The Strait. Book of Obenabi. His Songs.
Black & Red
Detroit, Michigan 1988
The last book written by Fredy Perlman (in fact, unfinished at his death: this is the first volume of a two volume work he planned), “The Strait” is the story of Indians and whites in and around present day Detroit, starting in the 17th century (or the beginning of time) and ending in the 19th. It is narrated by a series of characters whose lives are progressively more uprooted by the European invaders, their diseases, technology, and eventually ways and means. The book chronicles the different ways people of the community deal with the invasion and the destruction of their world.
I fell progressively more in love with this book as I read on; by the end I didn’t want it to end and spent hours looking up any extra information on the characters and events that i could find. The portrait of a human community in slow free-fall is moving and instructive. Having only briefly seen what a human community looks and acts like in my 36 years, I couldn’t get enough of the ones depicted here. Fredy Perlman is acutely aware of what it is that makes people living among each other more than a mere collection of individuals, and the ways in which this unity is inherently fragile. I think Fredy is on the same page with Wendell Berry and others who have suggested that joy is not real unless it is shared. Said otherwise, our lives are meaningless without joy, and joy is impossible without a shared human context. The “constraints” of old-fashioned cultures are revealed to be the opposite of what we’ve always been told they are (namely, fetters): the framework which makes joy and self-realization possible.
“The Strait” is initially hard to get into, in part because Fredy Perlman refuses to give his narrative conventional time markers or common place names, and in part because of the nature of the writing, which is verb-heavy and song-like, definitely no popular fiction here (Detroit is Tiosa Rondion, its Iroquois name; the lack of time references was circumvented in this Black & Red edition by putting corresponding dates at the top of every page). After a while, this seems perfectly natural, and pretty soon you are immersed in the story. Perhaps this is what the accounts of people who inhabit cyclical time would sound like. Once acclimated, the book is more than rewarding of the effort.
Like “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan,” “The Strait” is deceptive in that it reads like poetry, but is thoroughly researched and accurate with regard to what goes on. I read an academic history of the Indian-European relations in the great lakes region earlier this year (“The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815″ by Richard White), and as a result noticed early on that the events described here are historically accurate. Reading this book with the internet browser handy has been fun as well, since the characters are largely historical, and easily researched on the web.
“The Strait” and “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan” are both amazing books which will unfortunately go unread by the vast majority of people because they are unconventional and uncompromising with regard to the expectations of the average reader in our culture. The low expectations and short attention spans will not go unappeased as long as there are NYT best-seller lists, while books that require the kind of work from the reader that this one does are few. Once that “work” has been put in, the reader is amply rewarded; knowledge of the entire world and one’s place in it can be this book’s gift to those willing to try.