Research Notes · 12/08/2012

Novitiate Falls

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Eliot Treichel traces the history of “Novitiate Falls,” a bonus story available as an ebook to accompany his recent collection Close To Fine (Ooligan Press).

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1.

I’m fourteen years old, and my parent’s have signed me up for a whitewater kayaking class. It’s day two of a three-day lesson, the first day on moving water. My instructor and I have come to the Red River, and after a morning of small, insignificant rapids we’re standing at the top of a real one — a narrow, class-III cascade called Monastery Falls.

“That’s the monastery,” my instructor says, pointing at an abandoned mansion across the river, “and this is the falls,” he adds, pointing at the whitewater below us. Years later, when I become a kayak instructor and bring countless students to the Red, I’ll use the same line myself.

Before we scout the falls, I get the story of the rundown mansion: how the estate was built in 1940 for an East Coast widow’s sickly daughter, and how later it was donated to the Alexian Brothers, an order of Roman Catholics who utilized the property as a novitiate. After the Alexians moved out, the property sat unused for years until a group of armed Menominee Indians seized the building, demanding that the church give it to them so it could be converted into a much-needed hospital. My instructor mentions the National Guard arriving. He mentions Marlon Brando flying in to help with the negotiations.

I take in the site — the stately columns and immense brickwork, a roof that is in disrepair, windows that are all busted out. I get the sense that the walls inside are layered with graffiti. I get the sense of a haunting. That fact that no one lives there, the fact that the building is just a husk of itself — that there are cracks and smashed-out windows for me to float through, even from across the river — hooks me in a way that would not have happened had the mansion been pristine.

“If you ever come back,” my instructor tells me, “make sure you scout or portage on this side. Anyone over there gets chased off by the caretaker.”

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2.

Before I’d even written “Novitiate Falls,” I was sure that it was going to be a part of my story collection, Close Is Fine. In fact, because it was based on historical events, I always thought it’d be the central piece of the collection, the one that lent it some kind of commercial weight. The one Oprah would want to talk about.

In the end, my publisher decided against including the “Novitiate Falls” in the collection, which was a good call. In terms of voice, theme, style — it just doesn’t quite fit. I once read an interview with Ron Carlson where he said something along the lines of knowing that you have yourself a story collection when you find yourself cutting good stories from it. I remember how even at the time that struck me as wise advice, advice I should hang on to. I also remember how incredibly anxious it made me. Even though I’d been writing for a couple of years, I’d only ever finished one story.

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3.

I’ve heard the Menominee Reservation is so forested, its borders so distinct in relation to the surrounding farmland, that they — whoever they are — use the reservation to help focus the cameras on satellites. I have no idea if this is actually true.

What is undoubtedly true is that the Menominee have been tremendously good at how they’ve managed and logged their forests. Because of this success, in 1954, Congress decided the Menominee were ready for assimilation and terminated the tribe — meaning the Menominee Indian Reservation was now Menominee County, and all tribal property was now the domain of a newly formed corporation called Menominee Enterprises, Inc (MEI).

The lack of real tribal input on the MEI board caused trouble right from the start. And the results of termination were devastating: closed schools, the hospital shutting down, MEI nearly bankrupted itself. To raise money, MEI launched a plan to sell parts of the former reservation to non-native developers. In response, a group of activists — including Ada Deer, who’d later become the first female director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs — took control of the MEI board and blocked the development. Deer was later instrumental in helping the Menominee regain their tribal status.

It is in this context — in the severe economic wreckage left by termination and the MEI board, but after President Nixon has signed the Menominee Restoration Act — that the occupation of the Alexian Brothers’ novitiate takes place. The group calls themselves the Menominee Warrior Society. They seize the property — first the caretaker’s cottage, and then the other buildings — on January 1, 1975, and hold it for thirty-four days. At the time, I am four months old.

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4.

I wrote the first draft of the story over ten years ago. In that first draft, largely because I wasn’t a good enough writer, the story of the occupation — the story that I really wanted to tell — is relegated to the periphery of the periphery. Instead, I wrote something about a heron that refuses to migrate one winter, and a girl who kisses another girl.

Because I’d moved out of Wisconsin, and because this was pre-internet-as-we-know-it, most of my early research involved getting my parents to go to the Appleton or Shawano public libraries and photocopy all the newspaper articles about the standoff they could find. I still have everything they sent me.

In later drafts, I struggled with whether or not I — white kid raised in suburbia — could even tell this story. My wife at the time insisted that I couldn’t, or that I shouldn’t, and that I should instead focus on my own stories — like the story of how I’d been a dick and had cheated on her. One of my teachers in graduate school shared some of my then-wife’s concerns about not being able to write from a native’s perspective, but also told me that those concerns would largely subside if I wrote the story in third-person omniscient, because third-person omniscient was — and here I’m heavily paraphrasing — the shit.

The drafts went in a folder on my computer, where I didn’t look at them for a long time.

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5.

The final draft of “Novitiate Falls” came in the summer of 2009, the summer of nuttiness, when all of a sudden people were going to town hall meetings and screaming at their representatives about Obamacare and death panels and I want my country back! and Where’s the birth certificate! The summer of Patriotism!™ The summer of let’s open-carry some semi-automatic weapons to some political events and water this tree of liberty with some blood!

That summer seems almost dreamlike now. Even while it was happening, there was a certain unreality to it. I’d never seen anything like it before, but as I worked on “Novitiate Falls” I realized that the anger and paranoia and desperation weren’t as unprecedented as I thought. Still, I always had this fear that things were headed toward a bad ending that summer — an ending where someone was going to snap and someone would be gunned down — a fear I tried to transmute.

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6.

On the Red River that day with my instructor, I flip at the very top of Monastery Falls. When I flip, I get pinned on the stern of my kayak, and about one second later my forehead slams into a rock. My cheap, plastic helmet does little good. I let go of my paddle and simply hold my head. I am submerged, disoriented, trying to figure out if I’m okay or not. I tell myself to just ride out the rapid upside-down, but then I find myself running out of air. As I finally pop up in the washout, I spot my instructor — his expression dropping from Yee-haw! to Oh, shit! The monastery looms blurry in the background. I take a hand away from my forehead and see the watery blood running along my fingers.

At home, several stitches later, I lie in bed at night and replay the face-meets-rock moment over and over, but with a variation — a variation where I’m knocked unconscious, and I’m unable to wiggle out of the kayak, and I drown.

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7.

In addition to all the newspaper articles I’d collected, I later dug through the web — searching out photos, videos of old newscasts, scholarly essays about the effects of termination. I watched the movie Trudell several times, re-watched Incident at Oglala. I downloaded the album Wild RiceSongs from the Menominee Nation and listened to it at a low volume while I wrote, something that now feels slightly embarrassing for some reason. I did the same thing with Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” looping it continuously.

In the end, despite trying very hard not to, I changed several facts of the story. Though much of it is historically accurate, there were some parts I simply couldn’t know, spaces I had to fill in on my own. And it was those spaces — like the empty, dark windows I noticed the very first day I saw the novitiate — that allowed my imagination an entrance point.

The still-unused estate sits at the end of a long driveway off a quiet road, on a quiet piece of property in a quiet part of the state. You have to know where it is, or you’ll fly right by. Behind the novitiate, the rapid slowly carves away at the riverbed. I want someone to tell the rest of the story, to tell more of the story, to tell it from a different angle. Mostly, I don’t want it to be forgotten.

Hidden is okay. But I don’t want it to be forgotten.

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Eliot Treichel is a native of Wisconsin who now lives in Eugene, Oregon. He has anMFA from Bennington College in Vermont, and now teaches writing at Lane Community College in Eugene. Eliot also works as a freelance writer, and his work has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, Passages North, and Southern Indiana Review. Close Is Fine is his first book. For more information, visit his website at www.eliottreichel.com.