House of Purple Cedar, Tim Tingle, (Cinco Puntos Press), 192 pages, released February 18, 2014
Once again, I find myself deeply impressed by a title from Cinco Puntos Press. The books coming from this Texas-based publisher are an eclectic, impressive bunch. Case in point: Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar.
Set in the late 1800s, House Made of Purple Cedar offers the life story of Rose Goode, a young Choctaw woman with close ties to family and community, but particularly to her grandparents. At this time, Oklahoma was not yet a state. It was Indian Territory, the final stop on the Trail of Tears, a forced march that had taken the Choctaw (and a number of other First Nations) from their original home in the deep south. An Indian Agent (who, of course, is not Indian) oversees the lives of Choctaw in Rose’s community of Skullyville.
The relationship between the Choctaw and the Nahullos (anglos) is tense and made much worse by the presence the alcoholic, Indian-hating sheriff Hardwicke. The community has been plagued by arson, which started with the burning of the girls’ school, New Hope Academy, in which twenty schoolgirls died.
The Choctaw community repeatedly faces the challenge of defending itself against Nahullo violence, not only because of the arson, but because of attacks on individual Choctaw as well. The first impulse is to attack in kind, a response that would only bring down more violence. Instead the Choctaw find ways to respond with dignity.
This book is full of characters who captivate readers. Besides Rose, there’s her grandmother Pokoni who may (or may not) take on the guise of a black panther after her death. There’s also a one-armed Civil War veteran who looks over the villages children in uncertain times. There are also several Nahullo wives looking for ways to survive abuse by their own husbands.
This description may make the book sound somber, which it is—but it is also a delight, glowing with the ingenuity and hopefulness of the Choctaw community. This book transcends genre in that it’s suitable for readers from late grade school up to centenarians. I can see myself giving it to a ten-year-old neighbor. I can also see myself giving it to a book-loving great aunt. The prose is straightforward, beautiful in its lack of adornment.
If you’re looking for reading that really matters—and that is really beautiful—you’ll find House Made of Cedar deeply satisfying. And while you’re at it, check out some other titles from Cinco Puntos Press; they have a marvelous catalogue.