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Discover Mid-America — June 2004

Field of Honor, by D.L. Birchfield; University of Oklahoma Press (Vol. 48, American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series), 2004, 224 pages. $27.95; hardcover, ISBN 0060081961 (Also in paperback from Perennial Press, 2003)

Run as far and as fast as you can

To begin, D.L. Birchfield’s novel Field of Honor tells a story so compelling, with satire so steep, and with history lessons so interesting it’s difficult to get untangled almost from the very start. Still, its flaws are sometimes so human it’s difficult to understand how one became caught up with it in the first place.

Such is the delicious conundrum of Field of Honor. It’s an intriguing story of a former Marine who may be off his rocker (but still saner than everyone around him) and the two cultures of his heritage vying for his attention from within.

Patrick Pushmataha McDaniel is, as his name implies, of indistinct working-class Scots-Irish and Choctaw parents. And while he wears his Choctaw warrior heritage proudly, he has also skipped the Marine Corps after saving his entire regiment in Vietnam.

McDaniel suffers from the rare Stockholm Cowardice Syndrome Dysfunction. During times of stress and fear, something clicks in his brain and adrenal gland. He is able to move with superhuman strength, thought, and agility through dangerous situations that would baffle most other men.

But another symptom this peculiar condition is blackout. After saving his regiment by himself, he begins running and comes to in the states with no idea what he’s done. He believes he’s a deserter.

He’s disappeared into the remote McGee Valley in the southeast Oklahoma. To stay alive, he’s raided National Guard armories for supplies and weaponry. He lives from the flora and fauna of the valley. He’s prepared machine-gun nests around the valley in case the Marines come to find him.

And he expects the Marines to show up any second. After all, what kind of warriors would be worthy of the name and uniform if they leave him be?

Many years have passed since McDaniel arrived in the valley, though it seems to him like only a little time. The few contacts he has with the outside world are through the moonshiner Zeb Calloway, Sheriff Grady, and his war buddy Billy, owner of Billy’s Gas ‘em Up somewhere in Colorado.

Suddenly, what looks to be a vast military force descends on him, and eventually, he is captured, escapes, and is driven underground. There, he stumbles on a vast Choctaw complex called Ishtaboli. In fact, he runs right into the middle of a ball game sacred to, and the center of Ishtaboli life, a game that has gone on since the Choctaw were driven underground in the 1830s.

Thinking he is being chased, he picks up a stray stick from a hurt player (a stick with a loop on one end resembling a lacrosse racket) and to get the stampeding group of Indians away from him, he flings the ball as far as he can—and makes the winning goal in the championship game for the Okla Hannali team.

This is McDaniel’s entrée into the underground society, where he is heralded as a hero. His escape, and the reasons for the military assault on the McGee Valley become apparent and in inextricably wound with the historical interactions between white and Choctaw, and Choctaw and other natives, in the story.

More importantly, through McDaniel, the reader begins to get what might be understood as a Choctaw understanding of time, place, and history. For McDaniel, days become a succession of seasons, which he never understands as years because he’s not keeping track. He has no mailbox—when he sends a letter, someone, Zeb or the sheriff, will bring him the reply if it is important. The boundaries of his world are the valley, and outside is a foreign and dangerous land where he runs the risk of apprehension and annihilation. What he knows of Choctaw and his white family histories, he has gotten by word of mouth, and they seem a more honest, personal, and less self-serving than those he’s read in books.

The underground world he stumbles into becomes a metaphor for the world in microcosm of the one he has just left. Whites above are referred to as “Germans” (a sort of “Redskin” equivalent). Ishtaboli has strict social strata traversed only by education and athleticism, rather than by wealth and possessions. Ishtabolis often infiltrate German institutions and come and go in German society, not only to keep abreast of what’s going on, but also to make sure the latest technology can be taken underground. Ishtabolis even steal German scientists, thinkers, philosophers and engineers and make them slaves to build Ishtaboli into a better place.

This is satire of the highest order. Birchfield is not only poking fun at the excesses of American society, its stiffness and uptight nature, its need to streamline and engulf other cultures, and what it did to native cultures. He’s having a go at what would have happened to Choctaw, and perhaps other Indians, if left without influences from other natives or the outside world.

The story moves with lightning swiftness, and the flaws in the writing often have to do with great swaths of exposition buried in what is supposed to be dialogue. Still, there are great history lessons here not often told in conventional histories.

In all, McDaniel is a great character. He is the modern Indian: Tolerant and forgiving of his neighbor’s shortcomings. With different priorities, he’s not taking a lot out of the planet; but these two wildly different cultures are. When it comes time for them to clash, it comes time for him to run. It’s the only sensible thing to do.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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