Keepers of the Fire

The Strait: Book of Obenabi. His Songs
From the pen of Fredy Perlman
Black & Red, Detroit. 1988
399 pages, $6

The Strait by Fredy Perlman is a two-volume manuscript remembrance of the world changers. It is the songs and stories of colonization and resistance in what has come to be known as the Great Lakes region of North America as witnessed through the eyes of not only its humans, but animals, trees, and everything living. There are two volumes of the book, with volume one being the story of how things came to be, and volume two being the resistance. Sadly, only volume one of the book was completed (works in progress) when Fredy Perlman passed away in 1985.

Lorraine Perlman documents volumes one and two of the book in Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years, giving an eye-opening look into some of the unpublished material and providing an intimate view of Fredy’s ideas. It seems that the two volumes were not long from being completed and one wonders if they will ever see the light of day again. Prior readers of Perlman, can think of The Strait as being the narrative form of Against His-tory, Against Leviathan!, yet going deeper. Or, if you want to compare and contrast it to his other narrative Letters of Insurgents, you can think of it as the story of what came before all that. Actually, Fredy intended this, and his plan was to present himself as the translator of Robert Dupré’s manuscript. In 1851 Obenabi told (or sang to) Dupré (his nephew) these stories after they had both been jailed for opposing railroad construction across Michigan. Dupré’s great-grandson Robert Avis is Tissie’s cousin, who is friends with modern day “rememberer” Ted (the printer). Sabina is also the image of capital for volume two. And if that list of characters was to much for you, just wait till you try and read the actual book. Thankfully, also enclosed in the book is a fold out map that is around 24 inches long and 11 inches wide of all the characters in a “family tree” format.

Aside from finding it impossible to keep track of the hundreds of characters and happenings throughout the book, it is hard to find much else to complain about regarding it. Given, perhaps I’ve also said before that Perlman is one of my favorites, so of course there is some bias. Many parts of the book were extremely graphic and the reality faced by the original inhabitants from the Invaders leaves nothing out. It’s not all violence and rage though, as the book seems to make the point of leaving no stone unturned. While it may be considered fiction, the book is perhaps some of the closest fiction to ever being non-fiction, if that can make sense to you. Perhaps, if you are from the Great Lakes region or familiar with it’s history, it is not entirely difficult to recognize actual events, people, and places mentioned.

For me, this was the best part of the book. It tells the story of what happened, and there is not a lot to celebrate it seems, quite sad – but true. Perhaps it is the heartfelt wrenching that tears your soul out that you must be feeling. The world changed – the names and language, the places, environment, and the everything inhabiting it. It was like nothing before. If one pundit were to create a simile about the book, they may write: “The Strait is like a more in-depth, more critical and regionally focused A Peoples History of the United States, but just without so much of a people fetish.” Or maybe Glen Beck would call it the narrative form of The Coming Insurrection. After all, the bloom lives in the bloom, whatever that means.

But, what comes next? As mentioned before, in Having Little, Being Much Lorraine Perlman writes a magnificent review of the book, so good in fact, that another review almost becomes unnecessary, but since I’ve gotten this far there is no going back now. Her writing is insightful and full of some really interesting tidbits worth reading, even if you haven’t read the book yet. Here is the song:

In his notes Fredy wrote messages to himself about the crucial importance of the story being “oral.” His goal was to emerge with a song. He was surely aware that the hundreds of characters would not make the story easy to read, nor would the avoidance of the Invaders’ system of dates make the chronology obvious. But this story, emulating its oral predecessors, could not have recourse to the European establishment’s dating system. Births, deaths, plagues and battles correlate events described by Obenabi and Wabnokwe, the narrators of Fredy’s story. As setting, he chose the place in which he was living; the title of the work is the English translation of “Detroit.”

And, so it begins. I complained earlier about the seemingly never-ending list of characters in the book, so here is a quote from Lorraine that will give a little more justice to the cast. Pay extra close attention to one of the names towards the end.

The epic Fredy created needed all the individual characters. From his own experience Fredy knew that resistance to domination takes many forms. The choices made by a free people, individuals neither domesticated nor fettered by the dominators’ own ideology, fascinated him. He tried to put himself in their situation, hoping that their responses might help in his own efforts to resist. From fragments, he rounded out a personality and created a world of richly diverse women and men. Although some characters are taken as archetypes of their milieu, they never are mere representatives. Before choosing names, Fredy made for each “people” a list of names he had found while reading about their past. When a dictionary of words was available (as in History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan by A.J . Blackbird), he constructed original names. Many characters have European names in addition to the descriptive appellation given them by kin. Although never mentioned explicitly in the finished story, Obenabi also answers to Benjamin J. Burr-net, Wabnokwe to Rebekah Burr-net. Some historical characters who spend long periods among Rootkin have non-European names. Thus John Con-err is known to Obenabi exclusively as Bijiki. The Labadie family figures prominently in events on the Strait and in Mishilimakina; Baptiste, Antoine (Le Sauteur) and Paulette appear as Batì, Lesotér and Pamoko, respectively.

Coincidence? John Connor is also another character that was first mentioned in the 1984 now-classic Terminator movie. He is the leader of the future resistance against Skynet, and while the book’s character may be a little different – I thought it was a little funny.

As tempting as it is to just have blockquotes for the rest of the review, here are some brief thoughts. Perlman always a lover of languages and a speaker of four, conducted the characters in the book with many different languages that a keen observer may notice. The commentary is that of life experiences and everything that comes with living in a world that disappears right before your eyes. Never has anything vanished so quickly before and replaced with nothing but illusion. Asked if it is all a dream, the response remains unanswered.

I dissolve. There’s only water. Water with a dream in its depths, like moon’s reflection, a liquid yolk wrapped in a watery blanket, a seed in a womb, a dreams that’s roused whenever sun’s yellow hair caresses or moon’s cool tongue licks the water’s surface and makes it ripple. (p. 22)

Health is a world without Invaders; they love power and hate life. Stories of destruction and the spread of smallpox covered blankets with complete regions burned over and heads scalped is the slow spin into chaos that erupts from invasion. It becomes appallingly routine, almost so much that is seems everything is forgotten. Maybe this is the wrong sentiment, but the world changes so fast, that often it is hard not to forget. Or is it the things we only choose to forget? Lets talk about where we live and sometimes how we forget.

a great fear: they who for ages had celebrated and sung and recorded their event-filled trajectory feared that soon none would remember it, soon no living person would have ancestors who had followed that path, soon there would be no memory of Eastbranch Rootkin ever having existed. (p. 210)

It is about, gasp, finding out who you are, and your identity. Some of the most memorable scenes from the book are the dream lodges that the youths escape to. And thinking about who you are, not thinking at all, or simply using it as excuse to get out of responsibilities. Visions, illusions, animals, and some solitude deep in the woods dreaming. Trying to figure out who you are could have never been more relaxing. And then, contrast it with this description of the Invaders religion, which could plainly be described as “no fun at all”.

My fear made me listen carefully to everything the Robes told me: the earth where my ancestors lay was hell, the forest was the Devil’s lodging and animals were his creatures, festivals to regenerate the earth were orgies; enjoyment of earth’s fruit was evil, we originated in sin, our lives were a painful burden, our salvation was death, and after death we would be regenerated, but not all of us, only those whose who had believed the Word – that’s why we had to seek guidance only from the carries of the Word, the Blackrobes. (p. 42)

Peace and happiness have vanished. And, what if things had turned out a little differently? Is this too ridiculous to ask? Volume one leaves it at that and then some. The story feels incomplete, yet finished – maybe just like this review. The works were never intended to stand alone, perhaps that is why reading it is a little strange. And as winters blanket encompassed the night and the air became still, they listened to the sounds of the woods hollowing, and in the distance, the whistle of an oncoming train.

He told the Invaders that human beings weren’t made to languish in prisons of their own making. He told them no animals crippled and stunted its own kind, and no animals embarked on a war against any and all creatures that were unlike itself. He warned them that any who embarked on such a war would turn the very elements against them and would gag on the air, be poisoned by the water and be swallowed up by earth. (p. 303)

Fredy Perlman at the Anarchist Library

The Strait in Having Little, Being Much

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