Wednesday, 15 October 2014

LO-TO-KAH by Verner Z. Reed 1897

Verner Zevola Reed was a capitalist in Colorado around the end of the 19th century until his death in 1919. He is a person that, while not obscure, hardly lives on in the public consciousness, aside from few scattered refferences to his descendents. His grandson, Verner Zevola Reed III was a photographer who passed away in 2006, while nothing of note has yet been found concerning Verner Zevola Reed, Jr. apart from being described as a "mining heir".

Verner Z. Reed
There doesn't seem to even be a bibliography of his literary works compiled to this day, despite his contributions to the studies of North American Native peoples, as well as apparently dabbling into other subjects like international politics.

Four books of fiction are recorded as having been penned by Reed: Lo-To-Kah (1897), Tales of the Sun-land (1897), Adobeland stories (1899) and The soul of Paris, and other essays (1913). I have yet to read any of Reed's other works besides Lo-To-Kah, but Tales of the Sun-land is noted to have a lost race story (The Carib Queen) so further exploration of his works might be in order.

Cover courtesey of Ebay

Lo-To-Kah itself is a rather unusual book. It contains a series of stories, most of which are the recordings of the memories and events described by Lo-To-Kah, an old Native American warrior and chief, to a non specific Western author.

The first tale, Lo-To-Kah, the Uncivilised , relates how Lo-To-Kah met his wife Zeetah, who was a captive of the Navajos and condemned by them to be torn in two by horses. Lo-To-Kah, on a mission of peace to the Navajos, sees the woman, is smitten by her, and helps her escape, killing many Navajos along the way. That would be fine and good, except Lo-To-Kah decides to not only kill the Navajo husband of Zeetah's who accused her of sorcery, but he then proceeds to kidnap the mans other wife, drag her back to his Ute tribesmen and have her be a slave to Zeetah, seemingly for the rest of her life. There is literally zero reason for this, and it comes out of nowhere and seems like an incredible evil thing to do to someone who had nothing to do with the events at hand, at all. Yet Lo-To-Kah never even considers he did all that much wrong by doing it. He begins to sort of say he didn't know about sin and whatnot in those days but then he immediately changes tracks. It remains a bit of a blemish on the character throughout the rest of the book.

The second story, The Witch of the Rancho Soledad is a bit odd in that it introduces a character who is properly introduced in the following story. It surprisingly isn't that confusing, and sort of makes the book feel a bit deeper for the way this was handled. The story itself is about a man wandering the Wild West, who comes into the ranch of an eccentric mexican, meets a Native American sorcerer who then proceeds to give summon Raymeya, who allows him to have a spiritual conference with the woman he loves who ended up in a convent against her will.

The third story, Lo-To-Kah and the Golden Woman, tells of how Lo-To-Kah met a white woman who was marvelled for her kindness and wisdom among the native americans, and called The Golden Woman. She remains with the Ute, but is slowly driven crazy by the absence of her one true love. The man is then oh so coincidentally let into the Ute camp many years later and the two reunite, however the man got married at some point. As this was written in 1897 and is supposed to have taken place a good forty to fifty years before even then, marriage is seen as something permanent and final, more like a terminal illness then an institution for the legal cohabitation of two people under state authority. On the other hand there is nothing really wrong with the man's wife, apparently, except that she doesn't love him. Then he sends a messenger to his home town to ask if his wife is dead. There is no reason he suspects she would be, he just sort of hopes that that's the case. The runner, when returning with a message that the man's wife is alive, is stopped by Lo-To-Kah, who bribes him to say the opposite, wanting the best for the two people, but then another runner comes up saying the man's wife actually did die, on the same day. The end of the story is a bit weird as Lo-To-Kah meets the couple living alone in their cabin in the woods, but the woman seems to be "crazed" again. The story ends there with no further reason as to why, or a resolution.

The fourth story, Lo-To-Kah and the Witch, details Lo-To-Kah's several encounters with Raymeya the witch, who spends years trying to win his love in vain, and who is cursed with eternal life after having killed her husband and must remain alive and young until that man's soul is free from Purgatory. This is a bit suspect as we'll see later, but this story is rather good, except for one part. It is spread out over many years, and details Lo-To-Kah's descent into Raymeya's not so hidden hidden city. The one bad part of the story is how when Lo-To-Kah's wife is kidnapped by Apaches, he resolves to rescue her and then kill her, because he can't stand her to live beside him after having been "defiled". The only reason he doesn't do it, regardless of how his wife feels about it, is because Raymeya popped out of nowhere before and gave his wife a magic token to scare the Apaches off.

The penultimate story, The Death of Lo-To-Kah, deals with the old man's death and the flashbacks he has before death. It also explains how Lo-To-Kah went to steal a bow from the Modocs, for no other reason then that his wife mentioned in jest that she wanted it. Despite not insulting the Modocs like the Apaches and the Navajo, he still kills quite a few of them and needlessly risks his life over the bow.

The final story, The Vision of the Witch, is focused on Raymeya. She is visited by the apparations of all the men whom she tried to love but who refused her, and then of Lo-To-Kah himself. He begins to have visions of the past and then notes he was all those other men in different lives. Raymeya points out how the specifics of her curse make no sense because of that but then Lo-To-Kah says that "life is Purgatory", so the Virgin Mary or whoever that was that cursed Raymeya was making this stuff up on the spot it seems. Then Lo-To-Kah says how when the world will be corrupt and full of vice he and Zeetah will leave the afterlife and be reborn again, but doesn't actually say anything about Raymeya's future. The apparation ends and the Witch remains as cursed as before.

Overall, despite a few stumbling blocks with how the author patronises Native Americans in a few places, the book is still very readable. There is genuine melancholy in the Lo-To-Kah's stories "of the long ago" as he calls them, an authentic sounding voice of an old man wishing for the time of his youth. It is odd just how Lo-To-Kah hates both Navajos and Apaches, but his reminescences are still entertaining regardless.

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