Review: House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle
Book: House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle
Rating: 4/5 mugs of hot cocoa
Recommended if you like: Contemplative end-of-life reflections; good old fashioned story-telling with big characters and big tales; watching towns and communities grow together after the bad is scrubbed clean
First lines: “I always feared death by ice. Much more than death by fire. Even as a little girl listening to Brother Willis preach about how the world would end, I was never afraid of fire, of burning up.”
Published: Cinco Puntos Press, 2014; 326 pages
In Choctaw lore, a panther serves as a protector but also as a signal of danger to come. It is a warning. A nod from the universe to pay attention. From a school-house fire to the violent acts of a town sheriff, the inhabitants of Skullyville need more than the protection of the panther, though. They’ll need to come together as a community to fight back against the sheriff and the other forms of racism that permeate the town.
House of Purple Cedar begins in 1896 with death of twenty Choctaw girls in the New Hope Academy fire. The fire is undoubtedly an act of arson against the Choctaw community, but this is never voiced. Tensions escalate when the white sheriff beats Amafo, Rose’s grandfather, in a crowded train station. The other Choctaw call for revenge, but it is at this moment that Amafo’s breathtaking resilience begins to shine. He waits while the others yell and scream. When the shouting has stopped and the men start to doze, Amafo walks to the front of the room. His glasses are cracked. His eye covered in a bruise. And yet, he stands in front of all of them and asks them to follow the path of forgiveness.
And that, dear readers, is when the book changed for me from simply a retelling of a historical event to an immediate, compelling story of bravery and a community just on the point of change. I could just imagine that family patriarch standing there–cracked glasses and all–with his voice just above a normal level of conversation. It was truly big in the way that so many parts of this book are big (plot/culture/etc), but by giving us this one immediate character of Amafo, I was sucked in.
It doesn’t end there. The novel is full of these acts of bravery. Amafo goes into town every day to walk the streets with his broken glasses. Pokoni, his wife (one of my all time favorite characters in literature), acts as a strong center point of the family against the madness around them. The Choctaw preacher leads the community even after an act of violence against his own family. A one-legged shopkeeper decides she’s helping the town oaf and marrying him in return (perhaps the second best story arc in this tale).
House of Purple Cedar reads like a myth largely because Tingle started telling Choctaw tribal stories orally, responding to a scarcity of Choctaw lore when he began collecting them. Rose, our narrator, frames this story for us from the end of her life. The framing device gives it that big myth, reflective nature that drives the whole book. We understand that Rose has made it out alive, of course, but at what cost?
There is a rhythm and humor to the language even amidst the brutality. It also swings into magical realism and spirituality and is raw with the love of family. And words. Oh man, the words:
“Even the wrinkles of his skin were beautiful, like sculpted leather waves that rolled and washed and tucked into each other. My grandfather was a newborn child, wet and wrinkled with the moist weeping of his birth.”
I first heard of Tingle’s writing at the Tucson Festival of Books where he was presenting on a panel about magical realism. At the time, he told this story about a fox he found that was hit by a car. And, as he explained, he got out of his car and wrapped the fox in a blanket and carried it back home to give it a proper burial. That doesn’t seem like a lot–it really doesn’t–but the story he told about it still gives me chills today. It made me want to ugly cry in the middle of a conference room on the third floor of a university building.
I found myself having that same experience over and over again while reading House of Purple Cedar–the understanding that I was in the hands of a master storyteller who would tell the hard stories and the funny stories and the sad stories, but all with reverence. And most of those times, I found myself just on the edge of those ugly cries again. But also the good ones too.