Review: Laughing Whitefish – Robert Traver

Last week, on vacation in Michigan, I heard an interview on Points North about the reprinting of Robert Traver‘s (John D. Voelker’s) novel Laughing Whitefish.  It sounded interesting on two levels.  First, I love the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Second, the story of how a Native American woman sued a mining company over her father’s unpaid claim sounded fascinating.  Having read the novel, I can tell you it is fascinating.

Laughing Whitefish works in two ways.  First, Robert Traver does an excellent job describing the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, what drew people there, and what still draws them.  He also describes the relationship the state had with mining and forestry.  For a state known for its natural beauty, Michigan’s history is steeped in environmental destruction in pursuit of natural resources.  Traver remarks on this tension.  Characters have moments of regret, of asking whether their ancestors understood how the creation of the Sault locks would unlock the region and risk the beauty and wonder of the area.

The other important facet of Laughing Whitefish is how Traver describes the treatment of Native Americans, how this landmark court case was won, and the impact it had on relations between the state of Michigan and Native American tribes.  It reminded me of the dismal nature with which lands were usurped and reinforced the ugliness of American expansion.  It’s easy to ignore this past.  It’s easy to look at places names and not think of their origin.  It’s easy for other, more recent American tragedies to take precedence.  However, we must not ignore the past.  We need to remember.

What detracts from this novel is the side story and use of language.  The love interest between the young lawyer, William Poe, and his client, Laughing Whitefish, is obvious and poorly constructed.  Also, there are times when the language feels clunky.  Is this because Traver was trying to capture the language of the time or was it a lack of mechanics?  It’s difficult to tell.  Maybe, it just seems clunky compared to how we currently speak.  The other small point which detracts from the novel is how the court cases become stale.  Traver makes an issue of the slowness and tediousness of the law, but from a perspective of narrative flow he could have still captured this idea without sacrificing the pace of the novel.

Overall, Laughing Whitefish is an interesting novel and a reminder of our past.  It frames the rights of an individual against the interests of a corporation.  In a presaged paragraph the character Cassius Wendell speaks of corporate power.  Cash tells William Poe that he is

“forgetting that corporations are organized primarily for profit. The special genius of the corporation is that while it possesses a kind of immortality and can never die, it is never bothered by a heart or soul or any qualms of consience.  Corporations can do—and omit to do—things that their stockholders would be horrified to do by themselves.  They can do so because the responsibility is finally dispersed among so many that no one is to blame because all are.  That is the great fearful power of the modern corporation.”

As we look back at Enron, credit default swapsBritish Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe as well as new rulings on corporate personhood, the quoted passage becomes especially haunting.  Not only does Laughing Whitefish tell an important story, but it provides a backdrop for the current struggles between the rights of corporations and the rights of individuals.

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