|By Martha E. Ture, NAV Feature Writer
Three recent books by Indian women have caught my attention. Kimberly Blaeser, Donna Dean, and MariJo Moore are storytellers who can sit beside all the world’s storytellers, the makers of the cultures of Homo sapiens throughout time. Blaeser’s book of poetry and the novels of Dean and Moore share the humanity that characterizes the lasting stories of the world. The authors have each got a dear place and a dear time, and they invite us into it to share their respect and love. Blaeser’s home ground is the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota; Moore’s place is the South, and Dean’s home is the hills north of San Francisco Bay.
They write about childhood’s feelings, but these are not crayon emotions and fingerpaint passions. Dean’s and Moore’s girl characters experience sex with their fathers, alcoholism, despair. The prejudice and animosity of low-class whites toward Indians is in all three women’s writing; so is relentless poverty. They write reflectively, on being changed by life, of being women looking back and making sense, giving the benefit of their experience to future strangers who may find their work some day. They write about the business of living poor, of coffee cups, rickety tables, kitchen floors, booze, cops, sentiment, the smell of wind, water, trees, the depth of feeling in a tender heart responding to its surroundings and not finding them paltry. This is sagacity of the best sort. It is respect for life.
Absentee Indians and Other Poems, by Kimberly Blaeser, 2002, Michigan State University Press.
Kimberly Blaeser, Anishinabe, was raised on the White Earth Reservation. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Blaeser has written lovely poems, moving, evocative, and sentimental for her place and time. Her sweet writing lets us be part of her community experience in the north. She’s written stanzas comparable to ancient, earthy Chinese poetry in distilling life in words.
“I prefer life
Her poems on her infant son share the wisdom of mothers. The Last Fish House and Passing Time are stories that put you in the event like a spell. This from The Last Fish House:
“No excess motion now
Absentee Indians, (“Litanies of family names, river talk, hollows, reciting hunting camps, pine-pitch memories what used to be. Hoarding remainders things never meant to be counted like prayer breaths. Searching some magic antidote boiling pine boughs some sequence of recall twelve steps to ward off homesickness”), Twelve Steps To Ward Off Homesickness, and Recite the Names of All the Suicided Indians (“Do it under your breath he said, this guy back home. Telling me something about chanting. Until the little bones behind each ear pound”) communicate to anyone not Indian what that experience consists of in the United States today.
These are poems to read repeatedly; the book is one to keep beside your reading chair.
Deep Six: A Novel of Life, Death, Deception, and Betrayal, by Donna Dean, 2001, Palo Alto Books.
This book is a collage of growing up poor, being black and Indian in a poor town in a rich county in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dean, Cherokee, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, grew up in Marin City, one of the four poor communities in the second richest county in the United States. Her book lets you live the life that was dear to her, the storyteller – the gang of girls climbing the hills behind the houses, up into the eucalyptus groves with their terribly strong odor; the dangerous bramble tangles and deep holes of an abandoned cemetary; the overlook into grassy Tennessee Valley, the coyote, the cheap bad food, peanut butter and baloney sandwiches; the black motorcycle gang the Copperheads; a loving family, hardpressed financially and yet taking in another family’s child.
The characters confront the practicality of their choices in their time. Two central figures go into the US Navy, a culture dangerous and unpredictably hostile to women. Dean, who spent 18 years in the Navy, earned her PhD at age 54 and is the author of “Warriors Without Weapons: The Victimization of Military Women.” For decades, she writes, military women were subject to legitimized witchhunting by officers seeking to insinuate, intimidate, and incriminate the women for lesbianism. The charge, if made, could cost the accused her rank, pension, and benefits. Dean’s work on this score is stark and clear.
“I was all too well aware that once a girl was fingered by NISO to take a fall as a lesbian, even casual conversation with her could lead to inclusion as a suspect in the witch hunt. They kept us off balance and divided that way. “They said lesbians always were to be found in “nests,” with homosexual activity spreading out to infect anyone in the vicinity as though it were contagious. No one could afford to befriend a current suspect. No one could be trusted. Your name could be handed to the agents by someone desperate to escape the torment. . . Girls who entered the Navy with no concept of sexual activity between or among women became “educated” immediately. Many of them found themselves accused of committing acts they had never even heard of. They left as women old before their time, many of them smeared with the offal of mindless hate they could not even understand.”
Dean’s descriptive writing is eloquent. “Suddenly it was darker, and quieter. The sharp pungency of bay and eucalyptus lay heavily here, barely modified by the dusty sunlight filtering in streaks through the canopy of intertwined branches. Roots tangled and tripped, reaching under and into ancient concrete grave pads. Long toppled and broken gravestones peered blindly from recumbent positions, pieces scattered and missing. Lichen had eaten away at most of the names and dates. . . Yawning caves stretched back under the blankets of concrete, and pieces of rotting wood belied dusty promises of eternity once spoken by sonorous casket salesmen.”
Deep Six is a series of patches in a life quilt. From childhood to adolescence, teenaged years to adulthood, Dean’s characters live and die and love one another in a way that kept me reading this book, caring about the characters. These are people to be proud of.
The Diamond Doorknob, by MariJo Moore, 2003, Renegade Planets Publishing.
MariJo Moore’s country is the hilly South, between western Tennessee and the western mountains of North Carolina. Moore, Cherokee, tells an intricately netted story of Indian, white, and black people on the land. The cultures that have become the lace of the interior South have met in knotted conflicts for hundreds of years.
Moore’s story of Cloud, Edgar, Levi, Beretha and Maggie takes us into the tangled lives that make up the spirit of the Place, a spirit braided of cruelty, sorrow, Christianity, kindness, alcohol, despair, desperate needs and terrible independence, violent terror and quiet will. In Moore’s work, it is the Indian perspective, not the more literarily visible white or black view, that is highlighted. Once read, and seen, it is clear to the reader that the Indian thread is a critical element in the story of this place.
Moore’s central character, Cloud, engages the worst and the best of the place and time, the years between 1922 and 1950. Through her, we pass time with drunken poor white trash and their meanness that makes up so much of the character of the South. Cloud can deal with their bodies, by judicious use of her own strength of character, a fast way with a knife, and a sanguine handling of a six-chambered pistol and three bullets. But their effects on her soul last longer than their brief times in her geography.
She is treated kindly by black women, a middle-class white woman, and a gay white man. She endures heart-charring love with an impossible partner, scion of a wealthy white family, whose crippled passion tears them apart. Moore’s agility in weaving these lives and cultures together through three generations affected by one man, Cloud’s grandfather Smoker, is a strong, fine, remarkable literary accomplishment.
Moore’s descriptions of regional characters caught in their conflicts are splendid. A Pentecostal preacher trying to convince Cloud’s low-down alcoholic husband of the power of Christ is a beauty:
“Now, you just stand raght dare and I’ll show you somethin’ for real, mister. This big boy is for the Lord’s work!” The preacher held the lamp over the top of the box, giving the inside of the trunk an eerie orange glow. There, lying coiled inside the box was the biggest snake Edgar had ever seen. Its head was the size of a man’s fist. The body was at least seven and a half feet long with ten rattles at the tip of the tail. Edgar stared at the preacher in disbelief. The snake made a buzzing sound with its rattlers and Edgar yelled, “Bigod, ye do have a rattler in there, don’t ye? How many times ye been bit?”
“Twenty-seven times, to be sure,” the preacher answered. “Not by this ‘un though. He’s new to the sign-follering world. . .”
The South is noted for producing ferocious mystics of many different convictions. This book takes the reader into a deeply compassionate mind’s view of a painful, difficult world.
In a time when reading is a luxury, I’m grateful to these three women for the stories they’ve given us. Thank you, Storytellers, for your gifts to the world.
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