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Book Review 237: Wide Ruins

May 29, 2012 - Harry Eagar
WIDE RUINS: Memories from a Navajo Trading Post, by Sallie Wagner. 150 pages, illustrated. New Mexico.

“Wide Ruins” is among the most interesting memoirs of American rural life, gaining piquancy by its exotic locale: the Navajo Reservation in 1938-50, a time when most Navajos had little contact with the outside world.

Sallie and Bill Lippincott were newlywed anthropologists when they took over the derelict general store – called a trading post in Indian Country. Their academic training in getting to know outside cultures may have helped them adapt. Wagner – as Sallie Lippincott was when she wrote this book nearly 50 years later – does not say.

In any event, according to her version they got on well. When they moved to Oregon, one of their Navajo friends sent them $5 – a lot of money for a Navajo, even in 1950 – toward their expenses for moving back. Nevertheless, there remained many things that the Lippincotts were not told.

For example, one day a mysterious child showed up. He was described as “a mifflin,” but what that was or who he was was never revealed.

Wagner reveals just a little of her personal life, enough to sketch a personality, but she and Bill are in the background in these stories. And there are plenty of them. Wagner does not waste words. In about 140 pages, there must be about 140 anecdotes, about wild rides through storms and into quicksand, humorous encounters with tourists who didn't understand Indians and Indians who didn't understand tourists, family feuds, touching gestures, violent episodes, including a triple murder.

Life may have been restricted at Wide Ruins but it seems never to have been quiet for long.

A theme running through the tale is Wagner's effort to get the Wide Ruins women to improve their weaving – both the technique, the quality and the designs. Wagner patiently induced them to switch from purchased to local vegetable dyes and to switch from gaudy to quieter designs.

She was unsuccessful, though, in getting the mothers to adopt Gerber baby food, which Wagner thought would be better for the babies than the fry-bread, coffee and sugar they were weaned to.


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