Holtman’s debut novel tells the story of a Cherokee teenager who must rise above family heartbreak.
The story opens with the in-field experiences of 1st Lt. Joseph Walking Horse Manawa, nicknamed “Horse,” and Sgt. George Wheeler, both members of a U.S. Army Ranger unit during the Vietnam War. George saves Horse after enemy fire cuts the lieutenant down in an ambush. The disabled Horse is sent back home to the Cherokee community in Broken River, Oklahoma, where he adapts to using a wheelchair and needs help with nearly everything. He turns to his younger brother, Charles Soaring Hawk, a teenager who’s willing to help in the spirit of gadugi, or “one Cherokee helping another.” But Horse’s depression and postwar trauma prove too much for the ex-soldier to deal with, and he kills himself just before George arrives in Broken River to check on him. As Holtman’s narrative steadily unfolds, George involves himself in Hawk’s life on the reservation, his complicated relationship with his alcoholic father, his bitterness over Horse’s suicide, and his yearning for a better, different life. The last is at first barely articulated, but it grows stronger as the story progresses. The author’s secondary characters tend to be one-dimensional, but this matters very little, as the novel entirely belongs to George and Hawk and the prickly, multilayered relationship they develop as they ride out various crises. They include Hawk being bullied at school, and his search for work that he enjoys; there’s also a dramatic plot development involving his deadbeat mother that’s well-handled, despite feeling a bit tacked-on. The author tells the story in flat, unadorned prose that places the emphasis squarely on the plot, but he does a fairly skillful job of evoking Hawk’s world—a nearly hopeless place of alcoholism and disenfranchisement that sometimes feels impossible to escape. Likewise, George is a well-drawn, caring, emotional figure whose sense of obligation often makes him act the part of the hero. The novel’s themes of postwar trauma are enhanced by the simplicity of the story, making it a very effective read.
An absorbing, affecting coming-of-age tale.
By Ronald E. Holtman
Illustrated by Amanda Vacharat
Wooster Book Company
Reviewed by Marcy Campbell
There’s a wonderful line appearing right in the middle of Ronald E. Holtman’s debut poetry collection, “Limit Theory,” in a poem titled “Belgians”: “Watching the dark sod turn behind the steady plow/one can feel their toil unearth important truths.”
Whether the author intended it or not, that line speaks “important truths” about the entirety of the collection. Holtman’s poems are populated with hard workers, including these Belgian horses, and people who spend their lives in steady, simple labor that leads to insights, no less profound than that of any white collar workers anywhere.
Many of the poems recall simple pleasures: sharing a bottle of Orange Crush at a general store, learning to bait a hook and pull in a bass, and, in one of the most evocative poems, “Summer Nights,” playing kick the can with neighborhood friends in a time just before the advent of street lights. Holtman writes, “But for us, darkness/never opposed the light”
Several of the poems’ protagonists are farmers and outdoorsmen, and so it’s no surprise that the collection is so closely tied to the land, containing an appreciation of nature by people whose livelihoods depend on the close observation of it. There’s great beauty to be found in Holtman’s telling of a fishing expedition to the northwoods or even in the surprising, yet surprisingly apt, metaphor concerning white plastic bags of silage scattered around a Vermont field in “Silage”:
But the moonlight had
made the fields grey silk
enfolding opaque pearls, scattered
as if their string had broken.
Though many of the poems celebrate the gentle beauty of the natural world, Holtman doesn’t shy away from nature’s violent realities. Here, in “Wingprints on Snow” he describes a barred owl diving toward an unsuspecting rabbit, its “talons open, red on hemlock.”
Yet even when a forest is “ripped open by a violent shear wind” as it is in Holtman’s “Blowdown,” there is always hope. The author describes the new oak seedlings amid the toppled trees and (providing a glimpse of his charming humor at its best) the “itinerant blackberries/sprawled along the path, their dark thumbs/hitchhiking toward the jelly jar.”
Holtman also draws attention to the human-led destruction of the natural world, such as in “South Florida”: “What was it like here before the waters were drained/when flocks rose from the savannahs in fluid colors”
The lovely pen and ink illustrations, done by Amanda Vacharat, are a wonderful complement to the book, giving the poems an added layer of meaning. Vacharat’s illustration of a grasshopper graces the book’s spare, yet beautiful cover. The grasshopper stars in the book’s title poem, “Limit Theory,” in which Holtman summarizes a professor’s explanation of the theory, imagining a grasshopper jumping from point A to point B:
could each time
only jump half as far
as the distance
between where he was then standing
and point B.
The author laments his own difficulty reaching his destination. Though he keeps jumping, he is “still only halfway there.” One can only assume that this debut collection brought the author a large leap closer.
Marcy Campbell’s fiction and essays are published widely in literary journals and magazines. One of her recent essays, “Please, Mr. Postman,” can be found in Ohio Magazine.