In a recent e-mail exchange, a college chum praised “Stay Away, Joe” as Montana’s “Huckleberry Finn.”
Published a half-century ago, “Stay Away, Joe” hit the book shelves at 25 cents a copy in 1953. I was 11 years old at that time. I had read “Huckleberry Finn” but not Dan Cushman’s tale.
I remember adults talking about the book. “Stay Away, Joe” was wildly popular. Everyone, it seems, had read it. Everyone but me.
The typical response was: “Funniest book I ever read. Pegs Indians to a ‘T.’”
Paging through old reviews and more recent references to the book, I struck one reader’s claim that Vine Deloria Jr., author of “Custer Died for Your Sins, an Indian Manifesto,” told a white audience to read “Stay Away, Joe” to learn how Indians live.
Maybe Deloria said that. Maybe he didn’t. I wouldn’t hold him to it. He might have been joking.
In more recent decades, Cushman’s tale is still being read but has been labeled “racist” by some while others stoutly deny it.
Determined to plug a hole in my knowledge of Montana literature, I hit the library, where I found a copy of “Stay Away, Joe,” autographed by the author and in mint condition.
“Stay Away, Joe” is the story of an Indian marine who returns to the reservation with a Chinese scalp and a Purple Heart. He arrives at his parents’ home after his father receives 19 heifers and a bull as part of a government program to give Indians a start as ranchers.
The family’s friends catch wind of Louis Champlain’s good fortune and flock to the homestead to join the party expected at such times. The marine, Big Joe Champlain, walks onto the scene just as the beer is running low. He pays for more beer, apparently with his last $50 bill, and invites a friend to butcher one of the cows.
The friend kills the lone bull instead. In the weeks to come, the herd dwindles to one cow while the hapless Champlains are swindled out of the rest of the herd by a hard-drinking woman chasing Big Joe.
Joe uses two heifers as a down payment on a glitzy Buick that he drives once or twice then lives in while he sells parts of the car to buy beer.
The plot staggers along on this course until Louis wins a young fortune on a horse race and spends it. Joe elopes with a barkeep’s daughter and everyone lives haplessly ever after.
Reviews of the book from the 1950s called it a “comic-tragic story” and saluted the protagonist as a “lusty rogue.”
I should have read it when I was a pre-teen. I might have liked it then.
Last week’s reading found Big Joe Champlain to be a lying, alcoholic, self-centered thief, user of women and manipulator of friends.
Instead of revealing “how Indians really are,” Cushman’s book gives us a clear view of what Montana bigots think of Indians, what causes racists to giggle.
Is “Stay Away, Joe” really Montana’s “Huckleberry Finn”?
Is Lake Elmo Yellowstone County’s Lake Victoria? Is Pittsburgh the Paris of the Midwest? Does poached carp compete with lobster bisque?
Don’t get me wrong. Cushman was a decent writer, a skilled craftsman, in fact. His characters are carefully drawn, his stories well plotted and he has an excellent ear for the reservation patois.
The man wrote 50 books and uncounted short stories. A play based on “Stay Away, Joe” was produced on Broadway. Elvis Presley starred in the movie made from Cushman’s novel.
The film bombed bigger than Hiroshima but I would recommend it over the book. Movies are better than books. You can’t spill coffee on a movie.