I asked to review this book --- which I knew only by title --- because I recognized the author's name, having read and liked some of his contemporary short stories. This means I had no idea that James Calvin Schaap's new novel was set in 1890, in western South Dakota. Until I saw the cover, a tinted photo of Sioux hunters, I did not imagine that the title, TOUCHES THE SKY, might be someone's name. Had I known that this was a "western," probing the tension between settlers and the Sioux, I probably would have passed it over. Another genre please.
What a mistake that would have been. This a good, multi-layered novel written in the first-person voice of Jan Ellerbroek, who had impulsively left his Dutch community in Michigan and moved west, embittered after the sudden deaths of his young wife and baby. When the book opens, he has unexpectedly and happily married again, to Dalitha, a long-tenured and well-respected teacher on the Rosebud Reservation.
So narrator Jan, a liveryman who claims no Christian faith, has entrée to two cultures, each distrustful and afraid of the other. East of the reservation, a Dutch farmhand has been killed. His boss, known as a taskmaster, blames Sioux horse thieves. Jan isn't convinced. The ground is laid for a who-done-it, but that question is thrown aside when Jan is beckoned and confidentially asked to deliver a bag of coins to the reservation in order to satisfy the dying man's last-breath request: that his final wages be sent to an unnamed squaw who was carrying his child.
Hearing of Jan's task and acting on not much more than a hunch, Dalitha leads Jan on an extended search for her former student and aide, Anna Crow, who has quickly married and gone farther west to join forces with a new messiah-cult known as the ghost dancers. "Like their stomachs," Jan notes, "their hearts are hungry."
The Sioux have learned enough of Jesus to understand his love and his story's hope. Anna's father, Broken Antler, says to Dalitha, "It is a story for our people and yours, you told me….I believed you….And now my daughter says this Jesus has come again, to us, because we are poor and suffering and because [the white people] put him on a cross to die. 'He is here,' she tells me, 'and now he loves us.' " He is miraculously going to bring back the buffalo herds and destroy all the interloping whites. "Why should I believe you and not my own daughter?"
Schaap writes a taut story from the start, hinting at disaster. If I had been a better student of American history, I would have known that the plot was careening toward the massacre at Wounded Knee in December 1890. But that historical storyline is of course overlain with Jan's personal story. He and Dalitha aren't the only people looking for Anna and her child. An unexpected visit with his always-distant clergyman father confronts Jan with the rigid Calvinism in which he was raised. The God he has tried to run away from pursues him, through and beyond tragedy.
This is a serious novel --- not for people looking for easy answers or a light read. It raises issues still relevant today: Who speaks for God? Can we trust personal revelation? Do any of us know truth fully? How vast is God's grace? How does fear of "them" motivate or control "us"?
But this is not a difficult or dark novel. The narrator's voice is well controlled, from the beginning planting clues of trouble and seeds of hope. After all, the title is TOUCHES THE SKY.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on August 1, 2003