A quarter-century ago, while a creative writing student working with Toni Morrison at Princeton University, David Treuer happened upon a fat biography of Ernest Hemingway on a remainder table. “Four bucks for a thousand pages?” he recalls thinking. “I’ll take it!” In it, he found a characteristic boast, Hemingway proclaiming that the first time he’d ever “pleasured a woman” was with a “half-breed Chippewa girl named Prudence Bolton.”
That passing comment stayed with Treuer, who himself is half Ojibwe, one of the people earlier called Chippewa. “I looked into it,” he says, “and sure enough there was an Ojibwa girl named Prudence Bolton who lived near Traverse City in 1910. She and her lover committed suicide when she was 19—and pregnant—by ingesting strychnine.
“That’s all we know about her. We get thousands and thousands of pages about Hemingway, but almost nothing about her, this girl who could have been a relative of mine,” he says. “Her life was surely difficult, but as full of humanity as Hemingway’s or anyone’s, and yet there it is, just a couple of sentences.”
Treuer’s new novel Prudence pays homage to that terribly unfortunate young woman of a century past in more than just its title. But it draws in equal parts, he tells Kirkus, on two other stories told to him by his father, an Austrian Jew who survived the Holocaust and eventually came to live on an Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota.
In the first, his father pointed out to young David that half a century earlier, a German prisoner of war camp had stood nearby. “We walked along a bluff,” he recalls, “and I found a belt buckle that said ‘Gott mit Uns’ in the sand. That was a strange thing: Here was this event, World War II, that affected the whole world, and it touched down right there on my reservation—a place where it’s thought nothing happens.”
The third story also came from his father, and it concerned an ad hoc form of animal control where the men on the reservation would gather to kill wild and stray dogs each spring. “The men thought they saw some dogs in the brush,” says Treuer, “and one of them fired a shot. It turns out that the dogs were two girls who had been skipping school, and one of them died. It was a complete accident, but it changed the lives of a lot of people.”
The three stories lodged in his memory, separately and without any connection, until somehow they emerged and merged at just the time that Treuer was wrestling with another problem. He’d written several novels and books of nonfiction, the latest of which, The Translation of Dr. Apelles, had been determinedly postmodern, effusive, and meta-textual. “I like to be challenged as a writer,” Treuer says, “and I realized that I hadn’t ever written a straightforward, plot-driven, traditional fictional narrative.”
It was at that point that structural challenge met memory and the three stories joined, with the addition of several elements: first, at the book’s opening, the arrival of a mysterious stranger, a Jew who turns up at just the time that the Ojibwe confront the death of one of their own, a Native girl whose life is so terribly hard that death must have come as a release. Treuer’s early fascination with World War II and its arrival in a place supposedly outside of world events plays out in a story of a local boy who is preparing to leave to go and fight in the skies over Europe, while a German submariner who escapes from a prison camp like the one whose ruins Treuer walked finds refuge, of a kind, in the dense north woods.
“Every great novel—and I aspire to write a great novel—begins with a set of questions that provoke the reader,” says Treuer. “ ‘Who is this?’ ‘Why are these people there?’ ‘What are they doing?’ I open with a character who’s plopped down among these Indian people, led there by events, but they’re so busy that they can only puzzle about him for a moment before moving on to their own concerns.”
Those concerns are many, for as the story progresses, Treuer slowly joins these disparate threads of the storyline, adding to them still another—namely, a story of forbidden love between men in a time and culture that would have found such a thing scarcely comprehensible.
In that regard, says Treuer, “I wanted to tell a story about Indians in which the characters were people first, and Indians second—to emphasize the universality of tragedy, and of love. In fact, the love story that the book relates really trumps any kind of ethnicity.” It does, but it also joins in what resolves as a species of tragic inevitability, with Last Picture Show elements of a world that has since pretty much disappeared, and with overtones of contending generations, classes, and ethnic groups.
There’s a lot happening in his pages—and then there’s that sad death, of course, that sets the story in motion, and that has to be worked out in the way of a good mystery.
Treuer’s novel challenges us to think a little more about a poor girl who would otherwise be overlooked, as if a tiny figure off in the shadowy background of a Brueghel painting. “We know that people die in terrible ways,” Treuer says, “but my point is this: As powerless, as pitiful, as kicked aside as she might be, Prudence matters.
“I always thought they were three separate stories,” Treuer says of the tales from history that inspired his book. “But when I finished the book and thought about how they had combined, I realized as well that in some ways Prudence is the story of my life.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.