Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Monday, October 10, 2011

Power
Linda Hogan
Norton

This is the first of three book reviews of books by Native authors that I wrote and published, but that seem to be unavailable elsewhere.  A somewhat (but importantly) different version of this one was published in the Winter 1999 issue of Orion magazine.  I started collecting these pieces with Native subjects on this site several weeks ago, and it so happens that I'm posting these on Columbus Day.  What a kowincidence.  These were among my first reviews of books by Native authors and on Native subjects, and the first two in particular contain appreciations more generally for the literature being written by Native authors.

I continue to review books by Native authors and on Native subjects, for the San Francisco Chronicle and the North Coast Journal, for instance.  The most recent ones can be found here at my books blog, Books in Heat.     

Linda Hogan is a personal favorite and I believe she deserves more recognition.  Her novels previous to this one--which I loved--were Mean Spirit and Solar Storms.  She's also published short stories, poetry, memoir and nonfiction, as well as People of the Whale: A Novel



By now it has dawned on some purveyors of deep ecology, sustainability, biodiversity, biophilia and the “New Paradigm” that these concepts were operating principles in the Americas for thousands of years before Europeans destroyed the peoples and cultures that practiced them. But there is still little exploration into what Native activist Chris Peters calls the Native Paradigm. Derived from thoughtful observation and experience in direct and complex relationship with the natural world, it is embodied in culture and traditional knowledge, and expressed and applied by Native intellectuals and elders. It seems likely that our natural environment cannot be saved without significant movement towards understanding it.

To the dominant culture, the Native worldview is still alien, even though it has always been here. What are we still missing of crucial value? Fortunately, we now have a vital and growing contemporary Native literature, which includes fiction of high literary art as well as authenticity. It provides perhaps the most accessible and organic way to begin to understand the Native point of view, well beyond anthropological descriptions, New Age sentimentality, eco-speak analysis and doctored quotes of Chief Seattle. In poetry and fiction—particularly in novels by Native authors--it includes emotional, moral, psychological and even physical communication as well as models for the mind, in a form that’s become universal. And there’s nothing like a good story.

The clash of cultures and world views is dramatized in Power, Linda Hogan’s novel set in the swamplands of contemporary Florida. This clash is the vital dilemma in the coming of age of the book’s narrator, a 16 year old member of the fictional Taiga people, who lives with her family in the non-Native working class town, but is drawn to an old Taiga woman and her solitary life at the edge of the dwindling wild. It comes to crisis after a powerful storm, when the older woman, Ama, takes her on a brief but evocative hunt and kill of an officially endangered Florida panther.

The theme of doubleness is a preoccupying undercurrent in the girl’s life and thoughts, beginning with her name: at home she is Sissy, but her Taiga name is Omshito, which means the one who watches. What she sees is two worlds, represented by the non-Native dominated town and the last remote Native sanctuary in the woods beyond the swamp, mirroring also the two worlds of transcendent and visible reality, with cracks and openings (and also doors closing) between them.

Some characters live in one or the other world, Ama lives between them, but everyone is somehow divided. Of the panther killing (and the resulting two trials, by the county court and tribal elders) Omishoto is of two minds, seeing two truths which contradict each other, and two sides which are both wrong and both right.

There is a doubleness to power as well. The vividly described hurricane is the ultimate power of primal nature, but nature is also a victim of human power In fact, the few surviving panthers are all diseased and starving. They are often killed by cars and sometimes choked by the tracking collars placed on them by state biologists. The dramatic panther hunt includes crossing a highway, and takes place in wooded and swampy strips with houses so near that Omshito hears a radio playing. She can still fish for bass, but they are too poisoned to eat. The spring which the Spanish once believed was the Fountain of Youth is so polluted no one can drink from it.

Omshito is also aware that the Taiga people are as few and as endangered as the panthers themselves, and that like the panthers, they are valued only as mascots while considered inconvenient and dangerous in the modern world, while the wild world that sustained them both is inexorably destroyed. The Taiga, and Ama in particular, strongly identify themselves with the panther, who their stories say taught them the mysteries of life. The meaning of the panther kill cannot be separated from the clash of Native and modern worlds, and defies the oversimplifications of reflexive condemnation.

The doubleness extends to double meanings and ambiguity, a powerful if recently neglected tool of poetry, and also in Hogan’s hands the means to express a Native experience of reality. From the start, Omshito sees not just the ground-level world, but the mastadon bones and remnants of ancient seabeds below, and the forces that gather the clouds. Her here and now is inhabited by the cycles of time that brings past and future into the present. When Omshito says “the earth was bleeding” it is an observation of a sky reddening from the horizon, but also a literal description of a wounded being. Hogan is fleshing the bones of such often quoted and little understood concepts as “Everything is alive.”

Implications of the earth as sacred are also explored, including a Native meaning to the fall from Paradise, and the story finally involves the most primal human mysteries, largely absent from contemporary fiction, such as the meanings of sacrifice and scapegoats, redemption and salvation.

The artistry of this relatively short novel is monumental. There is enough action and social relevance for several movies, yet there is mesmerizing moment-by-moment description in a classic adolescent coming to awareness story. Though the story is clearly and beautifully told, nothing here is simple or completely resolved. There are surprising plot turns and paradoxes, and even minor characters are more than one dimensional. Hogan’s writing is sensate, lyrical and at times hypnotic. Omishot’s voice is at once oracular and realistic and wholly likeable.

There is enough action and social relevance for several movies, yet there is mesmerizing moment-by-moment description within a classic adolescent coming-of-age framework, as Omishto moves towards her destiny. Characters are complex and deftly drawn; Omishto’s voice is at once oracular and realistic and wholly likable. Though the story is clearly and beautifully told, nothing here is simple, there are surprising plot turns and paradoxes, and mysteries powerfully remain. Hogan’s writing is sensate, lyrical and at times hypnotic.

All of this makes Power (along with Hogan’s very different previous novels) not only a multidimensional glimpse of Native life and belief, but a contemporary classic of American literature. A Los Angeles Times review once compared her to Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Alende. She deserves to be routinely mentioned in that company, and that she’s not is yet another comment on the limitations of the dominant culture.

In fact, no list of superior American novelists is complete without the names of Native authors such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welsh, Thomas King, Simon Ortiz, Gerald Vizenour and others, as well as the better-known Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie. No knowledge of contemporary America can be complete without the experience of Silko’s apocalyptic epic, Almanac of the Dead. For imaginative power and literary artistry, Linda Hogan is unsurpassed by any living author. Power is a contemporary classic of American literature.
Gardens in the Dunes
by Leslie Marmon Silko.
Simon & Schuster.

This draft is pretty close to the review as published in the Winter 2000 issue of Orion.  My review of a more recent book by Silko is here. 


We don’t often knowingly taste the fruits of the famed MacArthur “genius” grants, but in Leslie Marmon Silko’s case we got a work of genius called The Almanac of the Dead, a sinuous, relentlessly apocalyptic epic that projects the past and hidden present into a plausible near future. Published in 1991, it may someday be known as the great American novel of the 21st century. A generative chapter in that book concerns an ecstatic lawyer’s exegesis on the continuing slow-motion unfolding of the prophesy of the Ghost Dance: the overturning of the American earth, returning the landscape Indians knew, with the buffalo and without Europeans. In this revised vision, the whites kill themselves off, though not without first inflicting great pain on everyone and everything else.

Set at the end of the 19th century, Silko’s new novel begins with an actual Ghost Dance, which is abruptly ended when soldiers scatter the dancers like seeds. So begins the themes of cross-pollination, of Indigenous beliefs about the earth that both transcend and link places and times, and of an inexorable return to the Indigenous world, that root this novel.

Shorter and less overtly violent than “Almanac”, the style of this novel suggests a range of 19th century storytelling from Austen to James and Twain, with Tolstoy-style internal monologues. There are apocalyptic strains here too, but they coexist with a foregrounding of complex individuals, common humanity and an implied kinship among ancient peoples, gently unfolded in the language of gardens and flowers.

As Loren Eiseley eloquently elucidates, the emergence of flowering plants an evolutionary eyeblink ago changed the face of the planet. Thanks to wispy, air-blown attachments, hooks to grasp the fur of passing animals, sweet berries and fruits and honey to transport the seeds and put pollen in the bellies of the birds and the bees: “Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. They got into strange environments...”

Such are the travels of Indigo, a girl of the Sand Lizard people of high desert California, a small band of Native holdouts from the reservations. From the center of her world, her grandmother’s gardens in the dunes, Indigo is blown by the winds of fate to strange environments east across the United States, to England and Italy.

These travels begin when, on the run, Indigo suddenly appears in the garden of Hattie, an upper middle class woman who is struggling to reconcile her Victorian life with her fitfully emancipated mind and spirit. Hattie is recently married to Edward, an Edwardian American whose horticultural skills serve colonialist expansion. His final desperate scheme to make his fortune sets Indigo’s voyages in motion, when Hattie insists on taking her with them on their travels.

Another device flowering plants use as travel agents are humans around the world who express their beliefs and longings in that particular blend of art, nature and technology called the garden. Culture is cultivated, so the trading of seeds, and the flowers that travel because their beauty transports human hearts, are apt metaphors as well as real causes for the cross-fertilizing of human culture. Indigo encounters many gardens, gardeners and the beliefs that give form to both, from the Puritanism molting to become modern Protestant capitalism in a showy blue garden of Long Island, to a secret Celtic garden in England and a series of forest gardens guarding pagan gods in Italy. Indigo carefully collects seeds from each, to plant in her own garden upon her return.

Prepared by her grandmother to accept diversity in plants and people, Indigo reacts with wonder and appreciation but without essentially changing. Why this may be so can be glimpsed in the handling of otherwise picturesque details that illuminate Indigo as a universal little girl who is also of an ancient primal culture-- her relationship with her animal traveling companions, a monkey and a parrot, for instance, and her rapt attention to stories of the Chinese trickster monkey Hattie reads her (perhaps a nod to fellow novelist Maxine Hong Kingston?), and tales of King Arthur told to her that are more fabulous than the versions we usually see.

Meanwhile, her older sister (Sister Salt) is having her own vividly narrated Wild West adventures. When the sisters reunite and their stories become one, the riveting and evocative final chapters are as unexpected and inevitable as reality, as metaphorically rich as the best literature, and true to Silko’s particular Native perspective as she has previously expressed it.

Since European writing has long associated Native Americans with the myth of the Garden, there’s irony as well as genius in exposing the root beliefs and humanity of Europeans and non-Native Americans through their gardens. But this recognition is definitely on Native terms. Though Silko’s political subtexts and cultural contrasts are unmistakable, they emerge from fully drawn characters in historical context, whose individuality and hearts are heartbreakingly (and humorously) expressed.

In the 19th century novel tradition, this one is also full of garden lore and the textures of bygone landscapes. With this rich tale full of life, feeling and humor, Silko uses the by now hybrid flower of the novel to create a delightful and artful garden of American history and human relationships with nature. But it is after all a garden being discussed in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” when Polixenes says, “The art itself is Nature.”
Truth & Bright Water
 by Thomas King
 Atlantic Monthly Press

This review was published somewhere, but I don't recall where.  I've reviewed Thomas King's more recent book, The Truth About Stories, here (where I get to repeat my favorite Thomas King lines) and here.

“You know what’s wrong with this world?” says the famous Native American artist who returns to his home town and paints a church to blend into the landscape so completely that it becomes invisible. “Nobody has a sense of humour.” (That’s how they spell “humor” in Canada, which is where author Thomas King lives.) Another character has already decided that this is the same thing that’s wrong with white people, and with Indians. But it’s certainly not a problem for Thomas King, a Native author of Cherokee and Greek descent. He ambushes you with humor that hits you twice—first when you laugh out loud, and then when you realize it’s terribly true.

Thomas King is the author of two previous novels (Medicine River is also a gently funny TV movie that’s worth renting; and Green Grass, Running Water), numerous short stories, and some sharply funny poems concerning the trickster Coyote. He’s also a photographer who made a series of portraits of Native writers wearing Lone Ranger masks. There’s a little of all those kinds of humor in this book.

Truth is a small railroad town in Montana and Bright Water is the Indian reserve just across a river in Canada. This contemporary story starts with a mystery involving a phantom woman leaping into that river and leaving behind a small skull, and meanders through these two communities and the interweaving lives of several characters whose lives started here and sometimes circled back, until it ends at the river again.
The voice telling the story belongs to a fifteen year old boy whose name is spoken exactly once, by someone who is less than reliable. (It may or may not be Tecumseh.) The boy and all the characters are Native Indian (as they say in Canada), except perhaps his dog Soldier, a major character. Their tribes aren’t mentioned either. But everything else—the voices, memories, characters, the buildings, and the landscape dancing in fog—are definite and alive.

As these characters (the boy’s best friend, his separated parents, his footloose aunt, his grandmother who he says isn’t a witch but seems to have acted like one, the returned artist, and a woman who is convinced that Marilyn Monroe was an Indian) live their daily lives, they expose their weaknesses and deploy their defenses of observation, desire and creativity. They also present us with more mysteries. The first one is solved, but some others should keep reading groups talking for hours. Even some of the jokes are time bombs that don’t go off until you think about them later.

The boy who leads us through this (not always understanding the significance of what he describes) is a truly made and admirable character, with the dreams, survival instincts, and practical literalism about the adult world of a believable rural small town teenager. His Native identity is never asserted but never doubted, it’s just part of his life. For example, Tecumseh (if that’s really his name) feels a relationship with the buffalo that wind their way through the story in different forms, and he is also interested in trying out the Internet, and someday visiting the West Edmonton Mall.

The author is able to say quite a bit about Native people in today’s world without hitting us over the head with either a stark version of the truth or our ignorance. But we absorb it, from the setting, the stories, and the characters and their sometimes biting wit.

Thomas King has become a master of novel narrative, which he enriches with suggestions of Native history, myth and traditional forms of storytelling. This is an easy book to read and a hard one to leave. For all the crosscurrents of humor, heroism, tragedy and evil, it flows with the ingenuity of the human heart applied to the complexities of everyday life. This is the most impressive story the author tells as well as exemplifies: the artistry of the ordinary.