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Reading Col. James Smith, Christian Wiman, and an Anonymous Icelander

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Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of Colonel James Smith, James Smith

James Smith was a young American colonial soldier captured by a band of French-allied Iroquois at the beginning of the French and Indian War, about 1755. After being made to run the gauntlet and recovering from his wounds at Fort Duquesne, he was adopted by a native family in place of a deceased relative. (The initiation ceremony involved a sort of baptism as well as having nose and ears pierced and most of his hair pulled out.) He lived with them for four years, hunting and traveling from the shore of Lake Erie south to the Ohio River and as far west as Detroit. Smith’s captivity narrative, recommended by Francis Parkman in Montcalm and Wolfe, is a fascinating document not only for the unexpected view it provides of the war or for Smith’s tales of winter endurance, but also for its description of native life and Smith’s growing sympathy for his new “family.” Over the course of a couple years he develops a remarkable relationship with a much older adopted brother, Tecaughretanego, who was almost a sort of Native American Socrates. Smith’s remembered conversations with him are the best part of the book. This title is long out of print but you can read it online here.

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My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman

In case you overlooked it in every review written for this book – or missed it when Wiman himself mentions it in his first paragraph – the author is a poet. He’s also the former editor of Poetry magazine. If, like me, you believe that no decent poetry is being written these days, this book is not likely to change your mind. On the other hand, the author (who is suffering from a rare form of cancer and has all my sympathy) is a thoughtful person, and well-read, and writes prose that is sometimes lovely. And frankly it’s a pleasure to see questions of religion and faith addressed at all intelligently. Nonetheless, I have to admit that when the author quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “there are things more important than self-knowledge,” I can’t help wondering if Wiman has really taken this lesson to heart. (To be fair, I’m not sure I have either, but I don’t go around quoting Bonhoeffer). This book, after all, is to a degree an exercise in Wiman’s own striving for self-knowledge after receiving a grave medical diagnosis in early midlife. It stumbles, I think, in certain passages which unwittingly reveal a sensibility too preciously jealous of any faint shudder that passes through the soul of its author.

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Njal’s Saga

In the modern era most generations of most families tend to pass their time in unremarkable ways. We’re born. We go to school. We work. We marry and maybe have children or even grandchildren. Then we die. Along the way we move house two or three times and take up a hobby. You are likely to be disappointed in reviewing the list of your known ancestors if you want to discover evidence of blood feuds, rapine, piracy, and superior skills in hand-to-hand combat involving axes and halberds. If we’re to believe the sagas, however, life was almost entirely composed of these activities for the early Icelanders. I’ve read only two of the sagas so far, the Laxdaela Saga and now Njal’s Saga. The former is brief and fairly tight. The latter is richer and better, but sprawling and exhausting. How many decapitations are too many? How many severed limbs or spines? How many curses and oaths? How many impromptu versifyings from the ghostly dead? It’s all very exciting but it’s also enough to make you grateful for an unremarkable life of peace and quiet.

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