Gloryland: A Novel, by Shelton Johnson.
Gloryland: A Novel, by Shelton Johnson. Sierra Club Books (2010), 288 pages.
A lyrical novel by an African American National Park Ranger about a man growing up in the Reconstruction South, becoming a Buffalo Soldier, and being assigned to patrol Yosemite where he is shaped by the beauty and the silence of the mountains.
Shelton Johnson is a Park Ranger at Yosemite National Park. He became interested in the Buffalo Soldiers who had served there in the early 1900s and created a living history performance about a man who had had that experience. Performed widely, it led to the writing of this book. Johnson is also a poet who writes prose that is surprisingly lyrical, especially for telling the story of a Buffalo Soldier. Occasionally Johnson turns to poetry in this book. I loved the incongruity of the language and the experiences described .as well as the beauty of the African American idiom in which the narrator, Elijah Yancy, tells his story. This was a book that left me wanting to quote from every page.
Yancy begins by explaining why he is writing. He doesn’t intend to tell readers everything he remembers, just the images and events that he cannot forget. He uses the imagery of the creek behind his childhood home where the water flow came and went, but the image of the creek remained. What he is trying to do is catch the images that shaped him, as the creek shaped the land. Images of the creeks and other bodies of water appear and morph throughout the book as Yancy experiences the flow of time and life.
Growing up in a South Carolina sharecropper’s family left scars on Yancy, but they were balanced by the love of those around him. The events of his childhood were all too common, but Johnson’s account makes them powerful. Yancy remembers the first time he was called a “Nigger,” and his mother’s attempts to counter the hatred with her own love of him. He saw his father try to vote only to have his dignity destroyed. Hiding in the woods he watches a lynching which left him with an understanding of what white men in sheets did to a “boy” who tried to live a fuller live. As a teenager Yancy dared to walk on the board sidewalk in Spartanburg, built by black men who were not allowed to step on it. He experiences a new sense of himself. The fear didn’t matter any more.
I felt a strength in my blood and every part of me drank it in like a plant that had gone months without water and suddenly received rain.
He escapes unscathed, but his father tells him that he must leave South Carolina before he gets killed.
After a period of wandering northward and westward, Yancy meets an Army recruiter who encourages him to join the Buffalo Soldiers. Yancy is hesitant, but he can see no other alternative to being a sharecropper like his father. Joining the 9th Calvary introduces Yancy to a different life, with its own pluses and minuses. His uniform gives him a sense of power, even over resentful whites. His unit and the black cavalry generally provide him with a sense of family and pride. He learns to follow orders, even though he finds the orders repulsive. He believes that killing Indians is wrong. His grandmother was a Black Seminole who had been driven out of Florida. His sympathy for those he is sent to destroy weighs on him, but the army seems his only hope for survival.
Yancy’s unit searches for Indians throughout the western US and fights the insurgency against occupation by the Americans in the Philippines. Finally the men are sent to patrol the new Yosemite National Park. Primarily their work there is to keep out poachers, sheepherders, and timber thieves. As always, Yancy sympathizes with those he is meant to expel, but his discomfort over his role diminishes in the face of the beauty and grandeur of the mountains and the time he spends alone with only his mule as company.
The space and stillness of Yosemite cause Yancy to slow down and to deepen his sense of who he was and what mattered.
Some places you live in, but there are some that live in you, settle down in you the way sediment gathers under a stream that’s slowed down. As long as ain’t moving too fast, the feel of that place builds up in the dark place in you, under your heart while the blood flows all over. All you got to do is slow down so it can collect.
Waking one cold dawn, he watches the sky slowly brighten.
I wondered what that would be like, to lose a little blackness. I appreciate what God’s done for me, but I might not mind losing a little blackness, kind of how the sky was doing it. . . .Here was the black sky turning blue with a little red and then some yellow mixing in, till the whole world seemed colorful and a bit confused.
A dream offers him newly found images of the freedom he finds in the wild. In the dream, he is running naked and alone on a mountain trail.
A colored man running in the wild and no one chasing him. Just for the joy of running and breathing and seeing and hearing and feeling.
Then he sensed at he was not alone.
Thousands and thousands of black people and red people, the color of night, the color of fire, my people, running behind me, making no sound but their breathing like mighty wind, so when I thought I was running alone, I was wrong, cause everything that made me was right behind me, and every step I took in the world was leading them on into the moment before waking from whatever sleep this was, if it was sleep and the other waking.
Yosemite becomes a second home for him, a church where he can worship every day. He is moved by something spiritual, but even when he uses the word God, his sense of the sublime is wider than that of traditional Christianity. Johnson’s ability to describe being in a place “so close to heaven” is probably the reason that the Sierra Club chose to publish his book.
Shifting into poetry, Yancy tries to say what has happened to him.
I never knew there was such a country
called yosemite and how it would wake me
from this long sleep, wake the part of me
that needs to feel earth
or a cold wind blowin
down from where there are no people, I never knew
silence was a property you could own,
but once I did, once, I just simply forgot
the feel of bein naked
on a rocky spur thrust
out in space
like a prayer.
Gloryland is a beautiful book that I recommend to a wide range of readers, especially those interested in the particular experience of black men in a white man’s army or those looking for books that express how the natural world that moves us all so powerfully.