Okla Hannali by R.A. Lafferty


There are not a few books, fiction and non-fiction alike, written about the Trail of Tears, from the European perspective and that of the Indians; while this may not be a groundbreaking work from either perspective, it’s a fun read, if I may use that term for a book about such a serious subject. Hopefully, I can describe it in a way that makes it sound worth reading, though that depends in no small degree on whether you like Lafferty’s writing style…he does have rather a distinctive one.

Hannali Innominee, a Choctaw, had the ill fortune (from certain perspectives) to be born shortly before things went west for the Indians, both figuratively and literally–it may be something of a surprise to anyone who wasn’t aware of Indian history in the U.S. to realize just how far east many of the tribes’ original territories were. Even when young, he was an important (fictional) figure in the Choctaw tribe, through his own talents and through his acquaintances. He might, however, have been not so acceptable to the more straitlaced among the whites or the Indians, as he ended up with three ‘wives’, each thinking she was the only one and the others mere servants.

The bulk of the book is Hannali dealing with his family and the world changing around him, trying to settle his Choctaws in their new and decidedly forbidding land, and the like. Over the years he becomes an unofficial leader among the people.

Like many, it tries to answer “How could the Indians let this happen to them?”:

Were the Indians somehow effete to let this happen to them? Were they less men than the white men? No. Man for man they were more man than the whites. But they were unarmed except for bow and lance, and the white man had rifles and courts and sheriffs and armies. Though the United States in the person of its President Andrew Jackson had announced itself powerless to oppose the states in their assaults on the Indians, yet its army was quickly available to put down any countermoves by the Indians against the states.

Part tall tale, part historical novel, Okla Hannali‘s an interesting twist on the Western genre, though I’m sure Lafferty’s not the first to write a Western from the Native American perspective. For those who’ve read Lafferty’s other works, this is something of a departure from the fantasy for which he’s best known, though the writing style will be familiar. Consider it a tall tale based on fact, if you will. Certainly he’s touched on Native American culture before, though all standard disclaimers apply: he is not himself a genetic member of the groups in question, being more or less of European descent himself.

“How was it go to be a child then?” Hannali’s son Travis asked him years later.
     “Everything was larger then,” Hannali would tell his son,”the forest buffalo were bigger than the plains buffalo we have now, the bears were bigger than any you can find in the Territory today you call that a bearskin on that wall it is only a dogskin I tell you yet its from the biggest bear ever killed in the Territory the wolves were bigger the foxes the squirrels were as big as our coyotes now the gophers were as badgers the doves and pigeons then were bigger than the turkeys now.”
     “Maybeso you exaggerate,” his son Travis would say.
     “Of course I do with a big red heart I exaggerate the new age has forgotten how I remember that the corn stood taller and the ears fuller nine of them would make a bushel and now it takes one hundred and twenty that doesn’t consider that the bushels were bigger then the men were taller and of grander voice the women of a beauty to be found nowhere today except in my own family the girls sang so pretty with voices they walked so fine when they carried corn they could soft-talk you like little foxes those girls.”

(and yes, the lack of punctuation is deliberate; Lafferty goes into some detail about how the Choctaw speak without apparent punctuation, and write with a punctuation that follows no known pattern of the Europeans.)

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2 thoughts on “Okla Hannali by R.A. Lafferty

  1. Thank you for posting a review of Okla Hannali. I think it is one of the greatest and most important works in American literature, and it is a flat-out joy to read. Anyone who can finish this book both with dry eyes and not chuckling might not be fully human.

    • It was a delight to read! and so glad to find someone else who knows of it and loves it as I do. I was aware of R.A. Lafferty’s fantasy and science fiction–Narrow Valley” is a delight–but I hadn’t realized he’d branched out into other genres…and yet this is unmistakably his work. You’re spot on that it’s a ‘laugh as you cry, cry as you laugh’ book; indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if much of Native American history could be handled thus.

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