By Maida Tilchen, $11.69; Savvy Press; 328 pages
If you're interested in anthropology, Navajo culture or lesbian dude ranches, this book has much to offer. The second novel by Tilchen is based on the life of Henrietta Schmerler, an actual female anthropology student who traveled to the Southwest in the 1930s to do fieldwork. ( Tilchen moves the story of her fictional counterpart to the 1920s. See the author's note for fascinating background on how and why she blended historical fact and characters with the fictional. )
The author's version of Henrietta was a dreamer. Daughter of an Orthodox Jew, she worked at a sewing machine in a Brooklyn coat factory. She dreamed of escapefrom her cultural roots, from the crowded tenements and the drudgery of her daily lifeto a different world in the sunny Southwest where she could study Zuni life ( she changed her focus to the Navajo once she got there ). She met Sack, an ambitious fellow, who urged her to raise her sights. "Go to Columbia [Teachers College]. That's the fastest train to Zuni pueblo for a girl from Brooklyn."
At Columbia, Henrietta took an anthropology course from Ruth Benedict. Thrilled by a penetrating glance from Benedict, Henrietta had a new dream. Benedict would take her under her wing and preen her for success. But then her hopes of a fieldwork assignment to the Southwest were dashed. She was passed over. Angered and hurt, Henrietta decided she would make the trip there on her own. Somehow, she would find a way to make contact with her beloved Zuni. Arriving in Santa Fe, she met a mysterious Navajo named Ben, then found her way to the San Gabriel Dude Ranch ( a real place ), where the customers were all women. She got a job, saving her earnings until she would have enough to strike out on her own and find a pueblo to study. She also ran into Benedict and her lover Margaret Mead at the ranch, where the two often vacationed together.
Throughout Henrietta's journey, her path continually crossed that of Sack, who had his own take on how Native American artifacts could enrich his fortunes, and Ben, to whom she was becoming more and more attracted.
At Los Luceros, the estate of Mary Cabot Wheelwright, Henrietta's dream to do field study began to take some shape. Wheelwright was an aging single Boston heiress with an abiding interest in Native American religion and arts. Henrietta became an interview transcriber, recording Wheelwright's conversations with Hosteen Klah, a Navajo weaver who was weaving secret designs of his people into a Yei rug to preserve the Navajo traditions. ( Both these characters are historical figures. )
The story moves onto one last chapter as Henrietta continued her journey to learn about the Navajo, with whom she had made some connections. Dreams of life in a Zuni pueblo disappeared.
This is the most thoughtful section of the book. Henrietta and Ned argued about the clash between their cultures. They present many questions that are useful for any of us to ponder. ( Is intrusion into another culture's daily life justifiable to preserve their history if the people don't understand how much they are about to lose? Do Westerners have the right to take Native American sacred possessions for sale to private collectors, or display in museums? )
The book title refers to a coded phrase used back east in the '20s and '30s referring to women who switched sexual preference and visited female dude ranches in New Mexico, a haven for lesbians at that time.
Tilchen is a frequent visitor to New Mexico. Her first novel, Land Beyond Maps, also deals with Native American life in the Southwest and women's history. It has received many awards, including that of finalist in the 2010 Lambda Literary Foundation Lesbian Debut Fiction category.