Diane Glancy's novel -- tragedy on epic scale

August 11, 1996|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

"Pushing the Bear," by Diane Glancy, Harcourt Brace & Co. 241 pages. $22.

Is it possible to admire a book and not particularly like it? Throughout "Pushing the Bear," the first novel by poet-essayist Diane Glancy, I found myself full of solemn awe for her scholarship and the stark images in her plain, powerful language. And I noted with approval the book's meticulous pacing as it followed the Cherokee along the Trail of Tears - the great length of Tennessee, the relatively quick passage through Kentucky and Illinois, the long push through Missouri.

Yet the reader is kept at a distance throughout the novel, not unlike the people who sat in carriages as the nine-mile procession of 13,000 Cherokees passed through their towns. The distance is created by the story's center, as embodied by the young wife and mother Maritole, who seems strangely generic and predictable.

The problem is that tragedies of epic scale - slavery in the American South, the Holocaust - require novelists to meet even higher standards, as Toni Morrison did in "Beloved," or Thomas Keneally in "Schindler's List."

In the case of the Trail of Tears in 1838, Glancy, who is of Cherokee descent, begins with an almost automatic structure and fool proof material. More than one-fourth of the Cherokees died or disappeared along the 900-mile trek from the Southeast to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.

Glancy tells her story in a series of monologues by the Cherokees and the occasional white voice - a newspaper clipping, a government teamster's journal. Some sections are particularly moving -the Rev. Bushyhead, for example, who inevitably has to question his faith along the trail and finally breaks down. And the Basket Maker, while a minor character, confronts one of the novel's major issues, the need to create new stories and myths as a culture is displaced.

But Maritole seems inappropriately modern. Her struggles with her husband could be played out on a talk show - Cherokee women who talk to soldiers and the men who love them, next on "Oprah."

Glancy does avoid the obvious pitfalls and cliches inherent in such a work. As she explains in an author's note at the end of the book, "I knew this wasn't going to be a good Indian/bad white man story. You know there has to be both sides in each." She has succeeded in this. But the small, concrete details are what one remembers - the axle grease rubbed on children's raw lips, the ice crystals beneath Maritole's father's nose. It is in those moments that one leaves the side of the Trail and walks alongside Maritole for a few miles.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer at The Sun who writes frequently about publishing. Her first novel, a mystery set in Baltimore, will be published by Avon early next year.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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