The Crying for a Vision, Walter Wangerin, Jr. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003.
Summary: A tale of conflict between an orphan boy, Moves Walking, and a ruthless warrior, Fire Thunder over the life of their people, set in Lakota culture.
I’ve followed the work of Walter Wangerin, Jr. on and off for years, from the book of Bible stories we used to read our son to his Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith and the book he is most famous for, The Book of the Dun Cow, which I read only recently and reviewed here. This book looked like a further stretch, being set supposedly in Lakota culture (I will leave to others whether this book is faithful to Lakota ways). What I can say is that I found the story compelling, raising as it does larger questions of whether the capacity to do a thing is sufficient warrant for doing it.
The story traces the conflict between an orphan boy (actually the child of a beautiful Lakota woman who has disappeared, and a star), Moves Walking, and a mysterious, and fierce, one-eyed warrior, Fire Thunder. As a five year old, Moves Walking longs for his mother, Rattling Hail Woman, and asks the warrior if he has seen her, and for this question has his ear cut off.
The boy matures, cared for by a wise grandmother with aching feet and mentored by the Crier of the tribal band. His unusual identity is signaled when a mysterious star, accompanied by others comes to him and his people only to be turned away by them, but mysteriously given a home as water lilies. Later, he is taught to hunt by the Crier, yet grieves after he shoots four rabbits, and learns that a life is not to be taken but only can be asked for. From then on he does not hunt.
Not so, Fire Thunder, who takes whatever he wants and becomes a candidate to be a chief of the band. It turns out that, spurned as a lover, he had pursued Moves Walking’s mother, and destroyed her and a host of animal creatures in a fire. In a climactic confrontation, Moves Walking, accompanied by animal witnesses to the heinous murder, stands alone in opposition to Fire Thunder becoming chief. We wonder whether Moves Walking will prevail, but instead, he nearly loses his life as Fire Thunder leads an attack on the animal host, the wolf giving his life to save Moves Walking.
Fire Thunder subsequently leads the Lakota in a war of conquest against the other peoples of the plains. He does this simply because he can. He forsakes the sacred dance and becomes answerable only to himself. Triumph turns to tragedy as the buffalo and all other animal life disappear, even as Fire Thunder destroys all human life other than the Lakota. Famine replaces conquest. Moves Walking and his grandmother live in hiding until the grandmother sees the desolation of the Lakota people. Moves Walking must “cry for a vision” for how he might save the circle of the world which will bring him once more face to face with Fire Thunder.
The story challenges the idea of domination that does a thing simply because it is in one’s power to do, and particularly the ruthless domination that takes life simply because it can. It suggests that doing so rends the “circle of life”, the fabric of existence, and that only some form of redemptive act can restore what has been rent.
The book includes an extensive Afterword of the author, recounting his research of the book, culminating in attending a Lakota Sun Dance, including the powerful ritual of piercing that many of the dancers undergo and the idea of a vision quest. It is clear that this was a powerfully moving experience for him, and one for which he expresses gratitude to his Lakota hosts. I suspect, however, that this does not provide adequate defense for him against charges of cultural appropriation on one hand, and syncretism on the other. My sense is that this was not a “Christian” story clothed in the veneer of Lakota tradition nor an attempt to do a mashup of Lakota and Christian belief. Rather, perhaps similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although not in a made up world, Wangerin creates a kind of myth that speaks deeply to the human condition, and to the common humanity Wangerin found between himself and the Lakota. I have not found a Lakota response to Wangerin’s work but at the time of first publication (1993), the book received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. The book is currently out of print, but available from various booksellers, as well as local libraries.