Gives Grain, a shaman and tribal leader to the Paiute, or Water People, cannot imagine a life away from the desert or ocean, the places his people call home. They winter with the Shoshone on the plains, but in the spring they return to their familiar lands. Until the whites come, first for gold, and then to settle. They destroy the desert and the Paiute must adapt or die. Middle Road Maker, leader of the Shoshone, offers to combine the two tribes and so the Paiute become Valley People. They fish, hunt the buffalo, and live happily. Until the whites come. Then the idyllic lives of a peaceful people are shattered.
Through war, loss, and heartbreak, Middle Road Maker and Gives Grain struggle to protect their people, their children, and the love they share. They pray for peace, prepare for war, and know that while the future is uncertain, they can cherish the present and make the most of the time they have.
The Place Where They Cried is a beautiful and important piece of fiction written about the heritage of several tribes of First Nations’ people. The author, Rose Christo, has written some amazing novels, but The Place Where They Cried is my particular favorite. Favorite is an odd word to use because there is no happy ending to this book. If you have even a basic history of the American West then the systematic destruction and attempted genocide of the First Nations tribes should be familiar. But Christo tells an absolutely heartbreaking story through lyrical and engaging prose. From the first page, I was draw in and captivated. This isn’t a book you just set down. Rather you are drawn ever deeper with each page and the plot is devoured rather savored. This is an extremely long novel, over 700 pages, and it is epic in its scale and intent, but I was so engaged that I never even noticed the length. The story is so powerful and the characters so amazing, that that time was rather irrelevant.
The core of The Place Where They Cried is it’s two central characters, Middle Road Maker and Gives Grain. Their complex personalities and spiritual connection are elegantly rendered and, almost from the start, I was drawn in by both of them. Middle Road Maker is a pragmatic, earth bound man. He respects tradition, leads his tribe with wisdom and, despite his prickly nature, he loves absolutely and without regret. He is quiet and humble and so intrinsically connected to the valleys and plains that he seems a part of them. He loathes war, but protects his tribe with rabid ferocity and is willing to take on the gods themselves if it means saving his people. Gives Grain is his opposite in almost every way. He sees the world through visions and is a man so peaceful he often cannot bear to kill animals, even for the bounty they provide. He is a healer and the idea of war is an anathema to his existence. He is naturally joyful and smiles when other cry, not because he feels pain less keenly, but because he seeks light rather than darkness. Together these men form two halves of the same whole and their relationship is one of practicality and passion in equal measure. Neither character overshadows the other and the author provides a wonderful balance between each of them. Both men serve as narrator, and while their voices are distinct, you sense the connection that exists between them and you can’t help but marvel at its beauty.
There is an extended cast of secondary characters, each of them well defined and though not always centralized, the reader is very much made aware that these people are the heart of the tribe. They are the reasons war must be fought and blood spilled and the author excels at making their joys and sadness intensely relatable. They are as vivid and powerful as Middle Road Maker and Gives Grain. The tribe readily accepts an escaped slave child and several whites, rarely using color as an excuse for grievance or to shatter their belief that all life is sacred. More than once I found myself wondering why, in our modern society, this seemingly simple and obvious truth should be so hard to follow. The Place Where They Cried often creates a parallel between the past and present and, as a result, the characters and their suffering create a very real emotional connection, one that adds another layer entirely the story being told.
I don’t think anyone could walk away from The Place Where They Cried and remain unchanged. It’s a powerful, evocative novel that cuts to the heart of who we were as a nation and who were are now. It forces the reader to question and challenge what they have been taught and even their own beliefs and in return we are given a beautifully layered and poignant love story. It reminds us that the nature of love and humanity are universal, colorblind, and transformative and that to think otherwise dooms us to repeat the mistakes of the past. You’ll likely need a box of tissues for this one but I can’t more highly recommend The Place Where They Cried.