Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Fig Tree John: An Indian in Fact and Fiction. By Peter G. Beidler. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977. Bibliography. Illustrations, Index. Notes. 152 pages. Hardcover $10.50. Paperback $4.95.
Reviewed by Priscilla Ann Russo. Lecturer in American Indian Studies, San Diego State University.
Peter G. Beidler in his study, Fig Tree John: An Indian in Fact and Fiction, utilizes historical, literary, and ethnological data to analyze Edwin Corle’s novel Fig Tree John. Corle’s novel was originally published in 1935. Beidler divides his study into two parts: “Fig Tree John in Fact,” and “Fig Tree John in Fiction.” The first half is a biographical account (drawn from interviews, newspapers, magazines, letters and Bureau of Indian Affairs records) of Fig Tree John, a Cahuilla Indian of Southern California. The second part is a literary analysis of the way Corle uses historical and ethnological data to transform Fig Tree John, the factual Cahuilla, into the fictional Apache of the novel. Beidler proposes to study the relationship between a fictional and a factual Indian. He sees his work as helping to fill a near void in critical studies of the Indian in American literature.
Beidler’s study, however, is limited to one novel and one Indian. He concludes that Corle placed “the requirements of good fiction-convincing character, engrossing plot, emphatic theme-“(p. 100) before accurate biography and ethnography. Beidler’s biographical sketch of Fig Tree John and the Apache ethnographic material that Corle used form the basis for Beidler’s comparisons between fact and fiction. For example, Beidler attempts to analyze why Corle changed Fig Tree John from a “peaceful Cahuilla” into an “aggressive Apache” (p. xviii). In the final analysis, Beidler defends Corle’s fictional transformation of Fig Tree John because it supports Corle’s “theme about the necessity for the American Indian to adopt the ways of the white man” (p. xviii). But Beidler overstates his case when he adds that “it is unfair to criticize Corle’s novel” for its “outdated theme” or for its “biographical and ethnographic inaccuracies” (p. 124).
Any critical analysis of Corle’s novel must question the theme of assimilation and the historical and ethnographic inaccuracies in the novel. Beidler glosses over such matters. He reminds the reader that a novelist’s reality differs from that of a historian. But in accepting Corle’s reality, Beidler does not clearly place the novel in its own historical perspective. Although he acknowledges that the validity of a pro-assimilation theme would be questioned today, he does not adequately show how the novel reflects various views of assimilation of the American Indian when Corle wrote his novel in the 1930s.
Beidler argues that Corle wrote before John Collier became Commissioner of Indian Affairs and influenced the federal government’s shift away from assimilation in the mid 1930s. Beidler’s argument, however, is weakened by an obvious comparison between Corle’s Fig Tree John and Oliver LaFarge’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, Laughing Boy, which was originally published in 1929. These two popular novels treat the assimilation theme differently, primarily because LaFarge was more in touch with the Indian world than Corle was. LaFarge actively participated in organizations dealing in Indian affairs and later supported Collier’s Indian policies. Both LaFarge and Corle were non-Indian writers who attempted to capture the essence of Indians in fiction. But Corle’s penchant for assimilation did not reflect either the dominant government policy or the Indian viewpoint of the 1930s.
Beidler argues from a literary point of view that Corle is justified in giving “thematic integrity” more priority than “historical accuracy” (p xxiv). In Beidler’s literary evaluation, however, he underplays Corle’s novel as popular literature. Indeed, Beidler sees the tragic, fictional Fig Tree John in the company of classic literary greats. To Beidler, Oedipus, Macbeth, Ahab, and Fig Tree John play roles in Greek tragedies where pride results in the fall of great men. Beidler failed to see that his literary analysis would have been much stronger if he had placed Fig Tree John in the realm of popular literature. Then perhaps Beidler would have seen Fig Tree John standing beside LaFarge’s Laughing Boy or with another Indian who was known in Southern California, both in fact and fiction, Willie Boy in Harry Lawton’s Willie Boy. A Desert Manhunt. By comparing Fig Tree John, Laughing Boy, and Willie Boy, one might even argue that historical accuracies need not yield to thematic integrity.
A main contribution of Beidler’s study may be to stimulate more interdisciplinary studies of the Indian in fiction, which could lead to a more critical analysis of the Indian in American literature. One might begin by relating Fig Tree John to Rupert Costo, another Cahuilla Indian, who wrote in The American Indian Reader: Literature (1973), “The story of my people is the story of Indians all over this Nation” (p. 172). Beidler’s study is only part of this story. Much remains to be told.