Irène Frain tells the story of a strange Indian: “This stranger annoyed me”

The author recreates the little-known story of a 19th-century “Robinson Crusoe” who lived for 18 years on the island of San Nicolas off the coast of California.

How did you come up with the story of this Native American, the last survivor of a vanished tribe brought back to the California coast in 1853?

During a stay in Santa Barbara, where I have family, I visited the mission’s cemetery—which has been turned into a museum. There I was told the story of a woman who was found in the 19th century after 18 years on the island of San Nicolas, 200 kilometers off the coast. Nicknamed “the lonely woman” and buried under the name of Juana Maria, this Indian woman shaped the collective unconscious of the region. This story struck me as moving, but it remained anecdotal.

Then came the lockdown. I felt far away from my family, weakened by my latest book about my sister’s murder (Editor’s note: A crime of no consequence) To get rid of the fear, I decided to sort my office and came across the two notices I had brought from the museum.

On the internet I found the newspapers of that time, the work of certain researchers, and I got stuck. One of them had written about this woman: “This fate is a blank page awaiting fiction.” I surrendered to this story and so I went to the other side of the mirror.

The story of this mysterious Native American has never been elucidated, despite the interest of many researchers…

Dressed in black feathers, she seemed to emerge from the depths of time… She was very beautiful, with very fair skin, despite her 18 years alone on this island, she spoke an enigmatic language that no one could ever decipher, and she was radiant an unusual delight. She was also called “the stranger who danced”. We do not know the name of his tribe.

I especially wanted to understand the story from the shore’s point of view, because his arrival had a huge impact. What mattered to me was to transport myself to this 19th-century pueblo wedged between a dangerous sea and the wilderness, and to recreate the poetic upheaval that this woman represents from the earliest times of a culture of 9,000 to 11,000 years ago has produced. The rare items she had in her possession are now the oldest in Native American culture.

The true mystery of this woman was her joy, her joy…

No doubt she was a shaman, that’s one version I agree with. Nobody knows why she was dancing and singing or why she was smiling all the time, even with her eyes closed. I did not pierce her secret, but this unknown was like a resurrection for me; As I was writing this book, I felt as if I had been tainted with a kind of joy and life deprivation.

This novel brings together all the themes you care about, distant horizons, memories, lost languages…

I am fascinated by traces, by memories, and I was fascinated by this island of San Nicolas, which was always taboo, by this strangely restorative woman for me, but even more, I felt a love crush for this story, I threw my neck Head in and I had a deep sense of accuracy, of human truth. This stranger has upset me; I didn’t realize it at the time, but this book came out of my sadness and my desperation, it was like a lifeline.

“The joy of the lonely woman” (Editions le Seuil), 384 pages, 21 €.

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