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Know the West

Finding freedom in Yosemite


Shelton Johnson
278 pages, hardcover: $25.
Sierra Club Books, 2009.

Like its protagonist, Gloryland is a medley. In a novel that is part memoir, part historical fiction, and part poetry, Shelton Johnson tells the story of Elijah Yancy, a young man with African, Seminole and Cherokee bloodlines.

Born in South Carolina on Emancipation Day, 1863, Yancy is the embodiment of an era; though he may be "free" on paper, true freedom is too elusive -- and too dangerous -- for him to even dream about. Yet as Yancy grows up, he questions the tacit rules that keep whites powerful and blacks afraid. Eventually, fearing that he will be lynched for his outspoken views, his parents issue a sorrowful command: Leave, and never come back.

Thus Yancy finds himself on the lam, wandering north and eventually joining the U.S. Army, trading one brand of servitude for another. It is at this point that the book really takes off, and Johnson unfolds an insightful, poignant and creative look at the life of one sergeant in the 9th Cavalry, the fabled Buffalo Soldiers.

Don't expect a military novel replete with battles and bravado, however. Rather, the journal-like narrative follows Yancy's lifelong struggle with the concepts of freedom, manhood and spirituality, set against the ironic backdrop of 19th century U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Fighting in the Indian Wars, he feels deeply traitorous to his own heritage. Following orders in the Philippines, he laments that he "didn't know what freedom tasted or looked or smelled like, but could take it out of the hands of a child."

Eventually, Yancy finds a place of relative peace amid the turmoil. Patrolling the newly designated Yosemite National Park, he discovers that "there ain't no hate in this forest, and there ain't no love either. But there's something else." Astride a faithful mule named Satan, Yancy wanders the Sierras, learning that the "sweet hereafter (is) already everywhere."

Written in rhythmic vernacular, Johnson's first novel is both straightforward and remarkably powerful. Drawing on family history as well as his own experiences as a ranger in Yosemite, Johnson creates an artful and nuanced story about race, spirituality and finding freedom in the wild.