The Girl in the Photograph
By Byron Dorgan. (Thomas Dunne Books, 208 pages, $27.99.)
This is a compassionate account of the difficult life of one American Indian woman, from her lost childhood on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to homelessness in the Twin Cities. Through her, Byron Dorgan indicts America’s historic mistreatment of Indians.
Dorgan retired in 2011 after 30 years as a congressman, then senator, from North Dakota. He chaired committees overseeing Indian affairs, and in retirement he created the Center for Native American Youth.
In 1990, he saw a newspaper photo of a tearful little girl traumatized by abuse suffered in a foster home. He flew to Standing Rock to meet Tamara, 5. Back in Washington, he spoke about her on the Senate floor. He lost track of her, but he kept that photo, and 27 years later Tamara — who had found the speech naming her — wrote to Dorgan saying that was the first she had learned the awful details of her youth. In turn, he learned from her the difficult, inspiring story of her survival.
“Unemployment, poverty, rape and child abuse, rampant alcoholism, and teen suicides are part of everyday life — and death — on too many reservations,” Dorgan writes.
Good people strive to improve conditions, and people on Indian reservations “are responsible for their own actions, but the external pressures and broken promises that have visited the reservations bear much of the responsibility.”
Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames By Lara Maiklem. (Liveright, 314 pages, $27.95.)
Mudlark is a Dickensian term for someone who scrounged the emerging shores of the Thames River as the tide ebbed and flowed, seeking whatever food or rope or coins that had fallen from the great sailing ships of the day.
The frigates are gone, but mudlarks live on, notably in this unexpectedly compelling account by Lara Maiklem, a London editor and a mother, who spends her free time mucking about for history. On the surface, this book advances knowledge of an era, a time when the Thames was home to centuries of trash, bodies, various “oops,” and whatever washed into it from the land. What Maiklem finds is mostly mundane, yet fascinating for the sheer unending quantity — thousands of pins and clay pipestems — but also for the glimpse of culture provided by a shard of pottery or a coin rubbed thin by too much commerce.
But why in the world does she weather the elements and risk the danger of being washed away by a fast-returning tide to do this? There’s no money in it, and she collects with a discerning eye. Eventually, she realizes that the river bottom is, for her, a “wild brooding place with a wide open sky” disconnected from the chaos of the city above the river channel. Yet this is no sermon about the meditative life. Instead, she weaves this desire to find a peaceful sanctum so subtly into her authoritative explanation of history. You’re left with the wonderful gift of knowing more than you did when you began the book, but also a yearning to wander one of Lake Superior’s beaches, looking for agates or rusty bolts or antlers or key chains or sea glass. Because as much as it’s fun to find something, the real satisfaction is in the getting away.