Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press, including Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, Bonereapers, Her Boyfriend’s Bones, and Where the Bones Are Buried. Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives with her husband in Renton, Washington. For more information, visit her website at www.jeannematthews.com. Or, follow her on Twitter @JMMystery.
Sometimes one word can convey a mood or a sentiment that requires many words to articulate. It may hold special meaning in the language and culture that coined it, or the feelings that it connotes may have to be experienced to be understood. Vladimir Nabokov, who was fluent in both English and Russian, struggled to translate the Russian word toska. “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning.”
While in Berlin researching my new Dinah Pelerin mystery, Where the Bones Are Buried, I discovered a similarly complex German word – Waldeinsamkeit. The approximate meaning is the feeling of being alone in the woods, of being connected to Nature. During the Romantic period between 1800 and 1850, there was a great longing for a place of tranquility in which to contemplate the loneliness of existence. Poets wrote about the quest for spiritual wholeness in Nature and the aesthetic and healing pleasures of woodland beauty. But as Germany transformed from a rural country to an economic and industrial power, the cities grew and the forests shrank. Two devastating World Wars in the 20th Century reduced the realm of Nature still more.
Today, Germany is one of the most densely wooded countries in Europe, but its forests are not primeval. Most are planted and maintained for the production of timber. It’s hard to be alone in the forest and there’s no longer the danger – or the thrill – that one might fall into the clutches of witches or wolves. The enchanted forests found in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have disappeared. The hero or heroine can no longer enter into the dark unknown and encounter magic. In his novel Rat, the writer Günter Grass expressed that sense of loss:
“Because men are killing the forests the fairy tales are running away… [they] have trotted off to the cities and end badly.”
The idea of the forest occupies a profound place in the German psyche, which may explain their fascination with the American frontier and the untamed tribes who once roamed there. This fascination began with the adventure novels of Karl May, who created a fictional Apache chief named Winnetou, a “wise and noble savage.” Without ever seeing the landscape he wrote about, May pictured the scenery and characters so vividly that he lost track of reality. He came to believe that he was the living embodiment of Old Shatterhand, the white blood brother of Winnetou. May died in 1912, but his tales of Winnetou and the “Wild West” continue to have a grip on the German imagination. Over two hundred million copies of his books have been sold and they have inspired numerous festivals and theme parks. One such park, Pullman City in southern Germany, is special. A recreated frontier town straight out of a Clint Eastwood western, it encourages visitors to regard themselves as actual cowboys and Indians rather than as spectators. Like Karl May, they mingle reality with fantasy and join in the saloon gunfights and Indian rain dances.
The inspiration for Where the Bones Are Buried occurred when I learned about der Indianer clubs, in which aficionados dress as Indians, adopt Indian names, collect Indian artifacts, and gather for drumming ceremonies and powwows. Some go so far as to live in teepees in their back gardens, sew their own deerskin clothes, and eschew all technology. At first, I thought this Indian obsession bizarre, even laughable. But when these people speak of their affinity and nostalgia for the Comanches and Apaches of long ago, they are touchingly earnest. It’s an astonishing subculture that defies both time and geography. Since Dinah is a cultural anthropologist and also part Seminole, the phenomenon seemed a perfect motif for another of her foreign exploits.
I don’t know if the German desire to play Indian reflects something as psychologically abstruse as toska – a vague yearning for wilderness and for a romanticized past that never really existed. I don’t know if the concept of Waldeinsamkeit blends into the mythology of Winnetou. Maybe wearing feathered headdresses and buffalo horns is a way to hold onto a semblance of magic, a way to keep the fairy tales from trotting off to the cities forever. Understanding the mystery requires a journey across cultures, which is the kind of journey Dinah loves best.