Fools Crow is a deeply engaging historical novel by James Welch, following the lives of the Pikuni (Blackfeet) in the early 1870s in Montana. The main character is a young man named White Man’s Dog, but after a few brave and intelligent moves on behalf of his community — from successful horse raids to truthful visions to a hard-earned position as a medicine man — he earns the name Fools Crow.
This book shows the richness as well as the hardship of a bygone way of life. Welch is extremely skillful at drawing together the threads of a community: hunting buffalo (and then going through the process of getting every possible scrap out of the animal); gathering roots and berries for food and medicine; doing beadwork, quill work, and working hides for clothing and shelter; feasting and talking and gossiping; creating relationships, bringing up children, training horses and dogs, working through the pros and cons of polygamous marriage, moving from summer camp to winter camp, praying and asking the gods for help; encountering other tribes — and so much more.
The rhythms of this life for both men and women are vividly sketched, but without the blur of nostalgia. Welch suggests that this communal life had great riches to offer, but also its serious difficulties: smallpox and the rebellion of the young men among them. The worst problem the Pikuni face, and one that casts a deep sadness over the last half of the book, is their entanglement with the Napikwan: the white people who have taken over more and more of the grazing ground of the buffalo for their own white-horn cattle and sheep. Welch shows the mutual distrust, fear, and incomprehension between these groups, and how much each has to lose. Yet there’s still a sense of hope: Welch’s own position in the future as the beneficiary of Pikuni culture and stories means that he knows all is not completely lost.
One thing that’s interesting about the way the novel is written is that Welch uses a lot of native terms for animals and plants. We hear about the blackhorn, the sticky-mouth, the littlemouth, the wags-his-tail, the real-bear, and so forth. It’s the same with other cultural terms as well. This, to some degree, puts me outside the text — which is as it should be, since I’m not Pikuni and I live in 2016. But in many other ways, I’m completely inside the text: the characters and relationships are entirely familiar. The pull of inside/outside is so artfully done. It made me wonder how this was received by Native Americans today, including Blackfeet.
Another thing I noticed is that the point of view (third person limited) shifts from one character to another very freely. In a book named Fools Crow, you’d expect that most of the book would be from that character’s point of view, and that’s probably so. But we see things from many characters’ eyes, men and women, old and young, and even occasionally from a white character’s perspective. You don’t see this kind of lending of perspective in many novels — this freedom of the word — and it emphasizes the value of both individuals and communities.
I’m a little afraid I may have made it look like this book is very serious or didactic. It’s actually an incredibly rich and engaging plot and characters, full of wry humor and a certain joyful and tricky mysticism that added color to everything. It was an utter pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it.