A good story is made up of a collection of elements, the most powerful is that magical thing called voice. Who is speaking and what is the storyteller saying from the heart to engage the reader? In The Death of Bernadette Lefthand, author Ron Querry nailed it with Gracie. As the primary source of insight into Bernadette’s life and tragic death, Gracie can’t know everything, so we get to hear from a few other perspectives. But at the core, this is as much Gracie’s story as it is Bernadette’s.
Through Gracie’s eyes we get to see her sister’s world falling apart, attributable to human foible as much as anything, but assigned to fable and witchcraft Native American style, with Singers/medicine men making chilling appearances that portend no good thing.
Gracie reveals the meanness of living on a reservation with little to rely on other than family and tradition. She is not described, but you get the sense of a young woman whose appeal lies in the heart, not in outward appearance. Without guile or jealousy, she concedes to her lovely sister all the attributes she does not have. Her admiration of Bernadette’s spirit, her beauty, her charm, her talent dancing to the music of the drums, all serve to create the love story between sisters. Gracie seems content in Bernadette’s shadow, as though it is the perfectly logical place for her to be. In this shadowland, perhaps she sees what’s coming before anyone else can as Bernadette’s handsome Navajo husband’s life takes a nosedive into the bottle.
The bittersweet truth of the novel is the unanswered question of whether the bad buy gets his comeuppance. It’s left to the reader to decide, but I like to believe that in this good-vs-evil story, evil met his doom in fitting Native American fashion.
The Death of Bernadette Lefthand was first published in 1993 and won the Border Regional Library Association Southwest Book Award and the 1994 Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association Book Award. It has since received critical acclaim for the author’s ability to depict the intersection between white and native worlds.
Regarding this 25th anniversary edition of The Death of Bernadette Lefthand, Kirkus Reviews wrote: This…beautiful story deserves to be back on the bookshelves of American readers with its innovative, organic use of Indigenous prose form and strong, lovely personalities.
The Death of Bernadette Lefthand is published by Cinco Puntos Press and is available online and in bookstores.
Querry lives in Northern New Mexico in a century-old Queen Anne Victorian house, with his wife, fine art photographer Elaine Querry, and their three cow dogs.
Ron Querry should be an actor in a Western movie. He has the craggy good looks, air of romanticism and steely-eyed stare of a cowboy hero. He would scoff at such a description, but his tongue-in-cheek memoir tells a different story. Creative license aside, I See By My Get-Up reveals a man much inclined to finish what he starts, and one who learns by observation, intuition and application.
Despite growing up in an age of disillusionment and questioning everything, Querry kept on course when it came to education and earned his Ph.D. in American Studies in 1975. He spent a few years as a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and taught at Highlands, Lake Erie College for Women, and conducted seminars on Native American Literature in Italy.
Long before he entered into marital partnership with the “rancher lady” heroine of his book and his life, Querry was (and is) a cowboy. He writes that people get the impression from reading Get-Up that he lacked experience working on a ranch. “I poke fun at people in my writing—mostly I poke fun at myself. In Get-Up, I took the role of the effete university professor trying to be a cowboy in order to woo the beautiful rancher lady. This was tongue-in-cheek. I find that I often have to explain to people that my feet weren’t nearly so tender as I made them out to be. I look back now and see that for most jobs I ever took in academia, I left a ranch job.”
Querry spent summers when he was a teenager working on farms and ranches. In Mexico he rode for a year with a retired Mexican Cavalry officer who’d been on the Mexican Olympic Team in 1968. He was a horseshoer in the ‘70s, had a training stable in Santa Fe for some time, and was the director of a large Equestrian Center at a private women’s college in Ohio.
Writing has always been a part of his life. “I wanted to write from the time I learned to read. I published my first piece when I was 16—I was paid $75 for a story in the magazine section of a metropolitan Sunday newspaper.”
Querry is an internationally acclaimed author of mixed Native American and European American descent. Many of his writings depict the intersection of white and native worlds. For his official bio go to www.ronquerry.com.
ORP: You are a member of the Choctaw Nation, a teacher, a horseman, and a cowboy. Talk about how these different aspects of your life experiences influenced your writing choices. Ron: Everything is fair game when it comes to writing. That old saw that says “write about what you know” is only useful if you know something. Always it’s necessary to learn about something in order to write about it honestly and well.
ORP: How did teaching inform your writing discipline?
Ron: I cannot think of any way that the act of teaching has informed my writing. I can, on the other hand, say that my writing is informed by everything I’ve ever done, or seen, or heard . . . so maybe my teaching shows up, somehow, in my writing. But I cannot describe it.
ORP: You spent time writing articles for newspapers, some of which ended up in, “I See by my Get-Up.” How did you decide to write this book?
Ron: It was in the early 1980s and I had been teaching for a number of years at the University of Oklahoma. The publication of the anthology I’d put together—Growing Old at Willie Nelson’s Picnic—and the circle of writers to whom it had introduced me persuaded me that if I really wanted to make my way by writing—and to run with those writers I so much admired and envied—it was time to do so in whatever full-time manner I could stand. I’ve long held to the notion that it’s a far better thing to weigh in with the other players—win, lose, or draw—than it is to continue talking to oneself or others about wanting to do something—in this case, wanting to write.
I left Norman and came to live in New Mexico again. I lived in a small, adobe house on the Pecos River near Santa Rosa owned by a friend in the horse-breeding business. I helped with the horse chores during the day and typed on a manual typewriter in the evening. I read. In order to have an income, I wrote pieces for livestock publications and newspapers. I met and courted a strong ranch woman and I wrote about that fine adventure in I See by My Get-Up, which was published by the University of New Mexico Press and later by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Get-Up describes the transition from my life as a University professor to that of a full-time rancher in short vignettes, most of which had been written and published in the livestock journals and newspapers I was selling work to. The Director of the University of New Mexico Press saw one of my pieces in the Albuquerque Journal and got in touch with me to see if I’d thought about doing a book. Of course, a book was what I was aiming for, and so it was a done deal.
ORP: The book’s content is personal and mostly humorous. Toward the end, it is painful. You write about the heartless and business like way co-inheritors of Lake Ranch insisted on disposing of the property, and in effect, booting Elaine and you off the premises with little notice. Talk about the choice to write about that, and whether you were satisfied you did.
Ron: Yes, it is painful. It was many years before I could drive I-40 where it bisected the ranch if Elaine was with me.
I am by nature honest—sometimes to a fault, I suppose. I wrote that final part of Get-Up as it was happening—that part wasn’t humorous, of course, but it was part of the story. As for being satisfied with it . . . absolutely we are satisfied with it. It’s been with three publishers, so far, and has sold very well with all three.
ORP: I listened to an interview you did with an Arizona PBS station in which you talked about your first novel, The Death of Bernadette Lefthand. Describe for readers how you came up with the premise for the book.
Ron: It was 1986 and we were living in Taos. Elaine was the chief photographer at The Taos News—I was struggling to focus on a writing project and feeling relatively useless.
Listening to the radio one morning, I learned that Larry McMurtry and Leslie Silko were to give talks at Fort Lewis College in Durango, in a couple of days. I knew and admired both Larry and Leslie, hadn’t seen either since my days teaching at Oklahoma, and thought that being in touch with them and hearing their talks might give me a boost. Durango was just a couple hundred miles from Taos, and it was the fall of the year and the drive alone promised to be beautiful.
We drove up to Durango arriving about noon and got a motel room. The talks were scheduled for that evening and so we went out to explore the town. I am, by nature, unable to pass a bookshop without going in. At least I am unable to pass a small, independent bookshop—the kind of place that, sadly, has grown rare. I don’t recall much about the little, used bookshop itself, but I came upon a title by a writer/photographer friend of ours in Taos—Nancy Wood—that I didn’t know about and had never before seen. Out-of-print, the book, When Buffalo Free the Mountains, is a non-fiction account of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Indians in southern Colorado, and is illustrated throughout with Nancy’s photographs. The book was a fine first edition hardcover with a dust jacket and cost, as I recall, something less than twenty dollars. Later, we returned to the motel to prepare for the talks on campus and I laid the book on the bedside table.
The talks that evening were well attended and well received. We visited with Larry and Leslie both before and after their presentations and agreed to meet the next morning for breakfast at their hotel. I remember we had a fine visit in the course of which I mentioned that Scott Momaday was just then doing a residency in Taos at the Wurlitzer Foundation and that he had told me he was working at finishing up a Billy the Kid novel. (The Ancient Child, 1989) McMurtry was very interested in this, saying he was doing a Billy the Kid novel, as well. Anything for Billy appeared in 1988.
Anyway, after the talks that evening, Elaine and I returned to our room. I was thumbing through Nancy’s book, looking at the images, two of which struck me in particular and became the inspiration for this, my first novel—my first attempt at fiction of any kind.
The first photograph showed a young Indian woman sitting in a lawn chair holding an infant on her lap. The woman is dressed in a beaded dress and her hair is done in braids. She is, it appears, at some sort of powwow or other doin’s. The caption on the photo states that the woman is Regina Box holding her infant son and that the picture was taken five months before her death.
On another page there is a photo of a young Indian man singing at a drum. He wears jeans and a down vest and his hair is in braids. The caption says he is Jim Box and that he is shown at a Bear Dance shortly before he killed his wife.
I can tell you that to this day I have never read When Buffalo Freed the Mountains. But The Death of Bernadette Lefthand began with those two photographs.
ORP: You have said you come from a family of storytellers. What is at the heart of a good story?
Ron: I wonder what I was thinking when I said that? I can’t think of anyone in my family who might ever have been considered a storyteller.
I’m not sure I know what’s at the heart of a good story. I believe I’ve managed to tell some good stories with my novels and my memoirs. And I recognize a good story when I hear/read one. But I do not believe there is a formula or any rule for making a good story. Probably that is why I have no truck with so-called “creative writing” courses or with writing groups.
ORP: Talk about your writing process. Do you know from the beginning where you intend to take a story?
Ron: I think. I stew. I pace. I make cryptic notes that you would find meaningless. I stare out the window. I talk to myself. I eavesdrop. I study. I immerse myself in the place I’m writing about.
Understand, I do not begin with an outline of any sort. I might have a very vague idea as to where I’m going with the story early on, but I listen to what the characters say and feel and do, and go where they take me. When readers tell me that they were “surprised” by something—some turn of events—in my fiction, more often than not I can tell them truthfully that I was surprised, as well.
ORP: You said in the PBS interview that you like to “discover where things are going.” Talk about what that means in the development of character and plot.
Ron: I’ve done a number of PBS interviews over the years. I suspect what you refer to was in the writing of Bernadette. I had never before written fiction. I didn’t know how to proceed, so I simply began to write with the individuals in mind who were in the photographs I described earlier—the woman with the child at the powwow and the man that I assumed had later killed the woman. My aim was to “imagine” the death of the young woman—I suppose that was the plot. My aim was always to make the characters as real as I could—that must be character development.
I will tell you that Bernadette is told through different voices. This was because I found that in the telling I would come to a point where I wanted the reader to know something that the narrator at that moment wouldn’t know. So I had to develop another voice—another character who would be able to articulate what the first character could not or would not know. And I was concerned that those different voices not be confused with one another—I sought to accomplish this though not only speech patterns, but also visually with typeface in the published book.
ORP: In the Bernadette book and in Bad Medicine, the stories are shaped by Native American culture and spirituality. What were the challenges in getting characters right so they pop off the pages and engage readers?
Ron: I’ve long been a student of American Indian culture and lifeways. In Oklahoma, when I was very young, there were Indian folks everywhere. But it wasn’t until I began to visit/live in New Mexico, that I can recall seeing “Feather Indians,” the kinds of Indians that were in movies and, later, on TV.
I probably know more about the cultures and lifeways of Navajo and Hopi peoples, Taos Pueblo and Jicarilla Apaches than I do about the Choctaw Tribe of which I am an enrolled member. The protagonist in Bad Medicine is Choctaw, but he is working on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.
I worked very hard getting these characters right—and I believe they are right. The reader will have to determine whether or not they “pop off the pages.”
Both my novels have been translated into French and German and have never been out-of-print in Europe. In fact, both are appearing early in 2017 as “Classics” from my German publisher in both print and e-book forms. Bad Medicine has also been published in Sophia, Bulgaria, but I have never seen a copy.
ORP: How is writing memoir and nonfiction different from writing fiction?
Ron: For me they differ very little. In terms of difficulty, fiction is the most difficult for me. Probably because of my near-obsession with getting it right. People are often surprised when I say that I have done far more research for the fiction I’ve written than for any other form. If one gets something wrong in fiction—or if a reader perceives something to be wrong—one is likely to hear about it. The truest lines I have written, for the most part, are in my novels.
In the case of memoir, those individuals who are written about—family, friends—will very likely disagree and dispute what’s written (everyone wants you to write about them until you do), but the typical reader is more apt to accept it as the writer’s experience. If you want to be loved by your family and friends, it is important not to write about them.
ORP: You’ve travelled extensively and been recognized nationally and internationally for your work. How did you and Elaine end up in Las Vegas?
Ron: I’ve lived in Las Vegas off and on much of my life. My great-grandparents came here at the turn of the 19th Century and owned property in Montezuma—someone in my family has owned property here ever since. My mother gave birth to me in Washington, D.C. where she’d gone to work during World War II. She brought me here when I was three-years-old. I lived between here and Oklahoma growing up. I attended and taught at NMHU, I have a daughter who went to primary and middle school here, and attended Robertson. I worked on various ranches in San Miguel County. Work kept taking me away from this area.
Elaine has roots here—her mother was born in Las Vegas, her grandmother attended Highlands when it was a Normal College. Her grandfather George Bibb and his brother Dee Bibb came here in the 19-teens. George ranched outside Santa Rosa, and Dee stayed on here. Many Las Vegans remember Dee and his wife Mabel.
We did travel extensively throughout the American Southwest and Mexico and Western Europe. Besides New Mexico we’ve lived in Oklahoma, Arizona, and central Mexico.
When we decided some ten years ago to stop our wanderin’ ways, we wanted to come back to northern New Mexico. We’ve not regretted it for a moment.
ORP: You put together an amazing non-motorized parade that was a centerpiece for the Las Vegas Cowboys’ Reunion Centennial Celebration in 2015. Talk about why you took on that challenge and what it meant to you for it to be such a success. Was it telling a story but in a different way?
Ron: Elaine’s grandfather and uncle, George and Dee Bibb, were very much a part of the Cowboys’ Reunions in the 1920s. In 2012, Elaine and her cousin—upon learning that the first Reunion was in 1915—struck upon the idea that there should be some kind of celebration for the 100th anniversary in 2015.
We initially tried to get others involved, but, you know, it seemed so far away and involved so much . . . we ended up taking on the challenge ourselves. The focus of the Centennial evolved into five specific events: A sit-down dinner sponsored by the Highlands Foundation; a non-motorized, all-horse parade kicking off the week-long celebration; a Ranch Rodeo sponsored by the Charles R Ranch; a month-long exhibition of Reunion Memorabilia collected and curated by Elaine; and a BBQ and visit with many of the old-time cowboys who had participated in earlier Reunions.
The parade was, as you say, an amazing success. We had hoped to attract maybe 30 or 40 mounted cowboys and cowgirls to ride—we worked very hard to attract more than 115 horses and mules and horse-drawn wagons for what was one of the quietest and most dignified parades this city has seen in decades—not a single siren. The Governor and the First Gentleman rode horses, as did cowboys and cowgirls from across New Mexico and neighboring states. People came from as far away as Mississippi and as close as Las Vegas to walk the 2-mile-long parade route that traversed both Old and New Town to help make it a safe and orderly happening. We were, as you can imagine, sore from grinning at this spectacular event. Almost a year and a half later we continue to have people come up to us to talk about and reminisce about that day.
I suppose you could say that, taken as a whole, the Centennial Celebration was itself a story. I know many, many people from across the state and the Southwest spent long hours in Elaine’s exhibition studying the photographs and other memorabilia and recalling stories and people they hadn’t thought about, as they said, “in ages.”
ORP: What is the one thing you want readers to know about you as a person and as a writer.
Ron: I’ve had to deal all of my adult life with the fact that people very often think I am angry or sullen, surly or grumpy, or just unfriendly. That’s just the face I was dealt. In fact I’m just thinking and listening—making mental notes. I’m a writer, after all. And as such, you should know that I’m likely storing away pieces of what you say, of how you look and act . . .
ORP: What are you up to now?
Ron: I’m honored to have been chosen as a judge for the Texas Institute of Letters’ important Best Novel and Best First Fiction Awards for 2016. This requires me to read closely upwards of thirty novels and collections—a task that while sometimes delightful, can be tedious since entries range from important literary works to the kinds of formulaic genre fiction that I’ve never been much taken by.
At the same time, it is a task that is all-consuming, so I have had to put on hold until early in 2017 the final stages of preparing my new work for publication. The work is another memoir, this one titled “Permanent Record.” I think it’s a fun book and I’m eager to get it out there.
Photos provided by Ron Querry