Haunted by Home: The Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs
By Phyllis Cole Braunlich

A Book Review by Larry P. Madden haunted by home book cover

Lynn Riggs (1899-1954) was a Cherokee writer whose importance to Native writing can’t be quantified. In her book, “Haunted by Home: The Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs,” Phyllis Cole Braunlich both collects Riggs’ letters and paints a picture of the man whose poetry and theater was renowned in his life and studied in classrooms today.

Born in Oklahoma in the direst of times, Riggs was able to rise above the expectations of an Indian man in early 20th century America. With a yearning to write poetry and prose in cattle country, Riggs propelled himself to Norman, Oklahoma and a college education. A health concern of Riggs fortuitously sent him to Santa Fe, New Mexico to recuperate. While in Santa Fe, Riggs would develop his skills and progress to a Guggenheim Fellowship in France. That experience would open his eyes and sensibilities to a worldview that was seldom allowed to Natives in early America. His successes and failures didn’t deter his making a living at his craft. Playwriting would become his forte and fame would follow.

Riggs had stories to tell of his rapidly disappearing homeland, its songs and quaint country rhetoric. Soon, his work was promoted nationwide on college campuses and Riggs tortured himself with the New York play scene. In Hollywood, he kept company with the stars and starlets that grace Grumman’s famed Chinese restaurant to this day. Ms. Joan Crawford and the famed Bette Davis were among the company Riggs kept.

Although his star shone brightly, for the most part life for this writer-poet-author meant battling to make ends meet. The community of friends and colleagues kept track and helped Riggs throughout his career and his famed play “Green Grows the Lilacs” would be the work that ultimately led to his enduring notoriety and some monetary relief. That play was adapted into “Oklahoma” by Rogers and Hammerstein. Still, Riggs’ most ambitious and difficult work is “The Cherokee Nights,” whose dealings with complex racial and gender issues were far ahead of its time.

In the pictures throughout the text, readers see that Riggs was a handsome young man with fair complexion and light colored hair. They learn he treasured his Indian heritage and Cherokee culture—that his demeanor and manners were commented on by the Hollywood gossip columnists of the day.

Although a giant with his pen, his frailty of physical health would follow him. In an America far less developed in society and medicine than today, Riggs often pushed his health to extremes. The necessary care was not available as it is today and Riggs passed on in a New York hospital in 1954. Riggs was an outcast at home for his love of literature instead of cow flesh but the world of Native theater is better because this Indian-Okie cowboy busted out of the mold cast for him at birth.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.