David Treuer’s “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present” is one of the finalists for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the winner of which will be announced this week. Blending history and memoir, Treuer’s book revamps Native American history as one of survival rather than cultural annihilation. A member of the Ojibwe tribe who grew up on a reservation in Minnesota, the author has written four novels, most recently “Prudence,” and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
TREUER: I read a lot for my teaching and my writing. To go to sleep, I need to read World War II military history. I know so much about the war it’s relaxing to read about it. But I’m between histories so I had to read something that has nothing to do with my teaching and writing. I’m reading “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s follow-up to “The Shining.”I love reading genre fiction because I can’t write it.
BOOKS: What is your top World War II history?
TREUER: Rick Atkinson’s “The Liberation Trilogy,” which only deals with the Allied effort in Western Europe. He unites the big history and small history in the most moving of ways. He’s an astoundingly good writer. He’s influenced my writing the most of any author, more than anyone writing Native American stuff.
BOOKS: Which Native American histories do you recommend the most?
TREUER: “The Other Slavery” by Andres Resendez is indispensable if you want to understand early North American history. It’s about the enslavement of Native Americans, which started before the slavery of Africans and lasted longer. The research in that book is mind-bogglingly original. Another is “Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America” by Michael McDonnell. That book shows that a consortium of native tribes, including mine, effectively controlled the French and the English, rather than the other way around, for over 300 years. “Like a Hurricane” by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior is the first book that catalogs the efforts of Native American activism but doesn’t engage in hero worship of people like Russell Means.
BOOKS: When did you discover Native American literature?
TREUER: I didn’t even know such a thing existed until someone gave me “Tracks” by Louise Erdrich when I was a sophomore in college. That was my gateway drug. I didn’t do anything but read it for two days. She showed me there were depths and heights to the place where I was from.
BOOKS: Is there a Native American writer who you wish was better known?
TREUER: James Welch, a Blackfeet writer. He was the bravest, most skilled and most experimental of native writers but he’s taught the least and read the least.
BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a kid?
TREUER: I was deep into fantasy literature, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, J.R.R. Tolkien. My father pushed other authors on me, like Steinbeck and Dickens, and, for some odd reason, Lawrence Durrell. Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” taught me that books could grab your heart and mess it up. I read widely but for school I read very little because the teachers had such low expectations. We read one chapter of “Moby-Dick” and then watched the movie.
BOOKS: Did you have a library on the reservation?
TREUER: There were several. My dad was a teacher and going to the library was a big thing. That is where I checked out “The Shining” in sixth grade. I didn’t sleep for two weeks. My interaction with libraries became more profound at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, arguably the best library in the world. It’s a huge open stack library. A friend introduced me to a literature bibliographer there, one of the best-read people I’ve ever met.
BOOKS: How did he change you as a reader?
TREUER: He opened me to a fund of literature from Nabokov to Diderot to Rousseau to contemporary Irish poetry. I was this weird kid from the Leech Lake Reservation. I didn’t feel like the great books belonged to me. I finally confessed that to him. He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “You can read right? Then they’re for you.” It changed my relationship to books, and all the insecurities of being native and being from a place no one had ever heard of melted away.