the lynchings. They know. But will it ever be part of the historical record? Of course not. They would die before they would tell.
Carol Dawson is the author of four novels and one non-fiction historical book. She is also a painter.