Review for "Quiet Until the Thaw" by Alexandra Fuller (2017)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I went into this book fully aware of the controversy around it, a story about a pair of Oglala boys on a Lakota reservation written by White British woman raised in colonial Africa. I was curious about this novel because I wanted to answer a very important question for myself: does a writer have to be a member of a race or culture in order successfully write about its traumas? I already answered this question somewhat in my last review with Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a historically based novel about the plight of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. Although O’Brien is a White Irish woman, I felt that her knowledge of the sensitivities of her subjects were appropriate, given the long, racist history of African colonialism. However, I wanted to take my consideration of this question a step further. It’s apparent that White writers can write about the traumas of people of color, but when does it become exploitative? When has the line of cultural appropriation been crossed? I had this debate with students in my children’s lit class, and I think there are important arguments to be made on both sides.
Hence, I read this book. In the back, the author, Alexandra Fuller, mentions a visit that she made to the Pine Ridge reservation in 2011 to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. Being on the reservation, she writes, was like an “unexpected homecoming.”
Well alrighty then…
Anyway, “Quiet Until the Thaw” is the story of two Lakota boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1960’s and follows them over the course of the next 30 years of their lives. Orphaned at birth and raised by the town midwife, Rick Overlooking Horse speaks few words. As a young man he is sent to the Vietnam War, where he suffers a devastating injury from a friendly fire napalm bomb. He comes home and builds a teepee on empty land and resigns himself to a quiet life as a farmer. You Choose Watson, the other boy, becomes a rageful man, leaving home to dabble in drugs and odd jobs before returning to the reservation, rising to the level of tribal chief elder. Once in power, he uses his political position to pilfer funds and terrorize the residents, leading to a terrifying standoff with the U.S. government. You Choose is sent to prison, yet his rage continues into another generation.
This book is not a conventional novel, it’s more of a series of vignettes. The chapters are short and language is spare. While most of the book focuses on the characters, other parts cover the struggles of an oppressed people through incidences like the 1492 conquest, Disneyland, and so on. Although this inclusion is thoughtful, I think that Alexandra Fuller is misguided here. There’s tons of annoying Indigenous/Native American stereotypes in the book, such as the “noble” savage, the smoking Indian, the lazy Indian, the drunk Indian. They all go to boarding schools, bear children afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, live in “tar paper lean-tos,” and, when in a group, are referred to namelessly with empty titles as “Extended Relations.” Worst yet, the Native people in this book put up racial degradation, such as being called “Red Nigger” and “Diesel Engine” by White characters. It’s also peppered with Lakota words, which I wonder are even translatable given the context in which Fuller is using them.
I hate to dismiss this book but I’m afraid I have to here. The abject poverty and hopelessness of the people is written about reverently, as if it is unconnected to 500 years of racist genocide that preceded it. And speaking of genocide, the author treats this as a romantic notion, much in the same fashion as ridiculous movies as Dances with Wolves or some other outdated Western novel.
Does Alexandra Fuller have any idea about the inner lives of Native/Indigenous people? I get that she lived “on the rez” for three months, but there’s quite a few very good Native American writers out there that have exclusive rights to this narrative and I would rather hear it from them directly. As a White woman born and raised in a colonized and oppressed country as a member of a privileged class due to her Whiteness, I don’t feel that Fuller has any right to this story.
Cultural appropriation, theft, stealing, or whatever the hell you want to call it is here to the umpteenth degree.