The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1976, Volume 22, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor


David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Encounter With an Angry God. By Carobeth Laird. Banning: Malki Museum Press, 1975. Illustrations. 190 pages. $8.95.

Reviewed by Helen Ellsberg, author of Los Coronados Islands, Mines of Julian, “The Furs that Launched a Thousand Ships” in Brand Book #3 of the San Diego Corral of The Westerners, and “Indian Jewelry That Sings of the Sea,” in American Indian Art.

Perhaps the greatest charm of this absorbing book is its author’s honesty. In spirited prose Carobeth Laird writes candidly of the contrast between her two marriages and of the two husbands who heard the music of such different drummers, while holding her own shortcomings up to the same penetrating light. Lagniappe for these fascinating characterizations are the deft and entertaining sketches of cameo characters, and a rare insight for the reader into the life of an ethnologist in the early twentieth century.

Encounter With an Angry God is the story of the author’s life with John Peabody Harrington, controversial linguist-ethnographer (whose lifetime data on American Indian tribes filled whole warehouses) from the time when, as an eager 19-year-old student, she met him unhappily teaching a summer linguistics class and looking, she thought romantically, “like an angry god.”

Bedazzled by “a scholar, a scientist, who was also young and beautiful,” she was willingly drawn into his orbit. As his bride, for some time the romantic haze obscured the fact that, in his obsession for collecting Indian language data, he regarded any activity that took him away from his fieldwork as a waste of time, and that as well as being brilliant, he was also penurious, insensitive, and endlessly demanding.

With the perspective of many years, she writes that he had “no deliberate cruelty; neither ever a trace of empathy or compassion.” He could leave a young, fearful, eight-months pregnant wife alone in a strange Indian rancheria without money or sufficient food while a supposedly four-day trip stretched into two weeks (because on his way home he had found a man who would make metal files for his notes and he wanted to supervise the job), then wonder, when he finally returned, why his wife was upset and seemed to blame him for something.

The role of wifely helpmeet would become an increasingly thankless and monumental task. “She would type, act as chauffeur, make contacts he wished to avoid — do anything and everything he found boring, frightening, embarrassing, or time consuming.” Then, when she had proven her ability, he sent her unwillingly to do fieldwork on her own, and in doing so, lost her.

For on one of these expeditions, her affection for Harrington now worn threadbare, she met George Laird, a Chemehuevi Indian informant, and an extraordinary love story begins.

The author dips her pen in different ink when writing of the two men.

Of Harrington she writes with a sort of studied objectivity, a wry humor, and a determination to show fairness and no malice or resentment. She admits that she was the wrong bride for him; that he needed “a wise, firm, and sympathetic guide — not a youthful slave and disciple.”

But when she writes of George Laird, the words glow on the page, from the description of their meeting and of his native courtesy, innate kindness and consideration to the eulogy wherein she calls him “my father, brother, lover, husband, and above all, my friend.”

Those who have read Winter in Taos may notice a parallel between the marriage of Carobeth and Chemehuevi George Laird and that of Mabel Dodge and Taos Tony Luhan. Both Indians were men of kindness, sensitivity, intelligence, and strength who made their wives feel cherished; both marriages were happy and enduring.

Because she makes the reader care about everyone in her story, there is occasionally a vagueness that is disappointing. It would have been pleasant to know more about the Laird children, none of whom is ever named except the eldest daughter. How many were there? What were their names? And just who was “Mrs. C.” — so obviously a mixed blessing in the Laird family lives?

The printing, paper, and binding of this book are most attractive; the design and layout by Don Perceval and Melanie Fisch, respectively, exotic and artistic.

Encounter With an Angry God has been a real “sleeper” in the publishing world and a deserved hit, its wide appeal bringing richly-deserved kudos to its talented and courageous autumn-flowering author. It is a book not to be missed.