- So Far So Good by Ralph Salisbury
Contemporary American Indian autobiography has developed since early writers such as Black Hawk, William Apess, Charles Eastman, Luther Standing Bear, and Zitkala-Ša. Yet Ralph Salisbury’s memoir reveals that certain themes transcend the decades, particularly critiquing American society and the awkwardness of living in a world where Indians are expected to vanish. Of English, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee ancestry, Salisbury describes his life’s triumphs, failures, and disappointments.
In the first part of the book Salisbury recalls his Depression-era childhood on a farm in rural Iowa. Life was difficult. Living in poverty, his family rarely had enough to eat, often hunting wild game for food. Salisbury’s infant brother died from malnutrition. His father, when intoxicated, terrorized the family by shooting his pistol into the house floor. It was the same weapon that he paradoxically also used to protect the family.
The middle of the book covers World War II. Salisbury possessed a desire to become a Cherokee warrior hero and at the age of seventeen, blinded by patriotism and wartime propaganda, enlisted in the army. After he had spent twenty-nine months training to become a gunner on a b-29, the United States dropped the atomic bombs ending the war, as well as Salisbury’s chance at becoming a war hero like his older brother. However, he reveals that the army experience disillusioned him, because the army had trained him to firebomb civilians. Later, not wanting to bomb innocent North Koreans, Salisbury refused to serve during the Korean War. He now viewed the United States as an imperialist nation. Wars, starting with the genocide of his Indigenous ancestors, he decided, are only a means for the United States to continue its imperialism and world domination. This is why Salisbury does not believe that his generation is what American society today labels “the greatest generation.” Salisbury states, “America’s resistance to the War in Vietnam was, I feel, a triumph of America’s best values over values shared with tyrannical regimes of the past” (179).
Following the war Salisbury focused on his writing, eventually becoming an English professor at Texas A&M. The experience educated [End Page 124] him on the Jim Crow South. Known as a “damyankee nigger lover,” Salisbury challenged racist students to think logically about other races and their bigotry (195). He soon happily returned to Iowa, accepting a job at Drake University before subsequently being hired at the University of Oregon. Salisbury shows himself as an ardent supporter of free speech, while also disputing mainstream American society’s viewpoints, identifying tv as a perpetuator of propaganda.
The book is not rigidly linear, containing instances of reflections and comparisons to contemporary society and historical events. There are many references to the removal and killing of Salisbury’s Shawnee and Cherokee ancestors. Salisbury mentions a few stories more than once, making certain parts of the memoir repetitive. His prose, however, is exquisite, creating a highly readable autobiography. He also infuses poetry in select passages. Salisbury often refers to himself as a “Vanishing American,” poking fun at the concept, because over a century after American Indians were supposed to have disappeared, his words are evidence to the contrary.