Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cold Dish: Henry Standing Bear as Walt Longmire’s Shaman

In the role of best friend, confidante, mentor, and spirit guide is Henry Standing Bear. He is able to tell off Walt Longmire, the protagonist of Craig Johnson’s successful novel series about Sheriff Longmire in Absaroka County, Wyoming. Henry gets away with telling off his friend simply because he is loyal and wise, often wiser than Longmire himself. As a character with traits universally recognized as worthy, readers identify with and admire Henry, a direct descendant of other admired archetypal characters. Foremost among those archetypes is the shaman and seer.

Two shamanic literary figures illustrate a shaman’s role. The first is Queequeg, Ishmael’s mentor and spirit guide in Moby Dick. Queequeg’s world view is characteristic of shamanic figures in that his is pantheistic--although in the novel, he’s defined as a pagan. He guides Ishmael to enlightenment and greater tolerance for all mankind, Christian and non-Christian, by sharing with Ishmael his worldliness and proving his character as a savior. Queequeg also risks his own life to save two sailors and the coffin he carves for his own burial becomes the instrument of Ishmael’s survival after Ahab’s obsession brings down the ship.

The second is Ultima, Antonio’s spirit guide and grandmotherly friend. Her wisdom comes from Nature. She reads the birds and uses plants to heal and see. She prepares Antonio to continue her work upon her death, but his decision is difficult. He’s torn between his Catholic upbringing and education, the pagan myth of the Golden Carp, and Ultima’s gentle guidance. Unlike other characters in Antonio's life, Ultima never requires Antonio to choose one over the other in order to remain her friend and companion. Like Queequeg, Ultima demonstrates the purity of her intentions, fostering enlightenment and understanding in Antonio.

Henry Standing Bear functions as Walt Longmire’s shaman with one significant difference. Longmire may have been taught the tenets of Christianity, and he may believe them, but they do not hold him. He’s receptive to the wisdom that Henry’s pantheism grants him.

An iconic symbol of the Western frontier
Photo Courtesy of Al Griffin
Indeed, Henry’s faith in the old ones as spirit guides help him survive being gut-shot and left on the trail during heavy snows, but Henry chants the old music as much for Walt as for himself. The chant carries Henry to a meditative place where he can preserve his energy and direct it to survival. The chant also leads Walt Longmire back to him through snows that have masked the path.

So receptive is Walt that he sees the old ones. They appear when he’s in danger of taking the wrong path, of walking to his own death while failing to rescue Henry.

Henry saves Walt in more mundane ways as well. He accompanies Walt when he must navigate treacherous terrain, he demonstrates calm in storms of all kinds, and he takes charge to lift Walt from the wallow of his own despair.

When sorrow and loss blind Walt to the chaos of his own life, Henry appears to cook nourishing food, advise his misguided friend, and arrange home improvements. He nudges Walt back into fulfilling the promise of the man. He does this with empathy and, we’re told, an understanding of dangers ahead, the ones for which Walt must be ready.

The result of Henry’s influence is a wiser, more capable Walt Longmire.

Reading Challenge:

Read the first of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, Cold Dish, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem or essay celebrating the wisdom gleaned from Nature.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. She also writes for

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cold Dish’s Walt Longmire is the Quintessential Self-Made Man, An American Icon Rooted in the West

We Americans love our own mythology. We hear its iteration during every political candidate’s glossed résumé when he or she tries to persuade voters of his humble roots, his hard-working parents, and his connection to ordinary folk.

At least once a year, in November, we recall the unwashed masses who boarded ships searching for safe harbor--a place without the unbroken ceiling of birthplace and class, without prohibitions against worship. Those Pilgrims, Puritans, and daredevils were willing to tame a wilderness in exchange for a chance to rise, to own property, to make a future that European monarchies and cultures often denied them.

Some of those early settlers may have landed with soft hands, but they didn’t make it through winter’s hardships without raising calluses. Women hoed hard dirt to put in a garden while men pushed unwieldy plows. They hewed tall trees and hunted game through shadowy forests. Most endured. They stayed for more labor.  They were building a future, staking a claim, and venturing into unknowns in search of opportunity, of possibility.

Today it’s harder to find a self-made man. After all, he has the benefit of an education that gives him the skills and tools he needs to calculate for construction. He doesn’t need to hew trees to build a home or even understand which trees are best for culling and construction. He just needs a good FICO score so he can borrow money to give to a contractor who will order lumber, stone, brick, and mortar. Someone else will build while the man reads, plays, and works something less than dawn to dusk.

Contemporary men are free to create and contemplate, but the idea of a self-made man--a rugged, manly man--is still heroic to Americans, especially if he's accumulated great wealth. That man is also popular in fiction and film.

Although Walt is behind the wheel of a
full-sized Bronco more than on horseback,
as a manly man, he can ride, too.
Photo provided by Al Griffin.
Walt Longmire, the Sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming, is a self-made man. He is rugged enough to survive and triumph in rugged country. He relies upon himself and a small circle of trustworthy and trusted friends and co-workers, none of whom is entirely above suspicion if evidence suggests Longmire should consider them. He must, above all, live by and for his own code. He must avoid the blinders of sentimentality in seeking justice and safety for the citizens of Absaroka County.

To become sheriff and be re-elected, Longmire possesses the character traits admired by his constituents. Those are honesty, integrity, and judiciousness.

Nevertheless, a self-made man, Walt Longmire in particular, has a temper that may affect his good judgment. He is also often taciturn and too proud to apologize. He could even be called stubborn to a fault, but his actions aim for excellence and that redeems him of his own clay feet.

Longmire has traces of European gentility comingling with his rugged, Western individualism. He is an educated man. Some of that is formal; much of it is experiential in keeping with the pastoral rustic who knows so much about life and nature by living so closely to nature and death.

As a close observer of human nature, a necessity in his line of work, Longmire can nudge and nurture the best while arresting the worst. His keen observations may be slower than he would like, however. Like missing pieces of a puzzle, clues  do not coalesce into a whole before more harm’s done. A man like Longmire will hold himself responsible for that harm. He seeks an ideal wherein his intuition is sharp and his insight astounding. When he fails to measure up to his own high standards, he plummets into self-doubt and loathing.

Self-made men do not remain there long, as you might imagine. Self-worth, whether found in wealth, status, power, or all three, is the goal of self-made men. So Longmire rises to redeem himself--to take the measure of himself and strive anew.

Reading Challenge:

Glean insights into the popularity of Western literature, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series in particular, by reading Cold Dish by Craig Johnson. I think you’ll find that the self-made rugged individualist, Walt Longmire, is responsible for much of the appeal.

Writing Challenge:

Respond please: which self-made man in literature is your favorite character?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach. Read more from her at

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire

My husband admires Craig Johnson’s series featuring Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. He’s read many passages from the first five books to me and inspired me to read Cold Dish, the first in Johnson’s series. I too am a fan. Johnson builds characters of substance and complexity. They accept challenges, accept Fate’s blows, and endure. They are men and women who dared the vast Western unknown 100 years ago; they are also descendants of that vast, rugged West. For our purposes today and in subsequent posts, they are iconic characters that will allow us to review archetypal figures.

Sheriff Walt Longmire, the protagonist and central figure of each book in Johnson’s series, is the maverick. He may be just one of several staff members serving Absaroka County through the sheriff’s department, but he is the lead man. He is the elected sheriff, suggesting that Absaroka County’s citizens trust him. Longmire occasionally observes that some action he’s about to undertake may cost him the next election, but he’s never deterred. He trusts his own gut more. He believes in his own cause--justice--more.

Sheriff Longmire also acts alone even though he could be part of the team. When called to a crime scene, he delegates duties, reserving for himself the one requiring the least human contact. He lets others mingle and interact with forensics teams, photographers, and witnesses while he goes it alone in wild Wyoming. He lets others make calls and wait for information. He’s prefers to work and even heal alone.

A young maverick standing apart
Photo by Al Griffin
When Longmire’s heart breaks, he descends into his own circle of hell where beer becomes his solace. Naturally, as a maverick, he retreats to mourn and perhaps heal although that outcome is never certain. A maverick may rise again to fight another day, or he may remain, an outcast who’s consigned himself to the fringes of human existence. Longmire rises again because his friend, Henry Standing Bear urges him to do so.

Indeed, while mavericks face great odds, they rarely give up completely. Instead, the soldier on, willing to die if necessary in an attempt to accomplish what others cannot do alone. In Cold Dish, Longmire gives his coat to his best friend and confidante, Henry Standing Bear who has been so badly injured that he might not survive. Longmire will return for Henry, but first, he must take the wounded suspect down the mountain to turn him over for medical care. Longmire’s duty as sheriff dictates which man must be rescued first.

 Surviving the cold without proper gear requires superhuman strength, extraordinary luck, and a resolve that eludes most other men. Longmire possesses all three. He finds his friend in a blinding snowstorm. He suffers damage to his exposed ear, but retains all body parts. More important, he never wavers in his determination to find and save his friend. These are the gifts of character that Johnson grants us in the figure of Walt Longmire.

Reading Challenge:

Read Cold Dish, the first novel in Craig Johnson’s series about Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. You can also find three seasons of A & E’s Longmire. Season 4 returns later in 2015 on Netflix.

Writing Challenge:

Write a tribute to your favorite maverick in literature or film.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Serendipitous Stuff of Story

Happy accidents. Serendipity. Random encounters that alter the course of a life--such is the stuff of story.

Those who cannot suspend disbelief or whose horizons are near, not far, may not approve of this literary feature. They find fault and announce, “Ah, that can’t happen.” But magic happens every day, and miracles are common enough for us to hope for them in our own lives. Allow me to illustrate.

The work of Khaled Hosseini has been judged for surprising intersections in fate. Could a real-world Amir, for example, actually stumble upon a beggar who knew Amir’s long-sought mother? Some critics say, “No.” The author says “Yes,” that improbable moments occur everywhere, every day.

And they do. Beggars, palm-readers, and strangers tell us what we need to hear because of our need for the information. Whether the beggar Amir met actually knew Amir’s mother is not as relevant as what he represents: the terrible toll that the Taliban and war exacts from those who must exist in such times.

What lies around the bend may be the
person, the moment that alters our lives
forever--that's the stuff of story and the
reason hope inspires us onward.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin
Anthony Doerr’s poetic novel, All the Light We Cannot See, tells tales of terrible tolls, too. Like The Kite Runner, Doerr’s novel includes surprising intersections and miraculous outcomes.

Marie Laure is Doerr’s most vulnerable character. She is blind and uses a cane to move through this world. Its rhythmic tapping draws attention to her and makes her diseased, opaque eyes below snow-white hair more arresting.

Dangerous, greedy German soldiers take note of her. Opportunistic, occupied Frenchmen notice her, too. Still she survives against great odds.

Marie survives an exodus from Paris to Saint Malo, a long walk into the unknown without food, sturdy shoes, warm clothes, or sufficient water. She survives bombs that blast most buildings into dust, her own shelter as strong as a fort. She works for the French Resistance and is found out, but survives. She’s suspected of harboring a secret about the Sea of Flames, but outwits her interrogator.

Indeed, at war’s end, she returns to the Paris apartment she and her father fled. There she resides with her great-uncle, raises a daughter, and reflects upon those lost and found through the war’s seemingly random intersections.

Marie Laure’s story is improbable but does not close with a logical fault. It closes with a nod to the happy accidents that give life meaning.

As humans and readers, we mourn lives lived without purpose, sins unredeemed at life’s end, and regret without enlightenment. Literature grants us each of these: purpose, redemption, and enlightenment. Let us resist judging it as a fault to do so.

Reading Challenge:

Read each of Hosseini’s books: The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed. Also read Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

Writing Challenge:

Identify the happy accidents that lead to a satisfying conclusion in any of the four books offered for the Reading Challenge.