James Calvin Schaap
C. Kuipers, Mission Novelist
In the hot summer of 1978, I pocketed Cornelius (Casey) Kuipers' Roaring Waters (1937) from a medical mission on the Mississippi delta and then completely forgot about it. My assignment was to cull unread books from the mission's library. That Roaring Waters hadn't moved from its shelf suggested that a 40-year-old Christian novel by a Dutch Reformed missionary to a New Mexico pueblo was not of great interest to local folks. Neither did I want to toss it, however. I thought it might be interesting. I took it home.
Almost 40 years later, when I was culling my own shelves, I picked that novel up, started into it, and was taken immediately by a writer who I then discovered wrote three novels actually—not just one—from the depths of the Great Depression, "mission novels," he called them, novels all but lost.
I know something about writing novels, having written a few myself. I know the joy and the heartbreak of writing, and I know the dedication required to create something that may find its terminus in a burning barrel. I know the time and effort and concentration required to imagine one's way into and out of the fictional dream.
My expectations for this old and largely unread novel weren't high. It was not going to be literature, because it most certainly had an agenda; it was written to support the Zuni mission—less literature than, in the mid-1930s, creative marketing.
I loved it. I really did. I'm not cheerleading, nor trying to sell books whose time has come and gone; but in certain wonderful ways, the three novels of C. Kuipers seemed profoundly fascinating for what they reveal about the writer. I loved reading them, not because of their art, their plots, or their design; but because I couldn't help but feel the conflict in the novelist's own soul as he tried his hand at writing fiction.
When Casey Kuipers was still a boy in Orange City, Iowa, his father took him to the Mission Fest, held every summer in a shaded grove just outside of town. The year may well have been 1910. What Kuipers remembered of that event was a fiery sermon delivered by Dr. Henry Beets, a man he would come to know and respect greatly. What Beets said that late afternoon changed the boy's life by prompting Kuipers, right then and there, to a life of mission work. He was maybe ten years old.
Just when Casey Kuipers decided on teaching and not preaching is a good question—most Iowa boys educated for as many years as he was back then were determinedly bound toward the ministry. In any case, he attended Northwestern Academy, right there in Orange City, and then Grundy Junior College, graduating in 1919.
After a few short stints teaching in Christian schools in Dutch American enclaves, Kuipers went west, on his own, into territory where he'd have to look long and hard to find a pair of wooden shoes. In 1922, he attended a summer session at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, eventually staying in the Rockies to become a high school principal at Lazear, a mountain village that is no more.
Lois Lovisa Nelson, whose pioneer family homesteaded in northern Colorado, attended high school in Lazear, where she and the principal discovered a certain fondness for each other that both of them must have nurtured. Ms. Nelson became Mr. Kuipers' bride just six months after her graduation, in 1924.
Their first child, Calvin Keith, was born in January of 1926, in Gunnison, while Cornelius Kuipers completed his degree and studied education at Western State. But the Mission Fest dedication hadn't disappeared, and in 1927 he signed a contract to teach at the Zuni Christian Mission School, Zuni, New Mexico, under the banner of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Like most missionaries of his era, Kuipers had limited—if any—experience with the people he was sent to serve.
It is helpful to know at least something of what Cornelius Kuipers discovered at Zuni Mission in 1927, when he rolled up onto the campus. What he found was a brand new facility and a freshly minted leadership team, including a young missionary preacher and a decorated veteran well-scarred by a history of non-compliance with the Mission Board a world away in the Midwest. Also on staff were a number of other white folks—teachers, custodians, matrons.
His first residence at the pueblo began in 1927 and ended in 1933. During those years, Casey Kuipers created co-curricular opportunities unimagined before him. Suddenly, Zuni had uniformed ball teams—baseball and basketball. He coached both. In a few years, the mission had a school band created by an Iowa-born Music Man. No music lessons existed in Kuipers' background, but he was blessed with an ear that gave him the wherewithal to play every instrument the Zuni band would need. Ambitious, energetic, and forward-looking, he blessed Zuni Mission's archives for years to come because he was the first to toy with tape recorders and motion-picture cameras.
What can be known about those years is in guarded scraps and memoirs, the largely unwritten history of an enterprise that struggled to maintain a presence and a witness among the Zuni and in the minds and hearts and coffers of its constituency. Significant chunks of that history are unwritten in part because some chapters feature quarrels (some petty, some not) between personnel, bickering that occasionally grew from real differences in missiology and ended only when people were shuffled off somewhere else.
By 1927, Zuni Mission had garnered disparagingly few conversions to Jesus Christ, the deity Native people simply assumed was "the god of the white man." What the CRC had created in 1897 had a disappointing record in its first thirty years: only six adult baptisms, and two of those had died within a year.
Kuipers has left no clue to explain why, for a couple of tough years, he tried to write novels. It's possible he thought of publishing as a means of keeping food on his family's table; but he learned rather quickly, I'm sure, that writing novels wasn't going to fatten his wallet or his loving wife's purse. What's clear, however, is that when he embarked on his first, Deep Snow, he had to wonder how on earth he was going to write about a mission enterprise for an adoring audience and constituency probably accustomed to effusive sentimental plot lines, readers who wanted and expected to see pagan savages released from the bondage of sin, when, as he knew all too well, so terribly few had been. How do I tell the truth when the truth is not what my readers want to hear?
Whether or not Casey Kuipers thought of what he was doing as art or literature, he had to face the problem of determining the outcome of his plot lines: would his fictional missionaries experience the joys he and his colleagues hadn't? And how did he write truthfully about the Zunis themselves? Those questions he had to face.
The protagonist of his first novel, Deep Snow, is Koshe, a young Zuni, at the heart of the drama here and again in the sequel Roaring Waters. Young Koshe has been educated at a boarding school, where missionaries of the gospel had played a significant role in a national strategy to assimilate indigenous people into the majority culture. The progressive adage governing Indian education in the late 19th century was "Kill the Indian, save the man," a phrase attributed to Richard Pratt, superintendent of the Carlisle School, the educational model for Native boarding school education nationwide. When Koshe returns to the pueblo, he's caught in the conflict between the deeply religious character of his own Zuni people and what he's been taught at boarding school.
The central question of both Deep Snow and Roaring Waters is, not surprisingly, "Will Koshe convert to Christianity?" Koshe is a born leader, a young man mission personnel watch closely, hoping for the kind of Christian affirmation that will influence others. But conversions don't come easily at Zuni, in life or in fiction.
Motivations aren't always clear in Kuipers' fiction. Plots wander and begin to feel like loosely strung collections of vignettes drawn from the writer's own mission experience. Still, it is clear that the climax of his first novel takes place in the deep snow a rampaging blizzard has left behind all over the Navajo and Zuni reservations, when Koshe determines, on his own, to become an angel of mercy and deliver both bad news and needed medicine to a family in significant trouble and at some distance.
Earlier, Koshe and three others dare a Christmas blizzard's danger to rescue Zunis and Navajos stranded while gathering pinion nuts. Kuipers summarizes their bravery in this way: "The four messengers of mercy pressed onward through the deep snow of Nacionales Mesa. Stern duty urged them on through the icy drifts and the biting cold."
I am sure that Cornelius Kuipers read some of the moralistic novels so popular at the time; they may well have been his genre of choice. On occasion, in good moralistic fashion, he will, as author, enter into the story when he believes his readers should not miss a thoughtful truth. These four rescuers merit particular praise in just such a generous aside: "Christian nations observed this crowning day of Yuletide in cozy homes, and Christian worshippers were adoring the Christ-Child in pleasant churches," he says, editorially. "The four toiling onward over bleak mesas were not worshipping thus, but their devotion was the supreme sacrifice of themselves."
What is so engaging about Kuipers' novels is the moral positioning he frequently stakes out, even when, as a novelist, aesthetically at least, he shouldn't be editorializing. His momentary departures from the stormy plot detract from the story's narrative drive, but the moral lessons he notes are things he believes need to be said. Kuipers cannot claim these courageous Zunis to be baptized Christians, but their selfless (and thus Christ-like) sacrifice needs to be seen in contrast with Christmas Eve in "pleasant churches," presumably like those his readers attend. He is not particularly shy in asserting the moral superiority of the Zuni rescuers.
These frequent asides create a discourse that suggest Casey Kuipers wanted not only to entertain the Zuni mission constituency but also to educate them, help them to see the Zuni people as human beings, not simply as pagan souls in need of Jesus. That discourse is especially interesting today, given the stereotypes assigned to Anglo missionaries who evangelized the first nations on this continent.
When Deep Snow was published in 1936, Kuipers, then a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, was contributing op-eds to the Albuquerque Journal, where his readers weren't mission supporters but a more general reading public. In one of those essays, filed under a column title, "Today in New Mexico," Kuipers defends Navajo reticence to be photographed by putting his Anglo readers in the position of those on the other side of their own Kodak Brownies: "Suppose some afternoon you were puttering away happily at some task," he says in that newspaper column, "and along came an arrogant Indian caravan of two or three swanky cars." He then describes the Native people who "gaze intently at you and giggle, while one whispers, 'Gee, ain't that a cute specimen,' while another adds, 'Wonder if that bozo will pose for a picture.' " That paragraph ends abruptly: "About this time, what do you feel like?"
What Kuipers' occasional editorial asides in his novels and his op-eds in Albuquerque's most-read newspaper demonstrate is his desire to be sure Anglo readers work at understanding the men and women and children he knows on the reservation and in the pueblo. In fact, such cultural comparisons suggest that he was facing two required conversions at the heart of Roaring Waters, two groups of people—one white and one red—both in need of a radical change of heart.
Later in Deep Snow, Koshe takes on yet another rescue mission, this one alone, to the isolated hogan of a young Navajo girl he very much admires. The path, often lost in the heavy snow, is almost impossible, the winter so life-threatening a reader begins to recall Jack London's depictions of man and nature battling away in the frozen cold.
Here, life and death square off when, three miles of seven-foot drifts from the stranded hogan, Koshe's pony stumbles once more into the deep snow: "The sun lowered and the air became chilly. The snow that had been thawing near the top began to freeze. At first it was like a thin sheet of paper that yielded to the touch. As it grew colder the crust became thicker and began to cut like a knife."
That melting, then freezing snow is crucial. "The cruel glassy crust began to cut into the pony's body" when the pony and rider go belly-deep in a drift. When Koshe tries to dig the snow away, his hands get bloodied. Deeply afraid, he urges his pony on, but the pony is also bleeding. "Icy needles scratched and clawed at her raw and quivering flesh," Kuipers says. "Crimson tracks marked the white, glistening snow."
Koshe's bravery in the night cold has placed him and his pony at death's door. "Sharp, icy, merciless fangs bit and gnawed at his hands and arms as he struggled and tugged in his efforts to help her rise. He talked to her as he washed his freezing, bleeding hands in the cold, cold snow."
Then comes the most telling passage in the novel. Suddenly, Kuipers says, Koshe screams a prayer: "'Jesus of the white man, help me!' was wrung sobbingly from Koshe's heart. 'Jesus, I don't want them to die.'"
It is difficult to believe Kuipers would not have understood that Koshe's desperate petition here affirms his faith, even suggests his salvation. Casey Kuipers had to know his Bible, and surely he had committed to memory a definitive line from the book of Romans, chapter 10: "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Clearly, Koshe has done exactly that: he has called upon the name of the Lord because in his distress he has come to believe that the God of the white man can be his deliverance. That, in the reckoning of the novel's writer and its readers, is faith.
But there's more. The grammar suggests that salvation is not a human choice but a matter that belongs to the Lord: the crucial words were "wrung sobbingly from Koshe's heart [emphasis mine]." At the pivotal moment in his first novel, Kuipers suggests that only God almighty could have pulled from Koshe's heart the confession of faith he utters. In the language of an old hymn Kuipers had to have sung:
'Tis not that I did choose thee
For Lord that could not be;
This heart wouldst still refuse thee
Hadst thou not chosen me.
Kuipers' use of the passive voice is a theological affirmation, but also an answer to criticism leveled, already by the 1930s, by members of his own denomination at the Zuni mission project, when adult baptisms were so very scarce. Almost from the beginning, significant voices "back east" were concerned about the lack of "success" on the field. In 1921, Rev. J. Dolfin of Classis Muskegon, significant supporters of early CRC mission efforts at Zuni pueblo, reported on the work in this way in Bringing the Gospel in Hogan and Pueblo:
Since 1906 Rev. [Herman] Fryling has been laboring at Zuni, not with a blare of trumpets and the beating of drums, but quietly and carefully thru teaching and preaching laying a solid foundation to build upon when the Lord's time comes to call the Zunies out of nature's darkness into the wonderful light of His mercy and grace. Already a couple of young men have accepted the Christ Jesus presented to them in the catechism class by Missionary Fryling. A great number of others would be willing to accept Christian Baptism if the Missionary would only be ready to receive them and thru baptism bring them into the Christian Church.
Fryling, Dolfin baldly suggests, is partially to blame for the meager rate of success on the Zuni field because the tally would swell considerably if the missionary would only be more lenient in determining readiness for baptism.
What Kuipers saw when he noted the scarcity of converts in the Zuni pueblo was a theological principle he took to heart: no missionary could wrench (or "wring") conversions from those in "native darkness," as Dolfin describes it. Kuipers answers Dolfin's criticism with a biblical imperative drawn from the Psalms: "Salvation belongs to the Lord." God almighty is the only vital agent for change in those souls he wants as his own and in his time.
Koshe's confessional prayer is heard by no one but God (and Kuipers' readers). In the novel, God responds. The pony comes up and out of the drift, enabling Koshe to make the delivery. Koshe's girlfriend, a Christian Navajo, is delivered from danger, and a relationship begins to flourish. All is well.
But as if to make his point even more true-to-life, Kuipers, the mission schoolteacher, does not allow Lanting, the novel's mission schoolteacher—or anyone else, for that matter—to hear Koshe's prayer; Koshe himself tells no one, which means the novel ends with a question, not an exclamation mark.
In the denouement, Koshe goes back to school and writes his parents, Fleet as the Wind and She Who Grinds Late, weekly letters. His parents, who are neither Christians nor literate, need Lanting's help to read the letters Koshe sends. In the novel's last scene, Lanting reads a note from Koshe to his parents, an ordinary, newsy letter, then thinks about the whole story. This is the final paragraph of Deep Snow:
Long after the father had left him, Lanting still pondered. Koshe wrote about tomorrow. Tomorrow's game. After that tomorrow was another tomorrow, then another and another—an endless string of them, for tomorrow never comes. What did these tomorrows hold for Koshe?
Lanting—the character in the novel who most closely resembles Casey Kuipers himself—is left wondering what's happening in the boy's heart and soul.
But Kuipers' readers have heard Koshe call on the name of the Lord because the novel brought us to a time and a place where some unseen and likely divine force—Kuipers would say God almighty, of course—had "wrung" that confessional prayer from him "sobbingly." We know what Lanting does not because we know what transpired in a seven-foot drift three miles from a snow-bound hogan. Lanting can only wonder, just as Kuipers, the mission schoolteacher in the Zuni pueblo, can only wonder at the course of what he sees as the developing faith of his Zuni students. That truth offers an answer to critics who bemoan dismal baptism numbers at the Zuni mission: we just don't know, but God does.
Kuipers' subtle ending is almost shocking, especially if one considers how his readers—loyal church members back east, many of whom likely had a very traditional moralistic sense about imaginative fiction—might have read the story. They had to be scratching their heads, having expected a more triumphant climax, a poor wayward Zuni or Navajo coming blessedly to Jesus. That happens, but there are no exclamation points, and the truth is only suggested, not trumpeted.
Kuipers clearly understood what his intended denominational readers wanted in their stories. That he knew their expectations is illustrated by "Flying Bread," a short story he published in the denominational magazine The Banner, at just about the same time (November 1934) Deep Snow was released—another story about deep snow, about suffering on the reservation, about daring rescues, but this one with a much less complex and far more sentimental conclusion.
In "Flying Bread," once again the question is the life and death of a stranded family in a cold hogan somewhere out on the Navajo reservation. Another conflict is also obvious, however, just as it is in Deep Snow, a conflict between the claims of Christianity and the claims of Native religion.
Kuipers begins with a God-fearing Navajo grandma attempting to impart hope to her suffering family by making claims that the promises of God are good and strong and true and that, even in their dire distress, God will provide. Her son demurs and predicts their death by relying on the principles of his people's traditional faith: "The snow is too deep for us to get help," he says with a laugh Kuipers describes as "bitter." "It is the will of the gods of my people that some of us must die. I am ready."
In a classic deus ex machina, deliverance arrives from above exactly at the moment when the family is at death's door. The old grandmother implores the Lord to send relief—and he does, by way of an airplane piloted by men who were "looking for Indians in just such need." Kuipers doesn't run from the obvious: "Indeed the heavens were raining help," he says, when foodstuffs descend from the gray and snowy skies. Grandma insists, "It was the white man's God who sent the ravens."
What that little story makes vivid is that Kuipers knew how to meet the fictional expectations of his audience. But in Deep Snow, the first of three mission novels, we can only conclude that he must have deliberately determined not to meet those expectations. Instead, he finishes the novel in a fashion that demanded a level of interpretation at least some of his readers weren't likely to think through, a demonstration of what he and all the Zuni missionaries were experiencing.
How was the novel received? We know very little about that; denominational publications did little book-reviewing, and Zondervan has kept no record of sales.
What we do know is that Dr. Henry Beets, chairman of the Board of Missions of the CRC, overseer of all denominational mission efforts, Kuipers' immediate superior, and the preacher who changed Kuipers' life a quarter century before in Orange City, Iowa, was not entirely pleased with Kuipers' first attempt at a novel. Beets praised it in Missionary Monthly: the novel shows a "keen insight into the heart of the older and younger Zunis," he wrote; but his praise is muted: "It would have pleased us if the author had also been able to make a real hero of him as to his definite stand as a soldier of the cross."
The disappointment Beets says he felt upon reading Deep Snow affected the design of Kuipers' second novel, Chant of the Night, a fact which Kuipers himself admitted in a personal letter to Dr. Beets:
As you know, [Chant of the Night] is a direct answer to your criticism of Deep Snow that no clear-cut acceptance of Jesus Christ is indicated in our former book. In this new story we meet a true convert and see some of his trials. Perhaps the strongest point is that he becomes a convert not because any one missionary made such a superb approach, but because God himself determined His word should not return void.
When Kuipers wrote his second novel, he plotted out a "mission story" that would, if nothing else, satisfy Dr. Beets' desire for a "soldier of the cross." For that, of course, Kuipers had very few fictional prototypes. That fierce determination meant the novel itself, as a novel, would suffer.
Chant of the Night draws its title from what the missionaries attribute to the stubborn appeal of traditional Zuni religion, something deeply disturbing and almost unfathomably powerful. In a discussion Kuipers creates midway in, the missionaries talk about combating that formidable enemy daily; and DeWitt, the old preacher, explains how every new missionary's initial zeal is tempered by the difficult experiences of evangelism in the pueblo.
When they talk about finding the best way, they also speak to Rev. Dolfin's criticisms of Zuni Mission's lack of success in saving souls. Some assurance of the converts' deep commitment to Jesus Christ, DeWitt insists, needs to be there before the sacrament can be received. "Just as Jonah's gourd was swift, pretentious, and a blessing in a weary land," the old missionary says, "so these [early] converts inspired me with new courage. But the cup of joy had its bitter dregs," he goes on to explain to the younger missionaries. "The gourd had its deadly worm gnawing at its very vitals. The day of these converts was short." Then De Witt delivers the title line: "The chant of the night won out." In the battle for souls, Native ways seem overwhelmingly powerful.
At the same time, however, Chant of the Night is an even more open testimony to Kuipers' immense regard for the Zuni people. There are moments in the narrative when Kuipers stops everything, picks up a camera with a wide-angle lens, and simply describes, in great detail, what he thinks must be seen—and appreciated. When he does, his use of narrative distance gets pushed into godlike omniscience as he looks down from what seems some distant mesa. His motivation is clear and commendable. Here is part of one of those long descriptive passages, this one describing the pueblo before one of its most important dance rituals:
Thus the summer solstice was ushered in. Each walked a straight road that would be pleasing to the departed ones who were about to return and heap upon every true believer their blessings of growth, moisture, and fecundity. For four days no one bought, sold, or traded. For four days each guarded his tongue and there were no quarrels. For four days no one looked at the other with desire. For four days after taking their offerings each thus guarded his thoughts so that the sweet savor of his prayers might not be dispelled by an evil heart, a cutting tongue, or a wishful eye.
The final sentence is lovingly decorated, beginning as it does with a variant on the chorus-like repetition he'd begun three sentences earlier. Here he suspends the pattern with an additional prepositional phrase, then and only then offers the subject-and-verb complex ("each thus guarded"), and concludes with a dependent clause including a series of noun phrases in parallel structure. There's nothing overly elaborate about the sentence, but the care Kuipers took in its construction arises, I think, from his respect for the Zuni people, and even for their abiding faith. It's a delicate, beautiful sentence that describes what Kuiper himself must have observed as, in the dance's own way, delicate and beautiful.
That kind of nuanced regard is in every nook and cranny of Chant of the Night, taking up so much space that any sustained plot seems almost non-existent. While seeking to answer Dr. Beets' specific public criticism of Deep Snow, Kuipers seems even more determined to teach his readers something substantial he's learned at Zuni, that life there is often good and honest and marked by deep religious devotion, even if that devotion is pagan.
Kuipers knew he needed a baptism in this second novel, because only a baptism would satisfy Dr. Beets and other readers who clearly wanted a soul saved for Jesus. In Chant of the Night, he obliges in a way that actually adds to the novel's appeal and interest, largely because it comes so unexpectedly. Some novelists claim that great plots are those whose memorable surprises are, oddly enough, both perfectly shocking and completely understandable. Novelists want their readers fuming at plot twists, not because readers don't like them but because they did not see those surprises coming—and they know they should have. Surprise is at the heart of good plotting, and surprise is at the heart of the conversion Kuipers needed in his second novel.
The character he uses to become "a soldier of the cross" is Nick Tamaka, who has an obvious prototype in Nick Tumaka (note vowel change), a benefactor of the Zuni mission who sold the denomination its property in the earliest years, a translator who helped the early CRC missionaries learn the Zuni language, and a baptized Christian, who became one just a few days before he died in 1927.
Tamaka's role in the novel is as a benefactor, not unlike his prototype, a man whose friendship binds him to the mission personnel in ways that other Zunis are not. Exactly how Kuipers uses fiction in his characterization of Tamaka isn't clear; what is obvious is that in many ways Nick Tumaka and Nick Tamaka are the same man.
Kuipers' response to Dr. Beets, we need to remember, explains how he was able to do what Beets requested: "In this new story we meet a true convert and see some of his trials," he told Beets. "Perhaps the strongest point is that he becomes a convert not because any one missionary made such a superb approach, but because God himself determined His word should not return void."
To accomplish that, Kuipers imports an experience he went through at the Zuni mission. In the novel, Dekman, the young missionary, proposes bringing in Native missionaries from the Hopi reservation, converts who might find more success with the Zuni people because they too are Native. Think of them as guest pastors, or revival preachers—new and Native voices in the proclamation of the gospel.
DeWitt, the old missionary, is wary, unsure of what additional baggage the itinerant preachers might carry into the pueblo. If DeWitt errs on the side of caution—and I believe that Kuipers would have us think so—then the young idealist Dekman lacks sufficient foresight; the conservative is too conservative, the progressive too progressive. All have sinned in Chant of the Night, not just the heathen Zuni.
The revival is set, the Hopis arrive, and meetings burn with fervor; but disaster results when the Zuni determine that the Hopi missionaries are frauds, capable of rank deception in order to obtain what they desire from mission personnel. While they know how to preach the gospel, they don't live it. Their escape from Zuni occurs under the cover of darkness, so greatly are they hated.
The whole episode makes up a significant portion of the novel, and it feels for all the world like disaster, the good name of Zuni Mission tragically undercut by the seemingly purposeful hypocrisy of the Hopi revivalists. The Zunis laugh in derision; the missionaries are mortified at their abject failure.
Then Kuipers turns to Nick Tamaka, benefactor and translator, who is on his deathbed, DeWitt visiting him. Tamaka tells the story of an old storekeeper for whom he once worked. Once, unknowingly, he was cleaning out a drawer full of mice when he discovered pages the mice didn't destroy, pages of the Bible. "So I say if the paper on which we wrote God's Word was so very strong, sure God is much stronger," Tamaka says. Then, he delivers the most significant line: "So tonight I come to tell you that I believe God's Word."
While Tamaka has been faithful to the mission and the missionaries, he has never professed his faith with that kind of candor. "Here was an answer to prayer," Kuipers writes. "Nick was finding his Master, not in name only, but in the reality of inner soul experience."
Ironically—and surprisingly—motivation is also more immediate than a childhood memory of a job in a trading post. "I feel like a flower all faded and brown, just ready to throw away. Then I think of what I heard this week that we must work before all gets dark for us," he says, indicating that the very same revival that had dirtied the name of the mission itself and the cause of Christ himself had, at the same moment, convinced Nick Tamaka that he was a child of God and prompted his wish to be baptized.
Kuipers does not want his readers to miss the irony. DeWitt is amazed, shocked—as are his readers. He "was no longer following Tamaka's words. He sat up, surprised, startled. Had that Hopi song actually touched one heart?" He is dumbstruck. "Had those words which rang out in every meeting challenged Nick Tamaka? Had everything not been in vain after all?"
And the answer to that entire list of questions is yes. When Kuipers tells Dr. Beets "that the strongest point is that [Tamaka] becomes a convert not because any one missionary made such a superb approach, but because God himself determined His word should not return void," he is making the case for the deep importance of the work at Zuni, even when supporters back home were finding it difficult to continue to finance an operation with such meager results in terms of souls saved for Jesus, a theological principle he made just as clearly in Deep Snow: "Salvation belongs to the Lord."
But Chant of the Night is not Nick Tamaka's story. Nor is it DeWitt's story or Dekman's. The novel's lack of a central character almost guarantees that it will carry no clear central conflict either—and it doesn't. What that adds up to for the reader, quite simply, is a novel less unified and hence less satisfying. Deep Snow seems to me to be a better novel simply because it has a more clearly defined protagonist and a more unified plot structure. What I'm arguing is that Dr. Beets' completely understandable chagrin with Kuipers' first novel determined that his second novel would be less convincing—and it is.
What Kuipers was learning—both in graduate school as well as on the job once he'd left the university—is relevant because it was during those years that all three novels were written. In 1937, Kuipers returned to the Zuni mission, then served as school administrator until 1954, a long and distinguished career during which he also became an ordained preacher. The archives contain a thick file of stories and plays and hymns he wrote for his students, but when he returned to the classroom he stopped writing novels. He himself explained his five-year hiatus from Zuni Christian Mission by way of the Great Depression. Simply put, denominational offerings could not pay the salaries of the personnel at the pueblo: the staff had to be reduced to keep the operation solvent.
During his years at UNM (he completed his undergraduate degree in 1933 and his masters in 1934), he was writing novels at night and cleaning motel rooms during the day, while Mrs. Kuipers was waitressing and attending classes herself. To understand what is in the novels and their method of construction, it is helpful to look at what he was studying and what he was reading.
Kuipers' thesis tested an argument related to intelligence testing, specifically the relationship between the content of the questions and the answers given by Anglo and Native students. In the abstract to that dissertation Kuipers describes the research question this way: "The purpose of this investigation was to construct an intelligence test utilizing more of Indian culture than is commonly found in intelligence tests, and to ascertain whether such an addition materially influences either Indian or white performances."
In short, in 1934, Casey Kuipers, graduate student and novelist, was attempting to determine the effect of cultural bias in intelligence testing, writing materials that factored Native American culture into the content with an eye toward evaluating differences in outcomes based specifically on race. Both the argument and the methodology of his thesis clearly suggest his interest not only in Native history and culture but also in equality for indigenous people.
"Depression times made return to Zuni unlikely," he wrote on papers he typed for job applications, "so after schooling was finished, [I] obtained government positions for five years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs."
One of the many programs designed by ambitious New Deal researchers during the mid'30s, the "Indian Reorganization Act" was a program designed to reinvigorate life on American reservations rather than continue the failed legacy of the Dawes Act (1888), which had privatized land holdings on reservations and failed to accomplish any of its goals while deeding even more Native land to white homesteaders.
President Franklin Roosevelt, through the work of bia chairman John Collier, signed what is often referred to today as "the Indian New Deal" in June 1934, at the time Deep Snow was published and Kuipers was finishing his graduate degree. In a summary he wrote for his children, what Kuipers notes about the positions he held from 1934 to 1939—"Statistical assignments with TC-BIA Dept of Agri. Technical Cooperation BIA"—requires some historical background to unpack.
Designed to enhance opportunities for Native people on reservations, the "Indian New Deal," among other things, teamed anthropologists with scientists, agronomists, economists, and others to try to determine how significant change in reservation environments would alter Native life and cultures. It seems clear that what he Kuipers described as the "statistical assignments" he was doing for the BIA would teach him far more about Native life than he'd known before—and in a variety of locales.
Why he was led to work for the government at that point isn't clear, although he admits in his resumé that returning to Zuni wasn't an option in 1935. As he noted in his resumé, he earned forty dollars a month less for his work for the BIA than he'd made at Zuni when he departed the pueblo in January of 1932. But research was a job, and unemployment at the time was rampant. His educational and psychological research, as well as his experience at the Zuni pueblo, must have made him a desirable candidate.
The experience Kuipers had with cultural anthropology during his five years with the Technical Cooperation people within the bia is most clearly reflected in his third and final novel, Roaring Waters (1937), when, for a few chapters, we meet a man named, oddly enough, Shoshone, an anthropologist who cares only that the separate cultures sweetly embrace. Shoshone touts cultural relativism, a stance Kuipers obviously finds feckless. The anthropologist encourages Koshe to take part in Shalako, the most revered of the annual Zuni religious rituals, and thereby triggers the crisis which will determine the direction of Koshe's faith.
There is more of Kuipers' BIA experience in Roaring Waters. Koshe takes a job with agriculturalists determined to create a reservoir on the reservation, believing stored water will make Zuni herdsmen more efficient and thus more successful at sheep production. White, racist neighbors oppose the dam, fearing the Zuni's increased power; but even the Zuni traditionalists oppose the project: a dam, they argue, was not previously ordained by the gods. Kuipers' work with the BIA had to put him in very similar, difficult situations on a number of Native reservations.
It seems clear that the five years Kuipers spent away from missionary work increased his interest in and dedication to Native American history and culture. If the stereotypical missionary of the era was someone dedicated only to saving the souls of the lost, Kuipers simply does not fit that stereotype.
Perhaps the best piece of advice I ever received from a fiction writer was to put a sticky note on the top of my computer screen with just three words: "Tell the story." Avoid too many words, too much exposition—"just tell the story," that novelist insisted.
If Casey Kuipers had been given such advice, he probably would have ignored it. His three mission-post novels weren't must-reads in the '30s. The books he and his wife churned out in late-night sessions in tiny motel-office apartments, the kids asleep behind them, are not remarkable for their imaginative plotting or sparkling rendition of character. On the other hand, they are, I'm sure, what Casey and Lois Kuipers wanted to say … at least to a point.
The novels become progressively less nuanced, less character-driven, as Kuipers asks them to carry more implacable Christian agendas. (Of the three novels, Roaring Waters seems the least successful because Koshe's coming to Jesus plays itself out so predictably.) But his readers, supporters of the Zuni mission and the head of whole denominational program, expected something more than an indeterminate end, just as they anticipated more baptisms than the mission was registering.
In the centennial anniversary book of the Zuni mission, Carol Kuipers DeVries, Casey and Lois' daughter, tells a story about the Shalako ceremony. Her parents, she says, generally forbade her from attending the ritual dancing; it was, after all, a powerful pagan show, an event that almost of necessity had to be opposed by the missionaries.
In this case, however, one of Carol's friends, also a missionary's daughter, was given permission to attend. Carol begged her parents to allow her to go as well. Denying her the opportunity, she says, wasn't easy for her father "because he was himself very interested in the Zuni culture and religion, and had studied it until he became quite an expert." That quote is parenthetical; interestingly, what follows is not: "He had a very hard time staying away from the various ceremonies himself."
His daughter's memories summarize what the novels reveal, that C. Kuipers, novelist and missionary, found Zuni culture absorbing, and very rich. As a devoted Christian missionary he had to reject the boldly pagan masks and kachina dancers; but what the novels make clear is that he was also attracted to the old way, the Native way.
Because he was, and because he nurtured that attachment in his education and in the jobs he took in the years when he wasn't at Zuni, the years in which he became a novelist, his novels carry a heavy load of exposition as he tries—as he does clearly and with less difficulty in the nonfiction of Zuni Also Prays—to be sure that his novels artfully and compassionately display a way of life he had to oppose but couldn't help loving.
That, I think Casey Kuipers would say—and did—is the truth about what he saw and heard at Zuni and the Zuni mission.
James Calvin Schaap is the author of more than twenty books—novels, short stories, poems, nonfiction—including, most recently, the story collection Up the Hill. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Origins, a publication of Heritage Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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