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Welcome to the Jungle: The Sharpest Sight and Indians in Vietnam

For the past week, Mixedblood Messages has been honoring the life and work of Louis Owens who was born July 18, 1948 and died July 25, 2002. (This post is a couple days late, but it only means we get to talk/think about Owens longer!) Owens is the author of the work from which this blog name is taken, and an accomplished novelist in the mixedblood mystery genre as well as an all around mixedblood literary hero. If I’m still around next year, I will try to get to all the books I missed (including Owens’s excellent scholarly works in Native Studies). Thanks for reading…now go out and get yourself a Louis Owens Novel!

Painting on the jacket cover, Silent Whispers by Bert D. Seabourn

Louis Owens is an author of tropes. You read just two of his books and you get a taste of his obsessions: violent murder, resurrection, darkness, men of Cherokee/Choctaw/Irish ancestry (like himself), mischievous elders usurping the story, and mysterious women with mystical sex powers.

Then there’s Vietnam: the war in the jungle full of walking dead and evil spirits. It hangs like a dark cloud around the lives and minds of Owens’s characters. His most focused meditation on the war is found, I think, in his last novel, Dark River, which is all about the destructive nature of American masculinity and attitudes toward land. But the centrality of Vietnam in Owens’s personal mythology didn’t strike me until I went back and read his second novel, The Sharpest Sight.

The novel centers on Attis McCurtian who comes back from the war, as many did, a scatter shot shadow of his former self. His father, Hoey, says, “”My boy never came back from that war. They killed him and gutted him over there.'” One night in a hallucinatory flashback to his time in the jungle, this zombie Attis puts a knife through the heart of his long-time sweetheart Jenna Demi. And that should have been the final note in the shattered life of another unhinged veteran.

Until one night, Attis escapes from the facility for the criminally insane and disappears into the night. His best friend Mundo Morales, who went with him to Vietnam but came back to become Deputy of their small Central California town, is summoned to the river to find Attis,dead and swirling with the logs. The rest of The Sharpest Sight details the quest to recover Attis body, while a bevy of dark forces (the FBI, a hungry soul-eater, and an insane tavern owner) work against efforts to make Attis and the world he disrupted whole again.

Through flashbacks, told by Mundo, Owens manages to address the racism faced by Indian soldiers. They were, of course, all given the nickname chief but more insidiously they were the first ones chosen for night guard. In the rhetoric surrounding Native American enrollment in the armed forces (the greatest percent of any group in the US), words about warrior ethic and tradition are often bandied around instead of the more ominous motivations such as complete lack of any other choice but to fight for the people who took everything from you. This desire for the mantle of warrior is what, in part, drives Attis into the war.

But once in Vietnam,  Attis’s quickly becomes disillusioned. He sees “the lonely ghosts of long-range recon men wandering the jungle” and becomes convinced he and the other soldiers are destined to kill each other over and over again. After describing the “black river full of snakes and dead things” reserved for murderers, Attis tells his best friend, “‘Warriors always used to go to the good place. But what I can’t figure out, Mundo, is the difference between a warrior and a murderer.'”

This is the question that is passed along with Attis’s fatigue jacket to his younger brother Cole who is given the task of reclaiming Attis’s bones. Cole too must enter a jungle where “there were always hidden things, looming in the darkness.” His pilgrimage, however, is not to a foreign land, but rather the homeland he never knew. It is in the Choctaw jungle of the deep South where Cole will seek to return his brother’s bones to his wandering shadow and his own sense of identity to himself. Cole comes to realize that in the old ways, being a warrior is based not just on the amount of enemy scalps you claim, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on counting coup. It is through the old ways that he can calm down a world in chaos.

The McCurtains are mixedblood Indians living in the Salinas Valley in Central California. They have been tossed about on the waters of American life, and like so many have ended up far from home and with little sense of their past. The Vietnam War hits their lives as the final blow, destroying the first born son and damaging everyone he touched. At one point, Hoey talks about the “‘ceremonies for warriors coming back home, ceremonies that could take all the evil out,” and wonders if this is what Attis required upon his return from the evil of senseless war. Cole’s journey is this ceremony. It is the journey of all Indians to find themselves not in someone else’s war, not in the dead places, but in the jungle of our pasts, mysterious and full of hidden things but thriving with life.


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Looking at Louis Through The Covers

This week I am commemorating the life of Louis Owens, the mixedblood King of literature, through discussion of some of his key novels. For an overview of Owens’s life, go here, and for a review of his last novel Dark River, go here.

Instead of reviewing this book in the usual manner, I’d like to look at Nightland through its covers. First off, I would like to issue a demand that all of Owens’s works be re-issued not only to bring his name to a new generation of critical Indians, but also to remedy the series of ugly and deceptive book bodies that now serve as the world’s window into Owens’s writing.

First we have this acid-induced nightmare for a book that is about two half-Cherokee best friends who find themselves with a million dollars of blood money, money that literally fell out of the sky:

I know what you’re thinking (after you throw up in your mouth a little bit): who in Creator’s name would create something so ghastly. I’m not sure what’s worse, the color penciled monster or the Southwestern Comic Sans. No wonder Owens continues to stew in obscurity. This cover besides being terrifying gives no clue to the content or tone of the novel within. I suspect this otherworldy image, and it accompanying wacky font, were chosen to emphasis the Native American aspects of the book.

This is all part of what Owens’s calls the “invention of the Indian.”Just like white people have invented the category of “white,” they have also created the “Indian,” just another racialized set of qualities that fails to truly describe the people it circumscribes. Signifiers like those on this cover seek only to communicate the idea of an Indian novel, without lending any hint to what the book is actually about.

It is a common plague among Native American authors. They are always Indians before they are authors. What is important about their books is their authenticity as Native texts; only secondary is actually listening to what those texts have to say. It is only ironic that such a cover is used for an author who writes so consistently against the idea of a homogenous Indian identity.

I suspect there’s another reason for the freakish, rainbow-haired alien. In most of Owens’s books there are elements typically classified as “supernatural.” People coming back from the dead, shadows of souls lurking in the corners, men shifting into coyotes and back, etc. These aspects have garnered him the title of “magical realist” but this is not magic, it’s simply the Choctaw/Cherokee worlds emerging into English literature. Of course, instead of treating Indigenous culture and storytelling with the correct and respectful signifiers, the literary establishment calls them “magic” and puts a magic bird on it.

Okay, second cover. Don’t worry, this one isn’t nearly as bad:

Here we have the opposite approach. None of that weird Native American mystic stuff. Just straight-up Clive Cussler style action-thriller cover. I wonder how many macho guys, those who only read “Men’s literature” on the morning commute or in the gym, would be tempted to pick this book up, how many would read it, and if anyone of them might actually like it. Owens’s books certainly do not skimp on the plot. Nightland is filled with suspense, blood-shed, mystery, all the classic qualities of a thriller. I could imagine the first half of the cover copy only describing the drug trade, poor ranchers, and dark women that operate as the classic noir machinations. Of course, there are also long digressions on the nature of Indian identity, the destruction of the West through a history of settler colonialism, and all the aforementioned “Indian mystic” stuff. Considering, this cover might actually persuade some bonehead to actually listen to the latter, while enjoying the former, I heartily approve.

Finally, the cover I was lucky enough to stumble upon in a used book store. The best of all three:

You have your Indian accents, the dream catcher hoop thing, the mysterious landscape, but the emphasis is mostly on the author and title. This I think most succinctly captures, in broad strokes, the menacing feel of the novel. Though we continue through the plot, wondering what will happen to our half-Cherokee friends Will and Billy (who together make one whole Indian?), not to mention, the resurrected man who dropped with the money from the sky, there is always the weight of prophecy nudging us towards one unavoidable conclusion.

Though Nightland isn’t my favorite Owens’s novel, it still has dialogue as good as any other of his books (all of his characters eventually reveal themselves as philosophers). One of my favorite lines he ever wrote is in this book, spoken by the (somewhat) benevolent Pubelo drug lord Paco Ortega, “‘It’s the American dream, isn’t it, to commit every kind of filthy thing and then pretend it never happened?'”

As far as filthy things go, I may not believe in the American dream, but I’d be willing to pretend that first cover never happened as long as Penguin Classics gets started on their Louis Owens series.

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Happy Birthday Louis Owens!

This is the first post in a week-long celebration of Louis Owens’ Life. Over the next few days, I will be devoting one post to each of his novels (the ones I’ve had the chance to read at least). Please stay tuned to learn more about the life and work of this great author and scholar, who has for too long been delegated to the arena of solely “academic interest.”

This blog has always been a tribute to Louis Owens. It is from his book that I got the name: Mixedblood Messages. That book and the first novel of his I read, Dark River, have influenced so much of my identity as a mixedblood Indian, I have begun to think of Louis Owens almost as progenitor. He is one of those rare writers who takes the unformed parts of your self and make them whole, who drags the thoughts you almost had and brings them to the surface.

He is also someone who made me believe that Native literature isn’t just something to read and feel good about. Native literature is important and worth fighting for. That’s why I set aside this week to fight for his memory. Because he didn’t just write books that made me feel less alone. But because he’s important. Because he actually changed the lives of people who knew him and not enough people know him now.

Louis was born on this day in 1948. On July 25th, 2002, he didn’t just die. He shot himself in the heart in his pickup truck in the parking lot of the Albuquerque airport. It was a sad yet fitting place of restlessness for a man always in flight. There was talk of a history of depression but  nobody expected suicide. The sorrow of his death was inextricably tied with anger– the people close to him and even those just familiar with his work couldn’t believe he would leave them behind. Especially as he was becoming more well-known, his books beginning to see the light outside the ghetto of Native American literature. It was the selfish desire of loyal followers, the constant need for your hero to keep being heroic.

Owens’ early life was marked by migration and poverty. Born in Lompoc, California, he spent his childhood moving between Mississippi and the Central Valley as his parents traveled in search of farm jobs. With a childhood like that, it’s hardly surprising that he was drawn to the work of John Steinbeck, a fellow hometown boy of Salinas Valley who wrote about the plight of poor working people without a home in the world. He established himself as a foremost Steinbeck scholar with two books, John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America and The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land.

He then moved on to be one of the first critical scholars in the burgeoning field of Native studies. A constant champion for Native American literature, Owens stressed the importance of subversive Indian voices whose role he saw was not only to be storytellers but survivors and resistance fighters.

I first came to Owens through his novels. Most if not all of his novels are characterized as mysteries, not just murder mysteries and whodunnits but explorations into the mysteries of mixedblood life. He himself was Choctaw, Cherokee and Irish, born far from any one of those homelands. And his characters are often life him, mixedbloods far from home working to piece together a tribal identity in a strange land. The thing about Owens’ writing that I always respected was that he left those pieces of identity jagged. His books don’t have happy endings. Nor, obviously, did his life. Owens is perhaps one of those few artists whose dramatic suicide did not lend him more fame after death.

But he continues on. And we take him with us wherever we may go. Happy Birthday, Louis Owens. You had a strong heart and are missed always.

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Happy Birthday (I guess), James Welch

The original conceit of this continuing series of birthday posts was to celebrate the life and work of notable Native authors, especially those that were particularly inspiring to me as a Native person and reader. But for the purposes of this post and the author it addresses, there will be little confetti tossing or frosting of cakes.

Oh, hi, I’m James Welch. I’ve just been knighted and given this medal by the French government, so I don’t really mind that this book blogger girl thinks I’m not as great as people say I am.

It is not that James Welch, born July 7, 1943, is a bad man or even a horrible writer, but I find little motivation to add my own praise to his towering stack of awards, medals, and honors. Welch passed away in 2004 so it may be a little too soon to speak harshly of his legacy but honestly I have nothing nasty to say about the man other than describing the underwhelming feelings of discomfort and disappointment I have when reading his work.

The secondary purpose of these birthday posts is to simply summarize the works of Native authors for the purposes of introduction to the broader public (i.e. a small fraction of the internet). Along those lines, I may not have a present for Welch, but this post is a present for you so you can’t say I didn’t warn you when you find yourself half way through a 500 plus page books cursing yourself for not reading Louis Owens instead (more on him in a couple of weeks).

James Welch was born in Browning, Montana into the  Blackfeet and Gross Ventre tribes (and more distantly, the Celtic). He spent most of his childhood on the Fort Belknap reservation and spent most of his years, apart from teaching gigs at University of Washington and Cornell, in the big sky country of Montana. His first novel, Winter in the Blood is set around the reservation of his youth and its release in the 70’s secured his place in the ranks of the “Native American Renaissance.”

Fool’s Crow (1986) is his most well-known work and it is where my problems begin. Set in post-Civil War era of westward expansion, the book attempts to capture the traditional ways of life among the Pikunis band of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. It has a lot of tropes we associate with white author fantasies: Plains tribes on horses, vision quests, tragedy, revelation of sacred ceremonies, etc. But told from the perspective of a (supposedly) complex Indian character and shot through with frank descriptions of American military cruelty, it sets itself apart as a Indigenous view of the destructive force of settlement and the philosophy of Manifest Destiny that spurred it.

However, I could not get over the language used in the book. I applaud Native author’s attempts to translate Native languages and concepts into the colonizer’s tongue, but Welch simply fails. His translations of Blackfeet words and phrases too often drift into the quality of stereotypical Indian-speak. The subtle shades of language are dismembered by too many hyphens and heavy handed touches.

More troubling is the voice of Fool’s Crow, the main character and our narrative guide through the complexities of surviving in a rapidly-changing world. Though he is in the midst of this tumultuous time,  his inner thoughts and descriptions are plodding, simplistic and curt.  But when we are briefly brought inside the thoughts of a white cavalry soldier, the language becomes noticeably more complex and nuanced. The Indian is assigned the plain voice of stoicism and the white man the lyrical voice of reflection. Though James tries to reach back in the past and bring us an authentic vision of Blackfeet life, he fails to reconstruct the full humanity of the people in his story.

This all leads me to believe Welch has some internalized, quasi-racist, notions about how Natives are supposed to sound and act. This problem continues in Welch’s last novel of his life, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, another historical novel of great length. While, I was already giving Fool’s Crow the side-eye before I read it (skeptical of the “portrait of Plains Indians on the brink of destruction” genre), I approached Charging Elk with hopeful enthusiasm. It tells the story of an Oglala Sioux performer in the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows who is abandoned in Marseilles and must make his way with little money and no French-language skills.

Yet the book is not much better than Fool’s Crow both on the level of language and treatment of the Indian protagonist. Charging Elk is not really developed as a complex character beyond his feelings of confusion, homesickness, bodily desires and torn-between-cultures feelings of sadness. I stopped reading the book after a sex scene with a prostitute (in which the word “sexpocket” in invented) seemed to be leading to a contrived romance. It was all a staggering disappointment.

James, I wish I could more sincerely wish you a “Happy Birthday,” wherever you may be now, but I wish more emphatically that you had written better books and given your Native characters (as well as readers) a better chance at expression. If the goal of good writing is recognition and knighthood, you have succeeded. If, however, the goal is to open explorations into realms of life and thought or more politically, to give voice to the silenced, your works unfortunately fall short.

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An Exorcism in (Non-)Fiction

When you leave whatever godforsaken place for the big city, your departure inspires rituals of hand-wringing and flurries of nervous questioning from the extended family. They watch concerned as you disappear into the vortex of banal evil where good people have no chance against the bad. But in these imaginings of the city as the heart of human darkness, we overlook the more deliberate, simmering violence of small town life.

Those little places are full of brutality, the kind that can’t be washed away, only covered like bloodstained hardwood under shag carpet.  What scares small town folks most about the city is the flippancy of violence, how the guy laying his fists into you isn’t someone you’ve lived less than five miles from all your life and there’s a black hole where a family tree’s worth of history should be to connect his punches to.

It is this kind of suffocating small town violence that pervades the pages of Growing Up Dead in Texas, the new “novel” by Stephen Graham Jones. It begins with Jone’s return to Greenwood, the West Texas town he grew up  in, to find out what really happened one morning in 1985 when someone set  the tiny town’s cotton ablaze. But that act of arson is just the first firecracker in a long line of minor explosions. As blame shifts wildly from one person to the next, bystanders are left bloodied to a pulp, their faces or fates never quite the same. Each year the list of dead (and mangled) grows and it all has the feel of a tragic script: it’s not over until everybody has been wounded, from cheerleader to King.

Cotton being compressed and bundled up in another small West Texas town. Source: (website of Stephen Graham Jones_

Jones was only twelve when this all happened, too young to fit the pieces together but sensitive enough to feel dark forces at work. He takes us from one secret to the next, each unturned stone smeared with blood. Earlier I called this journey into the past a “novel” because that’s what the cover claims. But Jones comes right out in the preface and states “…this wasn’t going to be a novel.” Then one paragraph later, he’s telling us he doesn’t think non-fiction is possible. What are we to believe? Novel, memoir, fiction, non-fiction? There will be no answer.

Unrelenting in his insecurity, Jones struggles defiantly with the expectations of his form and documents his exasperation at every step. In each statement there hangs a question as he takes aim at his own authority. Does he really have to change people’s names? Can he tell little lies for the sake of story? Does he have to tell us when he lies? Towards the end of the book, Jones seems to be begging, Must I go on like this?

While I was sucked into the intricacies of the mystery, constructing in my mind one of those tack boards you see in the background of cop procedural shows, the most rewarding parts of the book are when Jones unlocks his own memories. His account is as full of his own secrets as the secrets of the townspeople. Many of those secrets include his own acts of violence, starting with all the pets he’s had to kill. The first was a kitten, born prematurely with no chance in the world. Jones, in muleskin boots still to big for him, raises a cinder block above his head and lets it fall on the doomed life before going in for breakfast without saying a word. “It was how I knew I was grown up: I had things inside me that weren’t for anybody else.”

These searching moments, when Jones looks for the spark for the being he has become, provide an intimate look at what drives a person to narrate life. He does so not only for himself but for the town itself and all the people in it, looking for where everything began.

We think of such narration as an act of creation, but Jones also reveals the destruction at the center of stories. He takes us into imagined scenes, crafting conversations he could have never heard drawing out all the sad detail and crushing precision of rural poetry where so much of the meter depends on silence. And then almost cruelly he tells us, “Lies. All of it.” He never allows us to fall completely into his deceit. He has to tell us, “This is piecemeal, secondhand, polluted, cleaned-up then tore down, worse, but still, it’s the only way it could have gone, too.” Though he points to the seams of his narrative to expose its artifice, he is at the same time praising his craft for making the past real again or at least as real as it will ever get.

Despite the confusion of genres and unhinged narration, the book has already heralded as the “break-out novel” for a writer who up to this point has been known by some as a genre writer who tells zany stories about rabbit zombies and by others as the post-modern Blackfeet writer who tells stories that sound like acid trips. While his sentences are more straightforward in this book, beginning and ending in a trajectory that is mostly followable, the story is no less complex than his other other-dimensional novels. You can always count on Jones to bring the weird. Even as he slips into the occasional cliche (a first in my experiences with him and endemic it seems to writing about rural America), he leaves the typical phrase gutted and real again by the next paragraph.

I haven’t gone much into the complexities of the plot here because that might require a mapping of major players and a detailed timeline (which Jones himself does not provide). And as fascinating as it is to watch unfold, much like the smoke rising from a cotton fire, the book is more fascinating for what it says about the story being told.

Authors, critics, and readers too are always trying to prove that stories matter to the world, that they give our society a soul and define our humanity. For Stephen Graham Jones, the story is important not just for humanity, here defined as those left behind in Greenwood, but most importantly for the one who got away, the writer himself. His story is there to lead him back to the person he tried to destroy, not in order to escape but to exorcise the desire to escape. In the beginning he tells us he has finally left West Texas behind with this book. On the last page, he says he is still watching the smoke rise on a December morning in 1985. Unlike the usual saying about fiction, these are not beautiful lies. But they are honest ones.

Book I Talked About:

Growing Up Dead in Texas, by Stephen Graham Jones. (June 12, 2012, MP Publishing Limited)

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The Christ Complex Down Under

Poster for the movie details the children torn between primitive man and burning civilization. I like the use of “world’s last frontier”–exemplifies a fluidity between Australian outback and apocalyptic frontier in sci-fi.

I find it hard to believe that anyone found it necessary to resurrect Walkabout, the 1959 novel by James Vance Marshall, that was mostly forgotten until adapted into film in 1971 by Nicholas Roeg. Yet for some reason the usually discerning New York Review of Books has ordained it a “small, perfect book.”

The only thing that is perfect about this book, besides the short-lived pain of reading it, is how easy it is to tear apart.

It tells in pseudo-parabolic form the story of two American children, Peter and Mary, who are stranded in the Australian wilderness after watching the rest of the passengers on their airplane dissolve into fire. As they walk away from the ashes of civilized technology, a primordial world of otherness opens before them in all its horrifying expanse.

Just as their situation becomes dire, and we’re starting to think maybe this book could get interesting and the kids will die, an aboriginal boy on his adolescent rite, the “walkabout” of the title, discovers and leads them to food and water. Upon their meeting, in his typically overwrought tone of explanation, Marshall painfully demarcates the differences between whiteness and Indigeneity. While the primitive in Peter and Mary “had long ago been swept away…by the standardized pattern of the white man’s way of life”, the aboriginal “knew what reality was” and lived a life that was “unbelievably simple” and “utterly uncomplicated.”

Thus begins a thanksgiving myth for the Australian landscape in which the Peter is taught how to fish and Mary struggles with her own disgust over a naked black body. In the tragic clash of civilization and savagery, Mary’s contorted grimace at the boy’s nudity is interpreted as the perception of the spirit of death in him. Here, Marshall’s total lack of knowledge, research, and respect rears it head, his ignorance providing the central drama of the book. Brushing past tribal beliefs about death by magic, performed by a ritual executioner not a scared white girl, Marshall explains that the boy will soon die…. from superstition. And die he does but not before forgiving Mary and she, realizing her cruelty, accepts him as one of god’s children.

Besides the story being so blatantly colonial in its premise and plot, the style is the combination of dolled-up bible prose and a PowerPoint presentation. Marshall, in his desire to be the dispenser of moral parables, tell us exactly what and how to encounter everything in the world he has created. When Peter begins to do a dance mimicking the platypus, just as the aboriginal had mimicked the lyre bird, Marshall at the end of his description must spell out “shades of the bush boy and lyre bird” lest our memory fails to extend back twenty pages. To further the transfer of Indigenous identity from Aboriginal to Peter, Marshall has Peter marvel at the darkening color of his skin. Nothing in the book is subtle, nor is it innocent.

Later when Mary tells Peter that the aboriginal boy, referred to as “darkie” throughout the book, has gone to heaven, Marshall turns on the sentimentality of a multicultural poster. “…She believed it. More than believed it. Knew it. Knew that heaven, like earth, was one.” But of course while we may all be one, half of that “oneness” has to die for the other to live.

In the introduction to the new edition, written by Lee Siegel, much is made of Marshall’s  spiritual message while his “romantic excess” (i.e. racism) is glanced over and forgiven. To Siegel, who is guilty of such excesses himself, Marshall’s “modestly subversive variation on the Christian myth is simply another version of the necessity of people to care for one another.” In this case, it is necessary for an Aboriginal to care for white children and then only necessary for those white children to care for him after he’s dead.

And what is so subversive in killing off the Aboriginal? That is the oldest trope in Euro-American culture. Does the subversion come from the fact that Marshall is writing about Aboriginals at all? There is certainly nothing subversive about white writers bringing the Christ complex to a continent that doesn’t belong to them. This impulse to bring biblical stories to sites of contact with indigenous peoples is the literary equivalent of bringing priests along on your conquests, and it too has been happening for hundreds of years.

But of course this is about more than mere salvation. It is very much about the process of settlement. The savior at the end of the story is not actually the Aboriginal but the house of a white man waiting for the children after their journey. It is the literal settlement of foreigners, not a continued life in nature, that is the true end goal of the book. Though Peter and Mary cannot remain in the Garden of Eden, the paradise of primitiveness being forever lost to them, they can incorporate that experience into their identity in order to be better white settlers. The death of the Aboriginal boy because of his primitive superstitions suggests that they are in fact even better Aboriginals than the Aboriginal himself because of their Christian beliefs.

The walkabout all along has been the initiation rite for the white children. It requires the death of their primitive childhood and embodied in the literal death of the aboriginal boy, in order for them to take up the mantle of mature white settlers. It is as if the two children have gone away to a more dangerous version of summer camp. At the end of the book, Peter turns to Mary and says in the Aboriginal’s language, “Kurura,” meaning follow. It is supposed to be a touching moment. But for me this final transference  of Indigeneity into a white boy is like when Michael Jackson’s eyes glow at the end of the Thriller video. The monster has peeked out from behind its mask of innocence and walks away to continue the, in this case metaphorical, consumption of vulnerable bodies.

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Happy Birthday Louise Erdrich!

Louise Erdrich in her dorm room at Dartmouth. I know, I know. She’s a babe. And a phenomenal writer. Pretty much leaves no room for the rest of us aspiring writer mixedblood ladies.

Louise Erdrich is many things. The literary queen of the mixedbloods. The Faulkner of Indians. The Ojibwe beauty queen. She is also today’s birthday girl.

Erdrich was born on this day in 1954 into the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota but was raised in North Dakota where many of her books also take place. Her first book Love Medicine established her style and content for the next several years: multi-generational narratives focused on several particular families on the same Ojibwe reservation.

Love Medicine sounds potentially like a horribly cheesy Native romance saga and the paperback edition I read had a horribly cheesy cover. While it is true that Erdrich writes about love, she is rarely sentimental. For me, she is  one of few who can successfully communicate the insanity of love with prose that is daring, unexpected, and seamlessly connected to larger narratives of human experience.

Many people credit her heartbreaking prose to her tragically failed romantic relationship with Michael Dorris. Honestly, I’m not very interested in tracing their tortured affair through the male characters and broken families of her books. But I will say The Antelope Wife was the first book she wrote after their divorce and it is one of the most genuinely sad books I have ever read.

After I merged my being with Love Medicine and The Antelope Wife, I attempted Plague of Doves but set it aside after suffering the equivalent of a reading faint. Erdrich could probably write about a tree losing its bark and I would start bawling, but the multi-layered, multi-generational narratives started to wear on me. I mean you can only read so many of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels before you need to take a literary nap.

Returning to her now though I realize there are some odd ball books thrown into her oeuvre that I should give a chance, chief among them is The Master Butcher’s Singing Club a mystery story which focuses more on German immigrant culture though still involves enough characters to warrant a family tree in the front matter. Erdrich has taken some flack for her alleged lack of allegiance to Native communities, i.e. she acknowledges and writes about her European ancestry and that bothers people.But as with her writing on love and heartbreak and loss, her books with German immigrant culture come from an intensely honest desire to write all aspects of her self.

To a large degree, I think haters might be coming from a place of anxiety about what constitutes Native American literature and also a need to protect Indian identity. Second only to Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich is the cross-over success story of Native authors. Perhaps other Natives, authors in particular (cough, Leslie Marmon Silko, cough), fear losing the powerful message of Native identity found in her novels once she is thrown into the Oprah-approved, literary mainstream.

In this instance, I often compare her to Toni Morrison whose book Beloved is still I think one of the greatest literary expositions of the trauma of slavery in the black community. It may be a bestseller, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. The same goes for Ms. Erdrich.

If anyone still doubts Erdrich’s support of Native peoples, her independent bookstore  Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, MN, which is a big promoter of Native authors, artists, and community, should act as the proper slap in the face. If for some godforsaken reason I ever find myself in Minneapolis, it is on the top of my list of places to visit (along with everywhere The Replacements ever breathed on).

So, on this day of your birth, I offer my humble thanks to Louise Erdrich for refusing to be anything less than what she is. And what she is is a master creator, re-crafting the shipwreck of Indian and settler lives and encounters into structures as beautiful and complex as her life and person.

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