Gloryland: A Novel
by Shelton Johnson (Liberia 1982-83)
Reviewed by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002-04)
I REMEMBER SHELTON JOHNSON from the Ken Burns film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS a couple years ago. Johnson, a park ranger at Yosemite, was featured prominently in the acclaimed documentary series, speaking eloquently and passionately about our great parks. What I didn’t know was that he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and wrote a book, Gloryland. Indeed, it was a pleasure to dive into this man’s debut novel.
In the fictional but historically based memoir Gloryland, Johnson takes us on the life journey of Elijah Yancy, a sharecropper’s son from Spartanburg, South Carolina, born on Emancipation Day in 1863. Elijah is a feisty kid whose African and Seminole blood — and poor but close-knit family — give him a fierce pride despite the difficult post-Civil War environment around him. Johnson, who is African-American, doesn’t hold back with vividly told but grim scenes of Elijah’s father being beaten by the sheriff and a family friend lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, all punctuated with authentic dialect, liberal use of the N-word and ever-condescending “boy.”
Elijah’s parents and his beloved Grandma Sara decide that Elijah, now a teenager, needs to leave Spartanburg for his own safety. In a powerful farewell scene, Elijah is exiled in love and is sent on his way. He starts walking, without a cent in his pocket, hiding most of the time until he leaves the South, and after two years ends up in the windswept plains of Nebraska, near Fort Robinson to be exact. He literally bumps into an Army officer who convinces the wandering, broke young man to join the Ninth Calvary.
Private Elijah Yancy is now a Buffalo Soldier, the regiment so nicknamed by the Cheyenne, Dakota and other Indian tribes because their hair resembled that between the horns of a buffalo. This all-African-American cavalry unit fought against the Indians across the Great Plains and later quelled a rebellion in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. The cruelty of war, the killing and tormenting people of color, pains Elijah deeply but he perseveres, powered onward by memories of his loving family and a strong faith.
By 1903, Elijah, now a sergeant, is sent with the Ninth Calvary to protect the newly created Yosemite National Park. It is there, deep in the Sierra Nevada, where Elijah begins to find his place and solace. It is also the place where Johnson’s lyrical prose shines even brighter. His more than 20 years as a park ranger shows as he writes about nature, specifically inside Yosemite’s boundaries. I could single out many passages, but this one is particularly memorable, in which Elijah describes giant sequoia trees:
What I’m saying is, from the Big Trees’ point of view, we’re just shadows moving round and not adding up to much of anything. To those giants, the Ninth Calvary being here is like that cloud of butterflies I saw one spring down in the canyon of the Merced. They were so beautiful, fluttering round like the sun broken up into tiny pieces, pieces that were alive and aware they weren’t going to be here for a long time and they might as well spend it all dancing in the air. There were so many, like small lanterns giving light to all the places the wind took them, and the river rolled on by never noticing those butterflies.
Johnson writes brilliantly throughout the book, from crafty dialogue to occasional humor, with deft handling of sensitive, shameful history that stirs the memory. Relying in part on a flowing water metaphor, he takes the reader along creeks to rivers and streams, a meandering and spiritual journey that is Elijah’s life.
As Elijah finishes his duty in Yosemite and the first-person tale comes to an end, I found myself reflecting, as Shelton Johnson must do every day, about these early park rangers, the mostly overlooked Buffalo Soldiers, known to many only from a Bob Marley song. What a journey they had, what a mark on history they made — one that lives on through Johnson’s wonderful book and his ongoing educational activities at Yosemite.