Historian Devon A. Mihesuah's first novel, The Roads of My Relations, covers two centuries in the lives of a Choctaw family. Mihesuah's previous non-fiction works include American Indians: Realities and Stereotypes (1996), Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary (1998) and Natives and American: Researching and Writing about American Indians, editor (1999). She is the currently the editor of the American Indian Quarterly and Professor of American Indian history at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.
The Roads of My Relations takes advantage of Mihesuah's academic and personal knowledge of one woman's family to illustrate a larger society. Even before the novel begins, there is a diagram of the family tree showing the relationships of the family members. While this tree is helpful, it is not really necessary for understanding this book. Actually, The Roads of my Relations seems to be two books.
One book is the story of Billie Watchman, her predecessors, ancestors and extended family. The main narratives are the diaries and journals of various family members from Billie's childhood in Mississippi through the 1830's when the U.S. government forcibly relocated tribes of Seminoles, Cherokee, Choctaw and Crow from the southern United States to Oklahoma. The diaries continue into the 21st century, describing the many locales where the family settles, including Washington, D.C.
Billie is nearly one hundred years old when the novel begins. She paints a vivid portrait of her home in eastern Oklahoma:
…a land of forests and streams. Blues and yellow wildflowers cover hillsides and meadows and dense thickets of oaks grow among taller pecan or cottonwood trees. . . . Every morning I walk my trail to get water for my garden, just as I hauled heavy buckets of river water to our farm in Mississippi.
She tells the story of her life before and after the "removal. " I knew of this experience as the "Trail of Tears. " Mihesuah's novel details many trails, many tears. As the novel progresses, Billie's voice comes from the diaries and journals that she has kept since she was a child. She says, "I've lived in a hurry, the same as other Indians did, like we expected to have only a few years to fit a lifetime into. That is how Indians have to live. "
Mihesuah's scholarly research is evidenced by the details in the various narratives. Her descriptions of life at the mission school are especially telling:
We arrived at the school shortly before lunch. The yard had five buildings and a barn that stood next to the classrooms. We smelled those animals all day, but I didn't mind it except for the pig stink. "Looks like all the teachers are white and the students are all Indians. Again. " I was disappointed. "Won't be doing much learning about Indians here. "
At the school Billie, Survella, and their friend, Clyde Lee, "made the best of a bad situation. " They taught each other at night. "We got an education, good jobs, then we did the teaching. "
Most of the diaries deal with events rather than emotions. The family members do not seem to handle strong emotion well. There are times that this attitude mirrors the mainstream idea of the "stoic" Indians. Billie recognizes her detachment. It is easy to believe that she has no feeling, but she tucks away her problems in a room in her brain. An acquaintance believes Billie has no problems. "What he said about me not having problems pained me because not only did my back hurt all the time, my mind did too. Family that I cared about was dead or gone. Just when I thought I could tuck all that away in one of my brain rooms, someone had to drag it all out again. "
Mihesuah uses the family's racial ambiguity to make important points about the dominant (white) society and the Indain culture. Billie's family is known as half-bloods. Her biological father was white and her mother "was half Choctaw and she looked all Indian. " Billie's siblings are various shades of brown. Some of them go to great lengths to stay as light as possible (even abandoning the family and passing for white), while others want to embrace their Indian identities wholeheartedly. The lighter siblings: Billie, sister Survella, and brother Teague are very interested in the "old ways. "
The "old ways" deal with the time before white men began to marry into the tribe. The second "book" deals with several Choctaw myths. Billie's family has first-hand experiences with ghosts, witches, and shape-shifters. These "non-real" happenings are part of the reality of the family and the culture and are treated with great respect. To comment further on these myths would be like telling the punch line of a joke. You have to tell the joke first. Here, you need to read the book.
The energy that the family members have to use to learn about their heritage and then pass that knowledge on to new generations does not leave a lot of time to deal with what they perceive as emotional baggage. Some of them become embittered by how they are treated, both by other Choctaws and by whites. Billie's family is not white enough to be white, nor "blood" enough to be Indians.
These issues are presented as things you can't do much about, so make the best of what you can. Billie keeps busy to make herself happy. The family members who become successful seem to be happier than the ones who sit around home complaining about how poorly they are treated. The Roads of My Relations does not shy away from contemporary issues in Native American society; it offers a sprawling, yet intimate, portrait of one family's place in that society and in the larger society in which we all live.