Lexington, Virginia • January 9, 2011
Chris Gavaler never intended to write about Ivy Miller and Sylvester Long in his new historical novel "School for Tricksters" (Southern Methodist University Press, 2011), but once he discovered them he couldn't resist telling their story. These real-life characters stole an education by passing themselves off as Native Indians in order to get into the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, designed to assimilate Indian children into white society.
"I originally wanted to write about Marianne Moore, a well-known modernist poet who taught students at the school for four years. Her students included the school's most famous student, football and Olympic star Jim Thorpe," said Gavaler, visiting assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University. "But during my research I came across Ivy Miller and Sylvester Long. While Marianne Moore and Jim Thorpe are characters throughout the book, the story really belongs to Ivy and Sylvester."
Gavaler said that what fascinated him about the two characters was how living a lie by passing themselves off as Indians damaged them both in different ways. "They were both at the Carlisle school at the same time and I think the novel gains its power through the contrast between Ivy and Sylvester doing the same things," he said.
"I could have written Ivy and Sylvester's story as a nonfiction narrative, but for me the richness of the material is imagining myself and so the reader into their psyches. A biographer can only speculate about a subject's thoughts and emotions while focusing on verifiable facts. But the novelist targets a character's emotional center and uses external facts as tools to get there," he said.
Ivy Miller was an attractive white girl with very dark hair and green eyes. She and her siblings were abandoned at an orphanage by their father after their mother died. Ivy first passed herself off as a Shawnee and then as a Cherokee in order to get into the Carlisle Indian School at age 16. "It was quite a bizarre racial situation, because here's a white girl passing as an Indian in a school designed to turn Indians into whites," said Gavaler.
At the school, she met Jim Thorpe whom she married and divorced. Ivy then married a white man and returned to white society. "Ivy was less affected overall by her deception because she was eventually able to step out of the lie," said Gavaler.
Sylvester's story, however, was quite tragic, Gavaler explained. He was born into a North Carolina slave family of mixed white, black and Indian blood, who gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War. His parents and brothers were light skinned and passed themselves off for a while as a white family. But Sylvester looked more Indian. "Sylvester saw how absurdly close he was to the race line and I think that particularly fueled his need to get out," said Gavaler.
When he was a young teenager Sylvester joined a Wild West Show and performed as a wild Indian. "That was the beginning of his realizing how simple it was to put on this disguise," said Gavaler. "But he bought into it so deeply that he behaved outlandishly. After he graduated, he invented a childhood as a full-blood Blackfeet on the western plains hunting the last buffalo before the railroads arrived. He wrote a completely fabricated autobiography of his life, starred in Hollywood films and became the darling of white society. It was an extraordinary move, and kind of ingenious, manipulating the romanticized stereotype of Indians as noble savages. But when his lies were discovered, he committed suicide in his early 30s because he couldn't bear the thought of returning to the limitations of life as a black man. He is both an intriguing and disturbing character."
In writing the book, Gavaler used extensive research to document the lives of Ivy and Sylvester. "While I stayed very close to the historical record, it is fiction because I'm entering their minds and creating their internal world. But everything that happens in the novel fits the facts," he said.
The first half of the book takes place over the three years Ivy and Sylvester entered the Carlisle Indian School in 1912. Gavaler explained that the school provided free room and board as well as a vocational education in areas such as carpentry, masonry, nursing and clerical skills. "Most people know about the Indian school system, but not many know specifically about the Carlisle Indian School, which was the first and was considered the best," said Gavaler.
The second half of the novel covers the 30 years after Ivy and Sylvester graduate. "It shows how their lives played out as a result of that intense period of deception that they lived through at the Carlisle school," said Gavaler.
Gavaler's research included interviewing Ivy Miller's family. "Her daughter told me that Ivy bragged a little about the fact that she had tricked the government into giving her a free education," he said. "I also got hold of Ivy's Carlisle Indian School records and combed through them for every detail I could possibly find that would reveal anything about her personality."
One anecdote about Ivy that stood out for Gavaler was how, as part of a school program, she was assigned to work over the summer as a maid for a white family in New Jersey. "Her file records the complaints of the mother about how prideful Ivy was and how she considered herself above certain work. Of course, she thought Ivy was a wild Indian stepping above her level, which she found absolutely intolerable," he said.
Gavaler writes about that particular time in Ivy's life from the point of view of the 12 year-old son of the family she worked for. He employs this technique throughout the book to give a multi-faceted view of the two characters. "Each chapter in the book stands alone," he explained. "For instance, you might begin one chapter from Ivy's perspective but the next chapter will view her from someone else's perspective who doesn't know her background. That person will see her as an Indian and judge her accordingly. So the chapters keep changing perspectives and approaching the same character from different angles. Each angle is complete in itself and after each chapter the reader steps out and then re-enters from a different angle, although it's all chronological."
In researching Sylvester's life, Gavaler came across an anecdote that he found revealing. "It shows how Sylvester is both admirable and a little monstrous. Right before he graduated from the Carlisle Indian School, he was on the track team (which is how he met Jim Thorpe) and a child wandered into the woods and got lost. Sylvester joined the search party, presenting himself as a Western Plain Indian who had great knowledge of tracking. Obviously, a lot of hope was invested in his ability to find the child. But Sylvester grew up in a city and had no hope of tracking her. It was all part of him stepping into the part he was playing. The child was never found.
"You find yourself rooting for Sylvester because he found this extraordinary way to avoid being a victim of anti-black prejudice. But this incident shows something darker happening."
Gavaler said that his further research, beyond the stories of Ivy and Sylvester, leads him to believe that it was unlikely that they were the only people passing themselves off as Indians in order to get an education. "We only know about Ivy because she married Jim Thorpe, and we only know about Sylvester because he became famous in the 1920s. That strongly implies to me that there were a lot of people passing as Indians. I think some people at the Indian schools were deceived and some people were fully aware but were fine with it."
Chris Gavaler is also the author of the suspense novel "Pretend I'm Not Here," and a four-time winner of Outstanding Playwright awards from the Pittsburgh New Works festival.
"School for Tricksters' is available at Amazon.com.
REVIEWS OF SCHOOL FOR TRICKSTERS
"School for Tricksters" offers a fresh and innovative story that exposes a handful of high-profile characters who were, in the author's words, ‘all pretending.' From the platform of the school bandstand to the sports venues around the world, this daring novel treats the reader to real stories of real people making mischief in new and daring ways. A great read!
Gavaler's dark, ruminative novel in stories uncovers a world in which no one's past is certain, no one's identity fixed. In restless and perceptive prose, Gavaler follows his tale into the inventions of Hollywood, the untruths of advertising, and finally, into the heart of the American story.
From the painful reality of the Carlisle Indian School, Chris Gavaler has created a unique and compelling work of fiction. He takes two real-life students and imagines the ambiguities and challenges of the experience of passing themselves off as Indians both at Carlisle and later in the white world. The result is a nuanced and provocative story that evokes central issues of identity-Native American, African American, and white American.
"School for Tricksters" exhibits flawless prose, a compelling narrative, interesting and complex characters (who speak first-rate dialogue), a profound theme, and a brilliant use of history providing the fiction's context.
Gavaler's material is intrinsically interesting, but there's another reason to recommend School for Tricksters as well: the author is an excellent writer line by line. This is a writer who doesn't waste words and gives care and attention to the crafting of each sentence. I really admire this book.
A work of vivid imagination and impressive narrative skill, this very readable work richly contributes to a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of racial ‘passing.'