I think it is safe to say that Blake Hausman’s Riding the Trail of Tears is not just any ordinary novel you might pick up of the shelves. There are many aspects of this book that confound me, likely intentionally so, that I can barely describe the plot before trying to make sense of its many diversions, quirks and fascinations. So without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on some elements I found particularly intriguing/aggravating:
1. What’s up with the narrator?
The first two chapters establish a narrator that apparently lives inside Tallulah’s head and later crawls into her hair. He (I assume, but I could be wrong) claims to know all about the inner workings of the TREPP, the Misfits, the Little People, the Little Little People and urges us with great warning to turn the page at our own risk, breaking the fourth wall.
And then he (apparently) disappears. While its true that we learn a lot, perhaps too much, about what Tallulah is thinking, almost in a Lieutenant Gustl-esque morality and righteousness only exists outside us way, he does not interject with comments about his own reaction to the events. He seems to fade into the background as a more typical omniscient third-person impartial/invisible narrator takes shape. Perhaps he could have made a witty remark when tour group 5709’s simulation goes off the deep end, or slyly comment on where Irma really is. Off the top of my head, I can offer a couple explanations. One is that Hausman simply decided that this dual-layered narrative/meta-narrative made an already fairly lengthy book too burdensome and only left the first two chapters intact. Or maybe he just forgot to continue it. Second is that the narrator somehow disappears from the narration after the first two chapters, he is only there to serve as an inserted frame, maybe just to explain some of the weird things that happen in the story.
And what about when Tallulah cuts her hair off? Does she know the narrator is there? How much does she know about what is truly happening? The story still continues after she does so, so does the narrator still hang on, or has he long disappeared from the narration?
2. What is the purpose and meaning of using both present and past tense narration?
One thing I noticed is that the chapters where Irma is the POV character are written using past tense and that the chapters where Tallulah is the person of interest use present tense. Considering the importance of time, both linear or circular, within the book, one could assume that this means something.
Chapter 19 ends in past tense. In chapter 20, the prose switches between past and present; it is mostly in past tense, but slips into present briefly on pg 327 and the end of pg 332-333.
It could be two separate narrators, one narrating using the past tense and the other using the present tense. It could also indicate that the scenes using past tense happen in the past and that scenes using present tense happen in the present.
Or the use of present tense could indicate the forward or intended flow of time, simple, at the moment experiences, while past tense, being able to convey feelings and events from the entirety of human history, could evoke a more expansive look at time, considering the eclectic mixture of past and present that embodies the Misfits. Tallulah’s dream is fixed in the past, and when she is jolted back into reality, the prose also jolts back into present tense.
3. The role of the Old Medicine Man and the Chef
In the beginning of the novel, the Old Medicine Man gets a lot of attention as this end-game consolation prize, a wise elder which supplies platitudes of inner strength and finding your calling. Despite talking about him, we never see him. The tourists are seemingly rejuvenated from their traumatic experience inside the Trail by seeing Old Medicine Man, and they act normally as they leave the attraction, even though they have experienced murder, rape and all other crimes that actual American Indians faced during the Removal. There must be something there that releases , that prevents the tourists from being “holed-up” as a couple of the characters end up doing, perhaps as a result of the realistic trauma within the trail. In this way, he can be seen as this connective tissue, absorbing the impact of the muscles on either side, a mediator between reality and virtual reality. The tourists know they are no longer in the game, but are still in virtual space, a kind of liminal, in-between world.
What we do see a lot of however is the Chef. He’s not advertised at all, but he becomes an integral presence. When Irma first disappears, she ends up in the Misfit Stockade and encounters him. In some ways, the Chef could also play an in-between role, breaking the intended structure of the game, slowing it down, creating something that is neither history nor present events, breaking the immersion in a way so that it accesses a new “glitch-space”. He addresses the tourists directly and knows about them, and he operates in a space initially separate (off-the-road, more precisely) from the Trail, just like the space I presume Old Medicine Man is situated within. Maybe he is the demented alter-ego of the Medicine Man, an apparently scrapped or discarded character that once served a similar role.
4. What’s the deal with all the passages about food?
I noticed that Hausman spends an abnormally large amount of time talking about food and its preparation. I think almost half of the scenes involving the Chef involve him preparing food for the other Misfits. It almost serves as the way in which he leads the Misfits. When the Misfits leave the stockade, nearly singular emphasis is focused on providing enough ‘travel rations’ for all of them, and the Chef demonstrates superhuman ability to prepare food for 1000 people within a short amount of time.
One thing to note is that Nell Johnson, one of the tourists, is holed up after being shot while running towards some peach trees. The other characters die without any relation to food, and they all make it out okay. Strange.
Also interesting is that the chicken marsala that the Misfits are serving in chapter 19 basically sparks a chain of memories from Tallulah. It is common to have an object or a concept that triggers certain memories from one’s past, both in narratives and in real life, but here it comes specifically in the form of food.
Something particularly noteworthy is that as a virtual reality platform, the sense of taste, which food revolves around, would be hardest to recreate. Surely the “Realskyn” and the visor, as described in the book would be able to recreate the sense of touch, sight and hearing and perhaps also smell, but the sense of taste . Maybe it is the character’s quite visceral response to food, and the fact that the characters eat the Chef’s food and enjoy it that truly blurs the lines between reality and virtual space.
Even outside of the simulation, the narrator clearly mentions the ‘single kitchen’ reality that connects all the various restaurants in the TREPP, and at the end, Tallulah cuts off her hair in a walk in freezer, using a scissor borrowed from one of the people working in the kitchen. I can’t quite piece together the connection, but I think Hausman definitely intended there to be one.