CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 4. . . .September 28, 2012
Few young adult novels are tragedies, but The Lynching of Louie Sam is the exception. Elizabeth Stewart, a screenwriter, has taken as subject matter two terrible murders that really happened. No happy ending is possible, only an uneasy closure in which her central character, 15-year-old George Gillies, emerges sadder and wiser after confronting his prejudices and illusions. This compelling work acknowledges the sophistication of today's teenagers who are well aware of wrongdoing in the world.
At the outset, Stewart explains the real life situation on which the novel is based. A more detailed account of the true story may be found in " Stories of a Lynching," an historical article by Stephen Osborne in Geist magazine, Issue 60. In 1884, in Nooksack, Washington, a pioneer community five miles from the Canadian border, 64-year-old James Bell was found shot to death in his burning cabin. Locals blamed the crime on 14-year-old Louis Sam (called " Louie" in Stewart's novel), a youth from the Sho:lo Nation who had crossed the border from his British Columbia reserve to repair telegraph poles in Washington Territory for William Osterman. Fired by Osterman, Louis returned to B.C., where he was arrested and detained on the request of American authorities.
Four days after Bell's death, a mob of Nooksack settlers in disguise rode to Canada, abducted Louis Sam from a constable's house in Canada and, just north of the border, lynched him. Eyewitnesses reported Sam telling one of his captors, "I know you, Bill Moultray, and when I get out of this I will kill you." Eyewitnesses also reported that William Moultray, a Nooksack businessman and leader of the vigilantes, was the one who took Sam's life. George Gillies and his friend, Pete Harkness, 16, were the youngest members of the " Nooksack Vigilance Committee" .
Stewart's presenting the story through George's heart and mind, and in the present tense, makes the reader feel like George's companion through a sequence of horrific developments. Stewart also engages readers by getting right into the action. On the third page of the story, George and his three younger siblings are walking home from school when they see Mr. Bell's home on fire.
Early on in the novel, Stewart plants clues as to the identity of Bell's killers, clues which readers may pick up on before George does. On Page 9 is the first mention that Mr. Bell's wife, who was much younger than he, had left him to live with Pete Harkness's (widower) father. She and Harkness have a motive; Louie Sam had none.
Stewart shows the anti Indian attitude then prevailing in Nooksack Valley. George recalls old timers' tales about Indians attacking settlers, and he remembers news of Custer's last stand just eight years earlier. Local settlers feel that they can't let the native people get the upper hand. George's parents, as immigrants from England, do not share in the American preoccupation and obsession with race, but they are glad to own their own land and be part of the community. Consequently, Mr. Gillies and George end up with the mob that kidnaps Sam and kills him.
Stewart shows how an individual with an agenda can use hearsay and prejudice to finger an innocent person. William Osterman of the telegraph company, who is Mr. Harkness's brother in law, shows up almost immediately after the children discover the body, and he wonders aloud if " the Indian" might have committed the crime. Each time another neighbour comes to the scene of Mr. Bell's murder, the story expands, and soon it is " plain as day" to everyone, including George, that Sam is the murderer.
The author provides a "corrective" or alternative point of view through George's mother, who" can't abide" the "foolish talk" of pursuing Louie Sam into Canada, and "gets along just fine with the Indians" . The real explanation for the murder is provided by George's friend, Agnes, who tells someone at school that" Mrs. Bell [now living with Mr. Harkness] only married Mr. Bell for his money."
George's change of heart begins when he sees that Louie Sam is just a boy of fourteen, younger than himself. Stewart's five paragraphs describing the lynching are just grisly enough to show the magnitude of taking a life. George sees that native people are as capable of kindness and humanity as anyone else when a First Nations neighbour woman helps Mrs. Gillies through a difficult childbirth and later saves the baby's life. An overheard conversation at the Harkness house confirms George's suspicions that Sam was innocent.
For a while, George and the reader hope for justice. Territorial governor Newell, in a speech in Nooksack Valley, refers to the Canadian government's complaint to the U.S. government over the lynching of a Canadian Indian, and he says that the lynch mob will be brought to justice. His audience, however, wanted him to talk about statehood for Washington Territory. Moultray then takes the platform and makes an inflammatory speech, twisting the facts." ...It's like the right to statehood has somehow become the same thing as the right to hang Louie Sam," George sees, in dismay.
When George and his father try to get local support for turning in the ringleaders of the lynch mob, they not only fail, but they become targets of those who want to hide the truth. In fact, although it is not shown in the story, a key wrong doer not only went unpunished, but went on to a rewarding life. After Washington became a state, William Moultray had a lengthy career as a senator. In the end, George must live with the knowledge that the wrong cannot be made right.
The Sho:lo Nation believed Louis Sam's suspicions that Mr Osterman had killed Bell and, after the lynching, considered armed action against the Nooksack settlers to bring about rough justice. The Sto:lo have kept Louis Sam's story alive to this day, notes Stewart. At the time, however, the Sto:lo were suffering from disease and poverty and left it to the Canadian government to initiate extradition proceedings against the lynch mob leaders. Canada did not do so," for fear of jeopardizing relations with the United States," writes Stewart. In 2006, the Washington state legislature acknowledged "failure to take adequate action to identify the true culprit of the murder and bring the organizers and members of the lynch mob to justice."
Stewart invented George's personality, taking "creative licence" with his "redemptive arc" and " slow dawning of awareness." The racism expressed by her characters, "while offensive, is meant to reflect the attitudes of the period" . The real George Gillies, interviewed in his old age, referred to Sam as a "renegade Indian" in an interview published in Nooksack Tales and Trails, by J.A. Prescott (Washington, Ferndale, 1949) and cited in the Osborne article.
From this powerful novel, readers may learn that they should be discerning, base their conclusions on evidence, not preconceived notions, and avoid a rush to judgment. Americans don't come out of this story looking good, but neither do Canadians, and so we have no cause for smugness. Congratulations to Elizabeth Stewart for recognizing the story's importance, and for presenting it so well. Adults seeking a nonfiction account of the tragedy should read Stephen Osborne's "Stories of a Lynching" in Geist, Issue 60. http://www.geist.com/articles/stories lynching.
Ruth Latta is the author of seven novels, including one for young adults The Secret of White Birch Road. (email@example.com) For more information about them, visit her website at www.cyberus.ca/~rklatta/RuthLatta.html
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.