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Cannonball Read III: Trickster: An Anthropological Memoir by Eileen Kane

By idleprimate | Books | February 26, 2011 |

By idleprimate | Books | February 26, 2011 |

Eileen Kane is a professional anthropologist, with the fieldwork to prove it, but she made her mark in the world educating the rest of us shmucks, not the cognoscenti. I think that was probably more valuable to us.

Her memoir of her first foray into fieldwork is replete with humor, detail and wisdom.

She spins the tale of a young female anthropologist venturing out with insecurity into a male dominated world, in 1964, right after her marriage, risking everything, including the cross looks from folk in her home town.

I am not an anthropologist, but if I were, I would prescribe this book as a primer to let people know how different the classroom is from the sloppy mess of real life. Even for the anthro students, it paints a vivid picture of the changes going on in that field at the time. She is sent to catalogue a language, make a census, and categorize a people. Instead, she plunges deep into the qualitative world of understanding a people.

I will not reveal anything of her journey here, except to say that like any transformative journey, trickster was alongside. Here, you can just taste the beginning.

She arrives in a tiny impoverished town, to interview and catalogue the Paiute Indians. She may as well have parachuted. She is on her own, her letters of passage are lost, or hidden by mischievous helpers. The only thing provided by her university is a vehicle, and they provide a labeled police car. Very useful in earning the trust of her subjects.

No one adopts her in the cinematic fashion. Everyone toys with her, and the children follow her and ply her with lies. The elderly tempt her with hints of history and language, constantly delaying so as to retain the company and amusement. They mislead her and send her on dead end hunts with their mytho tales.

And there is no malice. The narrative weaves itself into a world where everyone plays at being simple country folk while all having, if not nefarious agendas, complicated and playful agendas. They are heartfelt in wanting to help her, but it is the definition of help that is in question. They dole out lore ever so slowly, as if enjoying her hunt. They delight when she sweats about not being able to get her answers.

Kane uses the powerful tool of reflection to juxtapose the history of her own colorful town, and her emerging feminist awakenings with the stories she learns in the dusty town.

I cannot attest to whether she is a good anthropologist, but I can say she is a master of layering the complexity of experience and fully imbuing it with the mighty spirit of the trickster. In this volume we get an ethnography of the Paiute, a coming-of-age tale, a story of feminist coming out, mischievous and magical tales of coyote, and a sober reflection of lessons learned young as reviewed by an elder.

I feel lucky to have only accidentally discovered this book (trickster laughs). I am working hard at selling it to a professor for a paper. I’d say wish me luck, but I can hear the snickering and trust the wind to go where it wants.

For more of idleprimate’s reviews, check out his self-titled blog.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.