The Last of the Winnebagos
by Connie Willis

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Asimov's, July 1988

collected in —
Impossible Things

The Winds of Marble Arch April 2005

Freedom, extinction, and love

Seeing the title "The Last of the Winnebagos", I thought at first that Connie Willis was having a little science-fiction joke with us, that this must be a slight and trivial bit about recreational vehicles dying in the wilderness. A title in imitation of James Fennimore Cooper's pseudo-romantic The Last of the Mohicans (1826) about American Indians in frontier days, but scoped way, way down like the stories about runaway household appliances.

In a word, no. This is a story about freedom, extinction, and love. "The Last of the Winnebagos" is a fine and impressive novella developing excellent plot and characterization, slight neither in length nor treatment.

What is the Winnebago angle, though? The Indian tribe? Or the brand of motor home, the big recreational vehicle displaying the Winnebago name? — The story's theme does indeed overtly involve the vehicle. Below, I'll mention extinction, briefly go off about Winnebagos both tribal and vehicular, before driving or circling back to cameras and dogs. I'll then hint at emergent properties.

Indians & vehicles, cameras & dogs

Extinction first. Unlike Connie Willis' novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, this story has a great deal to say about dogs — although no living dogs appear in it. Because of a series of viral plagues, domesticated dogs have been wiped out, and related canines also are now almost extinct. Our protagonist's sight of a dead jackal run over on an ultra-wide Arizona highway opens the story.

Winnebago Indians. Like most early peoples of North America, the Winnebagos had a rough-and-bloody history of the type analyzed in Lawrence H. Keeley's War Before Civilization. The tribe participated in famous times like the French and Indian War, but the entire Winnebago tribal history in the Midwest is complex and interesting, from their early days in Wisconsin Indian Country through their major reservation presence today, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Winnebago vehicles. Probably the best-known, almost the type-name, of motor homes for the open road, is Winnebago. These self-propelled house-trailers are small compared to a house or most apartments, but big enough and sufficiently self-contained for people who want to spend long periods on the highways, living in the wide and free lands of America. The manufacturer, Winnebago Industries, has recent-model photos and virtual tours; a dealer, Winnebago Motor Homes, displays some photos of older models.

Now, on to cameras. The protagonist of "The Last of the Winnebagos" is a journalist with a gaggle of cameras and recorders, including a new type of camera called an eisenstadt. Cameras of course preserve appearances of things for future examination, sharing, aids to remembrance. Sometimes this takes us beyond simple preservation and remembrance; new ideas emerge, maybe even new realizations or feelings.

The eisenstadt camera functions automatically and unobtrusively, in several situations taking photos which develop unexpected lines of thought and hence of emotion. Connie Willis names this for photographer Alfred Eisenstadt (1898-1995), who took for instance the famous picture of the victory celebration kiss on V-J Day in Times Square, New York City, 1945.

Dogs. The dogs are gone before the opening of "The Last of the Winnebagos"; their images remain. Photos and memories of beloved dogs agonizingly haunt the people of the story.

Emergent properties

We note that none of these subjects are extinct, here and now. American Indians in general and Winnebagos in particular are very much with us. Recreational vehicles still travel the highways and visit the wilderness parks. Of course our dogs continue to companion mankind in city and countryside. We still have the freedom of the open road ... but in what ways do we narrow our future and pinch out the things we love?

And in what ways may we endeavor to retain or restore? Photojournalism has a power to show us unfamiliar aspects of familiar things, loving or anguished memories emerging out of the past, fresh realizations.

That is Connie Willis' story here, developing in negative and positive the emergent properties: narrowing and extinction, freedom and love. "The Last of the Winnebagos" is a scary, lovely, delicate story.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson


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