John Smelcer’s The Trap

Posted: September 25, 2008 in aboriginality, alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, John Smelcer, race, variation

Smelcer, John.  The Trap.  New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

In alternating narratives, a grandfather and grandson in the cold winter of the Alaskan wilderness confront different kinds of traps.  The old man is your archetypal old Indian of book after book and movie after movie–a fairly placid and calm old man close to nature and full of the wisdom of age and of his people, who indeed represents that wisdom and that people generally in just being who he is.   (After reading about this kind of man so often, I find myself wondering about how old aboriginal men with excitable personalities or no sympathy with trees and wolves manage to live with themselves–or are there really none of them at all anywhere in North America?  Not one old aboriginal manic depressive or fussbudget?  Not one opera lover who hates hunting? not one who really isn’t all that swift?)

The old man is, of course, facing his death here, and does eventually die–as apparently he must, for as an allegorical representation of the old ways of his people, he must also or even primarily represent and personify their diminishing and extinction: see, for instance, Ketchum’s Where the Hawk Flies or Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth for other examples of the same conventional pattern.  His grandson is a little less archetypal and stereotypical.  He finds himself at odds with is community rather than merely representing it, in two different ways.  First, he looks backward and tries to preserve the old ways represented by his grandfather, and thus feels a connection to the grandfather that causes him to worry when his grandfather doesn’t return from his trap line.  Second, however, he looks outward, and is taking correspondence courses to prepare himself to leave this wild place and head off to college, civilization and, therefore, the white world and its values.  While the others in the village have adapted white machines and white ways, they represent a diluted and dangerous version of contemporary culture–they spend their time drinking too much and accomplishing too little.  And they have parted with the old wisdom represented by the grandfather as a result of that.  In both these ways, they represent a trap for our protagonist, Johnny Least-Weasel.  While that idea is fairly obvious throughout, Smelcer has Johnny make  it crystal clear towards the end:  “He thought about life in the village, how the place was like a trap, its sharp teeth forged from the fire of two worlds colliding” (169).

That symbolic trap, which Johnny is in the process of doing his best to escape, echoes the actual trap his grandfather catches himself in out on the trail.  The alternating narratives then act as variations of each other, one literal  and one symbolic story of being trapped, with resonances created in terms of the symbolic similarities of the two.   The grandfather’s actual trapping can be read as an allegory of the cultural trap that is working to capture his grandson, and indeed, his people.  As the book implies is true of his people, he has in old age lost some of his energy and quickness and awareness of danger, and so is more susceptible to the danger that has always been there (and so, his grandson–and young natives generally–must be on guard against the same loss of energy and awareness inflicting the village as a whole and his people as a whole).  The old man must use all his traditional wisdom and cunning and experience of nature and the trail to keep himself alive while trapped  (and so, too, must his grandson draw on the strengths of the past to confront to new problems of the present and not succumb to merely being trapped by them).

If all this was merely parallel, then the old man’s death at the end might suggest that his grandson’s ability to escape the dark forces encircling him is simply doomed.  But the novel doesn’t actually suggest that, for in deciding to go out and find his grandfather against the advice of less connected and more co-opted relatives, he signals a cleavage to traditional values and deep feelings that implies his ability to avoid the trap.  Just as his grandfather has revealed his true strength and courage in dealing with the real trap even while it kills him, Johnny reveals his in his own expedition into the wild in an attempt to retrieve and keep his grandfather and what he represents and what the others no longer value.  He will, presumably (for this is published as a novel for young people and its generic positioning implies an optimistic ending even if it doesn’t actually provide one) use what he knows of his tradition to confront and survive the dangers of the world outside.

As presumably, the author has, for the jacket tells me that Smelcer is of Ahtma Athabaskan Indian descent and has served as Executive Director of the Ahtma Tribe Heritage foundation as well as finding success in the white world on the faculty of a university creative writing program; and the novel itself uses “heritage” as cultural capital in the white world.  The novel melds the past and the contemporary in another way also, telling its made-up story but also introducing each chapter with what appear to be versions of native folk tales, so that it’s really alternating narratives in alternating chapters interrupted by yet another alternating narrative in italics at the beginning of each chapter; furthermore, there appear to be two separate stories told in these italicized sections over the course of the book, one introducing the grandfather’s sections and the other the grandson’s.  And they appear to be symbolic parable aobut those two characters.

This alternating narrative concerning aboriginals and, apparently, written by an aboriginal, is distinctly different from the novels on aboriginal topics by non-aborginals that I’m aware of.  In those there always seems to be one central aboriginal character and one central non-aborignal one, and the book is inevitably and always about disputes between them and an eventual resolution of the disputes in a friendship between them–a resolution and a friendship, that, in my experience, always involve some sort of surrender of aboriginal values or aboriginal land, sometimes in spite of a theoretical adoption of aboriginality for everybody.  Here, however, while the dispute is still between aboriginal values and white ones, both main characters represent more or less the same set of values as experienced by different generations, and both must confront the same enemy of white values.  It seems inherent in the structure of the alternating narrative novel that it be in some way about differences between two main characters and their eventual resolution; but here the difference are generational, about the past and the possibilities of its influence on the future, rather than being between two whole different and opposite ways of thinking and being.  It implies a quite different way of thinking about the white/indian issues, and with a quite different conclusion about how aboriginality can figure in the contemporary world in ways that work more positively for contemporary aboriginal people.  Aboriginality is neither dissipated nor absorbed into contemporary European-based culture here; it remains as a separate thread allowing a different and separate way of navigating the contemporary world.  And white values remain in the background in bnoth narratives as an ongoing enemy that will always need to be guarded against.

  1. […] rather than sympathized with (as, also, is the European enemy unfocalized and in the background of Smelcer’s The Trap).  The novel operates aggressively on the side of community–it’s not surprising that […]

  2. […] Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, Richard Wagamese’s Keeper ‘N Me,  John Smelcer’s The Trap, and Greg Jackson-Davis’s Digging for Philip, the alternating focalizers are a wise old […]

  3. […] Posted on October 19, 2008 by pernodel When I wrote my earlier post on John Smelcer’s The Trap, I accepted the truth of the description of the author on its dust jacket as being “of Ahtna […]

  4. Larry Vienneau says:

    to learn more about the Smelcer debate visit:

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