Reviewed by Sarah Sorensen
Coffee House Press 144 pp.
LeAnne Howe is here to make you uncomfortable. She’s here to interrogate one of our last white male heroes: Abraham Lincoln. Savage Conversations is a mini play (or is it poetry or maybe a daydream?) about a Dakota spirit haunting Mary Todd Lincoln. The play opens with Mary as a widow who has survived all of her family but her one remaining child, Robert, who has locked her up in Bellevue due to mental instability. Now, the spirit goads her into looking at the ugliness within not only herself, but also her beloved husband.
The “Indian spirit” tortures Mary as she sits in her room at the sanitarium, grief-stricken in the wake of her husband and sons’ deaths. The spirit slits open her eyelids, then sews them shut—a cruelty meant to make her see the world as it is, rather than through the privileged lens of a white, wealthy, First Lady with a taste for the finest baubles and household luxuries that money can buy. The spirit taunts Mary, “you are not who you claim to be,/ You bring a child into the world and intensely regret it,/ Despite your theatrical tears for pity when another son dies./ You believe you know what must be done with your/ Brews and tainted teas.” He accuses her of having poisoned her children under the guise of nursing them back to health. He also reminds Mary that despite Lincoln’s mainstream legacy as the hero who ended slavery, Lincoln’s actual record on racial equality is fraught with violence and oppression. The spirit, named “Savage Indian,” reminds Mary that her husband was responsible for the mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men who dared rise up against the white community that had left them without land or resources. Referring to Mary as “Gar Woman,” the spirit rages, “Our bodies cramped and squirmed in the wind, our spirits scattered./ All of us, Gar Woman, still hang,/ And you, dressed in a stinking nightshift,/ The one you refuse to remove all these months,/ Can never cover the past.” The spirit gives Mary that name because he calls her odor fishy, “the scent of woman during copulation.” The spirit adds, “Gar feed at night, Sometimes eat their own eggs.”
In these sparsely-worded pages, a grueling nightmare unfolds. Despite the spirit’s efforts to show Mary that Lincoln contributed to the slaughter of the Dakota people, Mary remains isolated within her thoughts. She selfishly ruminates on her own desirability and her own sorrows, unable or unwilling to view any moral failings in herself or her late husband. Still, when Mary laments the loss of touch, the loss of sensual pleasures in her life, the spirit is moved to take her hand in waltz. These moments of tenderness, though they are rare, lend an emotional complexity to the narrative. Mary calls herself and the spirit “abuser” and “abused,” a “pair.” The spirit accuses her of taking the lives of her children to sate her need for pity. She accuses him of murders of white settlers and of her own mistreatment. Each is simultaneously an abuser and an abused party. The Dakota spirit tells Mary that whereas Lincoln will never die in the minds of Americans, all of the Dakota people have passed anonymously.
Howe bases the situation on historical record; Mary Todd Lincoln was indeed sent to Bellevue by her only living son after the assassination of her husband. She insisted that she was being tormented by an “Indian spirit.” Without much plot to distract us, Howe leaves the reader in a claustrophobic space with these two agonized souls. White history has obliterated Native lives, both figuratively and literally. What has been embraced by popular culture in the absence are cheap stereotypes in which the “Indian” is a mere complement to the “cowboy,” a campy stock character of the “Wild West.” We need writers like Howe and plenty more of them. We need mainstream America to view Native American history as important, fraught with violent racism, and ongoing. While we have a handful of well-known Native American authors, such as Harjo, Erdrich, Alexie, Allen, and Silko, we need more Native American voices to join them. Wide literary representation of Native Americans is vital to diversity.
Howe expertly develops Mary Todd as a privileged woman whose grief is both blameworthy and sympathetic. She mourns Abraham so deeply that she will not examine his treatment of the Dakota people; she is uncritical of his racism. It seems likely Mary imagined the violent spirit as Native American because it fits with the fears of her time period. Captivity narratives abounded in which genteel white women were the objects of sexual fascination for hyper-masculine Native American men, just as they have been, according to stereotype, for African American men. These men are categorized as the dangerous “other,” a threat to white female purity.
There is something gentle in Howe’s interpretation of Mary. She spares Mary lunacy and gives weight to her grief. Mary is the focal point for once, while Abraham remains a backdrop to his wife, most relevant for his crimes against the indigenous people.
Howe’s book is easy to devour in a single sitting, unlike George Saunders’ haunted Lincoln in the Bardo, and it is also more overtly political. Stylistically spare, Howe provides occasional jaw-dropper lines, such as when the Dakota spirit tells Mary, “I’ve risen and searched/ The empty scaffolding in Mankato,/ Heard the faint cries of the Dakhótas on the wind,/ Impossible to count as stardust.”
The book ends with “Scene 3: An Uneasy Union.” “Union” is a reference to the Union in the Civil War, as well as a reference to the relationship between Mary and the spirit. Lincoln’s Union was “uneasy” because it contained violent racism that targeted Native Americans. Mary and the Dakota spirit have an “uneasy union” because they repeat the same difficult topics of conversations throughout the book: Mary’s role in the deaths of her sons and Abraham’s role in the deaths of the Dakotas.
In the final scene, Mary has left the asylum and is living with her sister. The spirit continues to challenge Mary’s beliefs about Abe and about herself, pushing Mary until she admits she “needed money/ For the household, for the staff…/ And after poor Eddie died/ There was such an outpouring of pity for his mother,/ I thought….” Mary does not finish this statement, but the implication is that she did play a role in the death of at least one or two of her children. Mary’s near-admission of guilt is a sign of potential change and development, but the book ends in much the way that it began. Mary and the spirit never resolve the conflicts in their conversations, and America remains an “uneasy Union” that has not resolved the problem.
This is Sarah Sorensen’s second review for ACM.