How to Tell a Heartbreaker

by Bonnie Swift on 9/26/2013

  

This country’s history is filled with stories that are difficult to read. I’ve been trying to finish Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a year and a half now, and can only get through one chapter before I have to set it down. It takes me a month or so before I have the energy to pick it up again. These kinds of stories take tremendous effort to absorb, and yet these are important stories and we should know them.

But how do we convince our listeners to listen to stories that yield an immediate jolt of sorrow and shame?

One way is to couch them in more hopeful narratives, as evidenced by pieces like this, which tells the extremely difficult story of Chief Joseph within a more buoyant, contemporary framework.

What NPR’s Alex Chadwick accomplishes in this one is amazing. His first strategy is to set the story in the present, so that it is not simply a retrospective piece, like many documentaries. The action here is ongoing, so as listeners we have an investment in how it will unfold.

It begins when a local archaeologist proposes that the government officers of the Clearwater National Forest and representatives from the Nez Perce tribe take a trailride along the historic Nez Perce Trail together, so that the tribe can explain some of what is in forest to the federal employees. This comes after many years of poor relations between the two groups, and the Forest Service is hoping that stories from the Nez Perce might provide a missing link in the broken chain of communication between them.

Chadwick tags along, and we are privy to the small steps these two groups take towards reconciliation during their four days together. We listen to their ceremonies, their discussions along the trail, reports on the weather (rain), and descriptions of the passing landscape. We hear them enjoying each other’s company around the fire, their singing, and of the periodic awkward silences between them. Through the first half of this story, we become increasingly convinced that some kind of peace will be brokered here.

It’s at this point [11:00], that our narrator Chadwick brings in the agonizing story of Chief Joseph, his flight through the mountains, and his eventual capture. And this is Chadwick’s second brilliant strategy: he withholds the central trauma of the story, and approaches the difficult material only after he’s established a positive tone for the piece. As listeners, we get our lesson in the gruesome side of American history without feeling trampled by it, because we are already feeling optimistic about the present-day part of the narrative. We can absorb the tragedy of the Nez Perce War, because we have already been given a sense that something is being done to understand and remedy its fallout.

On the fourth and final day of their journey, there is an exchange of gifts, and the tribe is eager to broach the difficult subject of maintaining the historic trail in collaboration with the Forest Service. There is an openness which neither side has experienced before. As they reach the end of their ride, there is an acknowledgment of the lingering bitterness and anger felt by the tribe, but a mild sense of transformation is also palpable.

When you are given a heartbreaker to tell, you can try these two tricks: set the retrospective action within a current, ongoing narrative, so that your listeners have a stake in the story’s outcome. Then postpone the most painful part of your story, and embed it within a chorus of brighter notes. Getting acquainted with history is crucial to the ongoing reconciliation process, and stories like this will make the learning process more accessible to a wider audience.

This story reminds us that history is not over, or as one character in the story, Ben Horace, says, ‘Even today, we’re still on a journey. We need to have courage.’

Nez Perce Trail: Rediscovery,” 2001
Hearing Voices: Native America: Our Nation’s First Nations, starts at [2:30]
Host: Alex Chadwick; producer: Carolyn Jensen Chadwick; editor: Christopher Joyce; engineer: Suraya Mohamed.
[19 min]

 

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