Small Wonders: A Museum of Missouri River Stories
The headlines these days tell us that history—and especially the teaching of history—is a major front for the culture wars. In his new book Small Wonders, James Calvin Schaap illustrates a way to diffuse that war before it begins: practice local history.
Small Wonders is a collection of the stories Schaap has been telling on Sioux City’s public radio station, KWIT. Schaap’s book takes the Missouri River as its inspiration and organizing principle, moving up and down the Missouri River watershed and capturing the landscape and its stories almost literally as they evaporate in front of us, monuments almost forgotten, former highways now preserved only by the prairie.
Small Wonders includes several signature Midwestern features, from buffalo to big bluestem to steamboats. One particularly lovely piece looks at George Caleb Bingham’s painting Fur Trappers Descending the Missouri, explaining the reason a big black cat perches at the front of a laden canoe. Another, “Up from the Ooze,” narrates the travails of steamboats bringing prospectors up Big Muddy. Both are specific pieces of history that this Midwesterner had no idea about.
But Small Wonders also touches the major stories of US history, like John Brown’s involvement in “Bleeding Kansas,” when militias for and against slavery arguably started the Civil War. Specifically, Schaap visits the basement of Reverent John Todd, the inspiration for a Marilynne Robinson character in Gilead. “But if you stop by,” Schaap warns us, even dares us of the Reverend Todd’s basement, “don’t not go downstairs. At one point in time that basement was an armory full of guns for this war he thought about to begin in ‘Bleeding Kansas.’” Part travel book, Small Wonders often invites us to go ourselves, to get off the beaten path, to see what’s right beneath our feet. “What’s there today? Nothing. No cement floor, just dirt, a humming dehumidifier, random stones, bricks” (95).
Why stop to look at a primitive prairie basement? More on that in a minute.
Small Wonders proves there is no “local history”—or rather, there is no history that isn’t local. In “Refuge for Refugees,” Schaap tells of Mormon refugees who were stranded along the Missouri and nursed through the winter by a local tribe, the Poncas, themselves destined to be refugees. “This story of community,” Schaap writes, “is worth telling again and again, maybe most crucially the morning after some angry men or women determine the only way to make a name or support a cause is to kill innocent people in an act of terrorism… At those moments especially, more of us should take a drive past the monument marking the thanksgiving of Mormons for what the Ponca did for them so many years ago” (91). Local history, too, can comment on our present moment.
There’s a second, perhaps deeper truth to Small Wonders. If we Euro-Americans have really moved on from being “boomers” to “stickers,” in Wallace Stegner’s terms, then we had better know the land’s history. And that means knowing Native history, in all its nuance.
There’s no more tangled story than the one Schaap tells in “The Grave of Little Crow.” Little Crow, the Dakota Chief during the Dakota war of 1862, in which 500 settlers were killed, was eventually shot by Minnesota farmers, and his body paraded around and desecrated. In a state—my state—which today claims to be “Minnesota Nice,” that’s hard to read.
But Schaap comes to Little Crow’s story in search of what peace might mean. “River Bend Church is not so far from here, but you’ve got to hunt to find it,” Schaap writes of his visit to Little Crow’s final resting place, near Flandreau, South Dakota. “But a story like Little Crow’s…is never all that far away, no matter where you are. I find that humbling, whether or not I’m walking in a cemetery” (149).
The story of the church is there throughout Small Wonders, too, strewn in amidst trappers and natives. Sometimes that church is caught up in its own trappings (“Bishop Marty’s Cassock”), sometimes it’s clearly armed with manifest destiny (“Prayers on Prospect Hill”), and sometimes it’s humbly serving in a way that inspires young braves to risk their lives and reputations to save white prisoners (“The Fool Soldiers”).
One of the unforgettable stories of Small Wonders is that of Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas, who was forced with his tribe onto his own trail of tears, whose child died on the trip, but who returned home to fight for his rights, peaceably and eloquently, in the courts. It’s the great, ironic American story, of how Native Americans had to fight for their own humanity in their own country. Schaap quotes the New York Tribune from the time, “Out in Omaha at least, the idea has come to the surface at last, that an Indian is a man with human rights” (169).
In local history, it turns out, there’s no culture war, there’s just history, in all of its horror and heroism.
Whether he’s looking into empty basements or waving prairie grass, in Small Wonders Schaap is really practicing something spiritual, at the intersection of where imagination and spirituality meet: “Just watch. Stand there at the rock marking the spot,” he says of a place along the Missouri where you have to sense the history rather than see it. “Just stand there and listen to them in the silence. That you don’t see anything doesn’t mean there’s nothing there” (13).
In the battle for history, we need just such a vision, to diffuse the battle.