Children's author realizes a boyhood dream. Paul Goble deftly crafts monuments, in words and drawings, to the life of the American Indian
Chicago — The boy is in his early teens. He sits with a book amid a garden grown wild. Around him the English countryside fans into a quilt of greens, and his home is tucked beneath a thatched roof. Indoors, his father, a harpsichord maker, listens while his mother plays the piano.
But for the moment, the boy isn't part of this setting. His book of George Catlin art prints transports him to the tepees of the Crow. To the buffalo hunts of the Sioux. To the games of the Choctaw.
This British lad is happily lost in the world of the American Indian.
That was back in the early 1950s.
Today Paul Goble has left England far behind. He now lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Indian reservations are an easy drive away. He has published 10 children's books with Indian themes, and three more are on the docket.
His books have been translated into eight languages. Mr. Goble has reaped 10 awards, including the coveted Caldecott Medal, bestowed in 1979 for that year's most distinguished children's picture book.
How's that for turning a dream into reality?
The artist-author shares the Black Hills home with his second wife, Janet, and their six-year-old son, Robert. As he sits with his cup of afternoon tea, Goble admits that back in those teen-age days, he was an ``incurable romantic.'' Then he confesses quietly, ``Still am.''
``I pick out, in a sense, what I want to pick out. Oh, I see the Coca-Cola cans littering [on the reservations] and the drinking that goes on,'' he says, ``but I also see other things that reflect something finer.''
It's this finer side that shows up in his books, which generally spring from native American myths or historical happenings. And you can bet the Indians are always the good guys.
Goble works with ink and watercolor in a flat, two-dimensional style that's a throwback to early Indian hide and ledger drawings. Ledger artwork evolved when native Americans were first introduced to pencils and the paper of traders' ledger books.
In these drawings, there's no shading and no perspective. But Goble, a former industrial designer, instinctively creates depth with his overall page designs. And he uses artwork, as well as story line, to make the pace of his books pulsate. Illustrations black with thunderclouds break into a romp of butterflies and flowers on the following page. He creates his books for the five- to 10-year-old set.
For Goble, life rarely runs on pragmatic wheels to predictable tunes.
Take the time in '59 on his first visit to the United States. Stumped on how to get from Nebraska to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he hailed a taxi. Then he traveled from reservation to reservation via train, toting suitcase and tent.
Or take the day he first encountered his wife-to-be in a small-town store. He forgot to ask her name. How did he get it? By asking the local police, of course.
Or the time he wandered for miles on back roads and lanes ``into the nowhere of Canada,'' seeking a circle of painted tepees. And he found them - the only white to do so.
Or now, when bullets fly in the hills, he argues with the gunmen, hoping to save a marmot, a coyote, raccoons, and the like. And he keeps no dogs or cats so that wild creatures who've gnawed themselves free from traps won't be frightened away.
This love of wildlife shines throughout Goble's books, and his shelves are jammed with volumes on both animals and Indians. When these prove insufficient for his research, he relies on museums and libraries around the country - and always he talks with native Americans, delving into their oral traditions.
Goble aims for authenticity, but admits to ``mixing a few things from various tribes. I've had people write me and say, `Why would a Plains Indian have a Navajo blanket?' Well, Navajo blankets were traded. And there were intermarriages, captures - all that sort of interaction,'' he says in explanation, not justification. Besides, when a designer needs a striped Navajo blanket to balance the page, he needs it.
Goble didn't make his transatlantic transplanting with ease. After general schooling, he served for two years in the British Army. ``I hoped by then I'd know what I wanted to do. But I came out and still didn't know.''
He ended up selling furniture. But that didn't wash, because he wasn't a whiz at selling. He did, however, like furniture. So he decided to design it.
Armed with what he calls ``an amateurish portfolio full of drawings of Indians and buffalo from my childhood,'' Goble headed for London's Central School of Art. ``A department head spent a whole evening with me. He was mystified that I had nothing, absolutely nothing [no college, no recent artwork]. But he must have seen something. He accepted me,'' says Goble.
``When I think of it now, I realize, my goodness, he certainly did stretch his imagination on my qualifications.''
After graduation came 16 years of London life that included marriage to a co-designer; two children, who are now adults; and a medley of furniture designing, consulting in the industry, and teaching in an art school.
Add to that five delicious summers spent roaming the reservations of the US. It was when Goble's first marriage shattered that he came to the United States permanently.
Times were lean at the outset, and the artist-author devoted evenings to painting pictures for the tourist trade at Mt. Rushmore and for a gallery in Rapid City. Meanwhile, South Dakota winters whistled a frigid refrain through the Gobles' non-winterized cottage.
Gradually Goble was transforming into a Don Quixote in bulky sweaters who fought Indian battles of old with pen and brush. His books clicked. And he and his new wife moved into their current Black Hills home. ``But sometimes I nearly go spare here. It's so isolated,'' he comments. Spare? ``Oh, you know, bonkers, bananas, as you Americans would put it,'' he says in a British accent still thick enough to coat a crumpet. ``But we've lived this hermit life for eight years now, and we're still perfectly fine.'' The nearest town is 22 miles away.
Goble recognizes that some native Americans grumble because he cashes in on their culture and heritage. ``But hopefully,'' he says, ``my books do give the [Indian] children some sort of feeling for their past.'' Indeed, his mailbox is frequently filled with fan mail from Indian youngsters, as well as whites.
One afternoon in Gallup, N.M., serves as a testimonial, too. A small bookstore in town schedules an autograph session. Without warning, a horde of Navajo children streams through the door, clutching tattered copies of Goble's books. Naturally, the proprietor sells nothing during the siege, but it's an event earmarked with the proverbial ``a good time was had by all.''
Most of all, by Goble.