There's Something in the Back Yard
By Richard Snodgrass
George Binns, a professor of English at a university in Flagstaff, Arizona, is called away from the typewriter one morning by his wife, Mary Olive: “There’s something in the back yard.” What George sees is a Hopi kachina, the Aholi, dressed in a long, colorful mask and a tall blue conical head. Challenged by his wife to “do something about it,” George runs outside and confronts the kachina—and is jolted forever from his comfortable routine. Over the course of four days, as the kachina remains a shadowy figure in the yard, George and the Aholi form a strange kind of relationship, one that precipitates several awakenings in George’s life. Most important is the awakening in George’s marriage, as he picks up the gauntlet dropped by Mary Olive and accepts her challenge to act.
Other characters are drawn by Snodgrass with equal sympathy: the Binnses’ neighbors, scholarly Don Pike and his wife, Sally, whose relationship is also affected by the appearance of the kachina and whose marriage comes to a head along with the Binnses’; the mysterious Hopi elder David Lomanongye, keeper of secrets; and, last but not least, the Aholi himself, whose partly comic, partly terrifying presence serves as a catalyst of these events. This tantalizing thread of the Unknown is woven throughout the tale told with otherwise old-fashioned realism; the result is a book of great lyrical depth and stylistic authority, with stabs of hilarious black humor.
“Observe this mysterious book and be changed.”
— Jack Stephens, The Washington Post Book World
“A striking debut.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“A haunting, seductive, original story.”
— Publishers Weekly
“This well-tempered, comically rueful novel is a skillful blend of Hopi legend and middle-class marital lore.”
— The Christian Science Monitor
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“A playful, reader-friendly novel that satisfies with just the right mix of realism and metaphysical speculation.”
“A measure of [Snodgrass’s] considerable skill [is] that he makes this stubborn, darkly comic novel convincing.”
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
TRAVELS WITH THE CORN DANCER
After THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE BACK YARD was reissued through Amazon.com’s CreateSpace, Richard Snodgrass and his friend, Jack Ritchie, take a road trip to the Southwest to promote the book to local bookstores— and along the way return a kachina doll to the Hopi Indian Reservation in Arizona.
ORIGINAL NOTE FOR THE NOVEL
This is my original note for a novel that eventually become There’s Something in the Back Yard. It was written, more or less stream of conscious in one sitting, during the summer of 1977 while I was on a residence fellowship at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.
The idea for the novel came after attending a number of ceremonial dances at nearby Indian pueblos that left a deep impression on me. I began to read everything I could find on Pueblo Indian culture, which led me to the Hopi whom the other pueblos considered the Keepers of the Universe. At the same time, I encountered a short story by Evan Connell entitled, “The Condor and the Guests.” It is the story of a suburban couple who have a condor chained to a perch in their back yard during a cocktail party. Truth be told, when I read the story I didn’t like it all that much, but it obviously left an impression as well.
Reader’s Guide to There’s Something in the Back Yard
There’s Something in the Back Yard tells the story of George Binns, an English professor at an unnamed university in Flagstaff, Arizona, who wakes up one morning to find a Hopi kachina, the Aholi, standing in his back yard. Is it real? Is it human? Is it a spirit? Unfamiliar with Native American traditions, and curious about this silent yet sentient being that seems more benevolent than threatening, George begins to research the matter and seeks answers among the local Hopi population. His wife, the sharp-witted Mary Olive, shares neither his curiosity nor his serious, earnest way of approaching the apparently otherworldly visitor. George’s scholarly neighbor Don doesn’t want anything to do with the kachina and insists that his own wife, Sally, a naive but passionate enthusiast of all things Native American, be kept in the dark about the kachina’s presence. Over the course of four days, as the Aholi remains a shadowy figure in the yard, emotional undercurrents in the couples’ relationships come into sharp focus, and George and Don both realize they have to make important choices. This beautifully written novel, woven throughout with the tantalizing thread of the unknown, offers both wisdom and humor while gently illuminating, as one character puts it, “the terror and glory of ever having lived.”
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Who—or what—is the kachina that appears in George’s back yard? Does the author answer this question at the end of the book?
- George, Mary Olive, Don, and Sally perceive the Hopi, and Native Americans in general, through four different lenses. How do their perceptions differ? Which viewpoint would you say is the most accurate?
- There’s Something in the Back Yard follows in the literary tradition of “The Bear,” The Mountain Lion, and other stories insofar as it involves humans confronting a creature symbolic of an aspect of the natural world. What does the kachina symbolize in There’s Something in the Back Yard?
- What does Don’s unpublished manuscript, Retold Tales of the Hopi, tell us about Hopi legends? How should one show respect for cultural and ethnic traditions other than our own?
- Despite his inability to take action in certain situations, what compels George to take action when he sees the kachina? Why did the author choose to put George at the center of the story—as opposed to Mary Olive, Don, or Sally?
- How does the author use humor in the story? Does the humor lighten dramatic moments or heighten them?
- Snodgrass is one of a number of authors who have written about Native American themes, including Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and N. Scott Momaday. How does Snodgrass’s approach to these themes differ from those of these other writers?
- Early in the book, Don recalls a passage from the writings of Carlos Castaneda: “When it’s time to die, Death comes and takes you to a place that has been special to you in your lifetime, a place that has been a place of power for you.” What does this passage mean to you, and where else do you see Castaneda’s influence in There’s Something in the Back Yard?
- Mary Olive and Don seem to share the same outlook on life, whereas Sally and George share a different outlook. Yet each is paired in marriage with his or her opposite. What holds the couples together?
- At the end of There’s Something in the Back Yard, George says, “A man’s work has value in itself, whatever the work is.” This provokes a heated discussion with Don. Do you agree with George’s statement and its implications for the artifacts we leave behind?
RETOLD TALES OF THE HOPI
Retold Tales of the Hopi is a book within the book of There’s Something in the Back Yard. In the story of Back Yard, Don Pike, a professor of English, gives the manuscript for the Retold Tales to his friend and colleague, George Binns in the following exchange:
“If you want to read something about Indians, maybe this’ll interest you. It’s something I wrote a couple of years ago. I guess it was ten years now.”
“Don, I’m flattered-”
“You don’t have to be. There’s a couple of things in there about your friend Aholi, so maybe it’ll give you some idea about how a Hopi thinks-no, I take that back, maybe it’ll give you some idea about how a White-Eye thinks a Hopi thinks.”
The distinction-between what a Hopi thinks and what a non-Hopi thinks-is crucial to the story of the book. Because misunderstanding is at the heart of everything that happens in Back Yard.
Retold Tales of the Hopi were written during the month and a half I spent camped out under a juniper bush on the Hopi Reservation in the summer of 1978. At the time I had already written a first draft of Back Yard while on a grant in Taos, New Mexico, and knew that I wanted to include the Retold Tales, both as background for the Hopi in general-to demonstrate in an amusing, readable way how different their view of the world is from the predominant American culture-and as a reflection the character of Don Pike who is credited in Back Yard with writing them.
During the 1960s and 1970s, A number of American fiction writers were working under general theory of “include-everything-you-can-think-of: the-bigger-the-book-the-better.” In particular, I was influenced by Ken Kesey of Sometimes a Great Notion, and John Gardner from such books as The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light. After a year of reading everything I could about Hopi myths- from my visits to various Southwest libraries, I probably had the largest Xeroxed library of Hopi tales in existence-I traveled to Hopi to watch the various Home Dances on the weekends. Between dances, I sat at a picnic table near the Visitor’s Center and worked on the Retold Tales.
The Tales may be considered irreverent, though I hope they’re not perceived as disrespectful. They were meant to be disarming and accessible. In writing them, I had the model of the Miracle Plays of the Christian Middle Ages, where the most serious matters of faith were treated off-handedly and sometimes with slapstick humor-a telling of the Crucifixion, for instance, from the point of view of the soldiers assigned to do the act whose hammer breaks and they run out of nails. Among the major misunderstandings portrayed in the book is the idea that there may be spiritual realities right under our noses that we’re failing to see. The Hopi in the book represent a people whose awareness of the spiritual is so strong they can even withstand the silliness and misperceptions of the characters in the book.
In Back Yard, only a few of the Retold Tales appear. Included here is the entire manuscript.
MORE TALES OF THE HOPI
H. R. Voth was a missionary and ethnologist didn’t do the American Indian culture any favors, particularly the Hopi. However, we do owe him for the survival—in some degree of truth or other; it’s entirely possible that his Indian informants gave him incorrect information—of a number of Hopi myths. As a missionary, Voth believed that the American Indians would not progress without rejecting native culture. While he saw dissolving the “heathenish culture” as his task, he studied the language, dances, and customs with zeal, publishing accounts in educational journals. In the 1890s he and his wife founded the first Mennonite mission for the Hopi at Oraibi, in Arizona. He earned a controversial reputation for forcing his way into Hopi sacred rituals and preaching loudly in the Hopi language. Again, while he focused on ending native customs, Voth carefully recorded Hopi rituals and daily life, collecting an impressive array of artifacts later loaned to the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago. In 1912 lightning struck the church he had finished in 1902, and more than a few Hopi thought that Voth’s work got what was coming to it.
Photographs OF THE HOPI
The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis is one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced. Issued in a limited edition from 1907-1930, the publication continues to exert a major influence on the image of Indians in popular culture. Curtis said he wanted to document “the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners.” In over 2000 photogravure plates and narrative, Curtis portrayed the traditional customs and lifeways of eighty Indian tribes. The twenty volumes, each with an accompanying portfolio, are organized by tribes and culture areas encompassing the Great Plains, Great Basin, Plateau Region, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.
Featured here are a few of Curtis’s images of the Hopi from the Library of Congress collection. All images: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis’s ‘The North American Indian’: the Photographic Images, 2001.
To visit website:
You will note that in this painting Aholi is portrayed with a multi-colored head, the same as his cape. Evidently, this is how Aholi is known in the Third Message village of Oraibi where Earle lived for a year. In other villages on the three mesas, including Second Mesa where the Aholi in There’s Something in the Back Yard is said to come from, he is said to have a blue head.
U.S. History Images
The following are a few from the U.S. History Images site, an amazing resource for anyone interested in American history. All photographs: Hatzigeorgiou, Karen J. U.S. History Images, 2009.
To visit website:
Songs of the Hopi
Sites of Interest
The North American Indian Photographs
All images: Northwestern University Library
Hopi Reservation Photographs
Karen J. Hatzigeorgiou, U.S. History Images, 2009