Little Girl Lost | Book Review | Chicago Reader

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Little Girl Lost

Sharon Skolnick's memoir of growing up in an Indian orphanage possesses the transforming spirit that reflects on disasters and turns them into something more.

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"The arrival of a new doll at Murrow [Indian Orphanage] was disturbingly like a fresh kill on the Serengeti. Predators gathered, waited for their moment, and moved in....It wasn't that they were tougher--I was Apache, after all--but they were bigger. And when it came to me, they always struck in packs. However careful I was, they would find a way to corner me out on the grounds, away from whatever protection Mrs. Joseph might offer, clutching the doll, which, however shabby she might be, was still mine....

Of course I'd have her with me; I'd never leave her in the vulnerable emptiness of my unlockable room. Then I'd have to fight single-handed and one-handed as I held the dolly fast in my left. And if she chanced to rip in the heat of battle, her kapok stuffing blowing in the wind, that would only earn me a stiffer beating. I'd learned that already from bitter experience."

Sharon Skolnick, aka Okee-Chee, now an artist and an Andersonville gallery owner, writes in her new book how it was to be Linda Lakoe (her name then) in 1953: an Indian in an unashamedly racist white world, an Apache in a non-Apache place, a defiant nine-year-old close to the bottom of the orphanage pecking order.

Close to the bottom, but not without resources. Linda saved her Raggedy Ann the only way she could. She wrapped it in a stolen towel and buried it in the side of a deep ravine in "Big Planet," the backyard wasteland where the kids played. Before she could retrieve it, a spring cloudburst washed out the ravine. The doll was gone--and yet, she realized, now it was safe. "I cherished the memory of my doll; indeed I flaunted it before the pack of bullies, smiling my joy at having kept a treasure from them."

Childhood is another country. Few of us remember exactly what it was like to live there. In the late 1940s George Orwell, then a middle-aged widower with an adopted son to raise, reflected on his own days as an eight-year-old in an English boarding school. The headmaster there beat him with a riding crop for wetting the bed repeatedly--and then, when Orwell let it be known that the first beating hadn't hurt, beat him again, breaking the crop in the process.

Looking back, Orwell realized that he'd taken for granted two things about this episode long after his adult mind knew better. "One is that the second beating seemed to me a just and reasonable punishment. To get one beating, and then to get another and far fiercer one on top of it, for being so unwise as to show that the first had not hurt--that was quite natural. The gods are jealous, and when you have good fortune you should conceal it. The other is that I accepted the broken riding crop as my own crime. I can still recall my feeling as I saw the handle lying on the carpet--the feeling of having done an ill-bred clumsy thing, and ruined an expensive object....This acceptance of guilt lay unnoted in my memory for twenty or thirty years."

And yet in other ways childhood is a familiar country. Linda's spirit and ingenuity transformed the brutal fact that in saving her doll from the bullies she'd lost it to a storm. To cope with defeat and degradation by putting them in another context--if only to be able to fight and win another day--is a talent any adult can appreciate. Linda didn't give up fighting (she couldn't have even if she'd wanted to), but she learned there can be more than one way to win.

Like Orwell, Skolnick has a keen eye for how children see their world. Like him, her younger self was always crossing lines she didn't know were there. But she faced one that Orwell didn't--the color line. It became visible to her the day the grade-school janitor found her emerging from a girls' washroom.

"Without so much as a word, he grabbed me by the hair and slung me against the wall....'What you doin' in that room anyhow? Don'tcha know nothin'? That room's not meant for your kind.' My kind? I didn't know what he was talking about. I hardly had time to wonder. He dug his powerful hand into my thick, short hair and commenced to drag me down the hall....His fingers were still wrapped round my hair when he hauled me into the principal's office, but I guess that was okay with the prim, fortyish woman in a gray suit who ran our school."

The principal telephoned Mrs. Joseph, the head of the orphanage. Mrs. Joseph drove Linda back to Murrow and explained that the townspeople didn't want the Indian orphans in their school at all. In order to be allowed to stay there and have a chance in life, she would have to obey their rules.

Even on her side of the color line there were lines. In northeastern Oklahoma, Apaches were known only by reputation. Other Indians viewed Linda and her younger sister, whom she calls Jackie in the book, with much the same combination of fear and contempt that whites then felt toward all tribes. "All they knew of Apaches was Geronimo, my sister, and me. And I guess my sister and I didn't give them much reason to discount the Geronimo legacy."

An Apache was thought to be a fighter who scorned the odds, and that's what Linda became, if only to defend herself and Jackie. The other kids also figured an Apache was someone who did whatever had to be done, no matter how terrible. So when they found a mangled cat in a bag on the orphanage grounds, and not even the older boys or bullying older girls could bear to put it out of its misery, it seemed reasonable that they would shamefacedly come to her.

"I'd never be certain that it was the same cat that had once purred beneath my fingers. The best thing was to act as if it were. 'Forgive me,' I whispered to it as it thrashed and moaned and bled in its sack. 'There's only one way I can help you now, and I'm gonna. Peace to you.' I don't think anyone heard me, even though the silence was absolute, like the quiet of a cave. Simon handed me a rock. I didn't look around, didn't see anyone. I wanted this to be quick, like an eyeblink. I found the head in the squirming bag and brought the rock down with every ounce of strength I possessed. The crack of rock on bone sounded like a shot in the silence. The bag twitched for a minute, then stilled. I rose up from the dust; no one helped me or talked to me or reached out a hand to me. I walked through the ragged circle that parted for me, as stern and silent as Gary Cooper at the end of High Noon. I didn't eat dinner that night; no one seemed surprised."

No one mentioned the episode afterward either, but even the white kids at school gave Linda respect. She was included in more games and bullied less. One day she realized in amazement that it had been more than a week since she'd been in any kind of fight--"probably some kind of record for me." Without intending to she had turned the gruesome duty into a rite of passage.

Death was never far away. One Sunday a local preacher terrified the children with his description of hell as a place where every beautiful yellow butterfly turned into sulfurous flames when you touched it. That afternoon Rachel, the orphanage bully and Linda's nemesis, made it worse by explaining that Osages (her tribe) were the only Indians who went to heaven: "It's because the only way to get to heaven is in a car. The rainbow is the road to heaven. And you got to get yourself a big old Chevy or, even better, a Caddy and drive on up to heaven when your time is come. The only ones who can afford cars like that is rich white folks and us Osages. That's because of the oil money."

Even nine-year-old Linda knew what to think of that theology. Her friend Phyllis, a Kiowa, told Linda her grandmother's story, one that made more sense to them. Dying, it said, was like crossing a huge tree laid across a canyon too deep to see the bottom of, and on the other side was a place where the prairie was green and buffalo were everywhere.

Later in the year, after Linda had learned that Apaches could be more than frontier terrorists, she won a school art contest for her portrayal of the Kiowa idea of passage. But instead of faithfully reproducing what Phyllis had told her, at the far end of the tree she painted horses running free, Liberace playing his piano surrounded by candelabra, and boys on leashes awaiting her command. She'd transformed the legend and made it her own.

Why would anyone want to remember this stuff? Why does Orwell dredge up being beaten twice for something he couldn't help? Why does Chicagoan Nelson Peery, in his autobiography, Black Fire, take us into the terrible double bind of being a black teenager in Minneapolis-Saint Paul in the 1930s? Why does Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory recall the bleak, uncertain life of a Russian exile in the 1920s? Why does Skolnick bring back her year at Murrow?

Why do they write it? Why do we read it? It's not only because there are lessons to be learned. True, I can appreciate the horrors of boarding school or segregation--and the quirky way kids see the world--by reliving someone else's re-created past. But few of us read a book just because it's supposed to be good for us.

It's not because those past events have become tinged with a false nostalgic glow either. Skolnick describes her book as a series of mental photographs. And yet when she comes across the only real photographs that survive from that time--group shots of children with close-cropped hair lined up in uniforms--she's only too happy to burn them.

This difference is why she writes and why we read. The physical photographs are like a punch in the nose. The mental photographs are the way she's turned a punch in the nose into a story. On the surface Skolnick's memoir isn't much like Orwell's plainspoken fragment, or the polished elegance of Nabokov, or Peery's earthy and unforgettable tale. Yet they all share the transforming spirit that reflects on disasters and turns them into something more. In Orwell's 1984--not a memoir, but relevant here--the ultimate horror is neither the oppression nor the torture the hero undergoes, but his loss of that spirit. The worst is not the persecution he endures, but that he finally acquiesces in it.

It's easy to read these books quickly and take them lightly. We've all been young, we can empathize, we think we're reading "the story of a life." We forget that life is not a story. Life is just one punch in the nose after another. The story is what you make of them.

Once the janitor and the principal and Mrs. Joseph had finished telling Linda in their different ways why she could use only certain girls' bathrooms at school, she felt worse than when she was being dragged down the hall by her hair. "They were white and I was Indian, so they were right and I was wrong. I could never accept that. Did I have to go along with that to make my way in the world?"

Beaten, humiliated, and alone, she retreated to the one quiet place she could go--to the overgrown orphanage graveyard, to a handful of 50-year-old stones with fading inscriptions. She lay in the tall grass and thought about the Indian children lying nearby. How would Gladys Timm or Milton Denasha or Theresa Looking have taken revenge on the janitor? "They were real Indians, after all. Turn-of-the-century. Their parents or grandparents would have been free, known what freedom was. They might still have known how to use a bow or a tomahawk. They would have taken the scalp off the scabby old man; they'd have staked him out and split his belly open.

"But no, that didn't seem right. That wasn't what I felt when I lay here, in their place, in the dead zone. I felt peace, even joy....These children weren't angry anymore; they'd gotten past their anger or forgotten it somehow....They couldn't help me with my revenge; I'd have to work that out some other place, some other way." Somehow like them, or what they might have been, Skolnick has taken material as harsh and unforgiving as Oklahoma weather and fashioned it into a triumph song.

Where Courage Is Like a Wild Horse: The World of an Indian Orphanage by Sharon Skolnick and Manny Skolnick, University of Nebraska, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Ralph Creasman.

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