Review: Quiet Until the Thaw

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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.

Review: There There

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Review for "There There" by Tommy Orange (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a fact about me: whenever I see a book by a Native American author other than Sherman Alexie winning loads of critical praise, I’m going to read it. Tommy Orange’s There There is one such book–much praise, reviews in major publications. I reserved it months back and finally jumped on it when my copy came up on reserve at the library. I read this in about 4 sittings over a 4 day period.

There There is a unique narrative in that it explores a group that has never really been given a voice–urban Native Americans. In this novel, the characters come from various tribes and live in and around the city of Oakland, California. Orange writes about their search for identity and explores the ‘old’ problems that surround this community (alcoholism, domestic violence), as well as modern ones (cultural appropriation, loss of traditions, etc). The author uses an ensemble approach, telling the interconnected stories of various attendees headed to a local powwow.

Unfortunately though, this is a book loaded with problems. For one, there are about a dozen different perspectives in this book. Even though the same characters are visited over and over again leading up to the powwow, I felt there were far too many perspectives, too many voices here to keep up with. I kept having to look back at other sections to remember who was talking, and at about 50% into the book I gave up trying to connect all of the dots. You never really get to know any of these people before their 8-10 pages is over and it’s on again to another person. I would have much rather the author focused on less people and fully fleshed out his characters more.

Also, I didn’t feel the writing was anything to write home about. The dialogue was bland, the descriptions too stripped back. A lot of telling, as my creative writing teachers would say, and not enough showing. In many places, a person’s entire life was contained within less than 5 paragraphs. It seemed too rushed, like a false start. In other places the writing was mad awkward, like the two times we’re told that a character has his head “on a swivel.” (*eyeroll*)

The ending is anti-climatic and the book simply just…ends. It’s weird. We’re never told what happens to any of the characters. I just turned a page near the end, and that was it.

Strangely, the prologue to this book was quite beautiful. It’s a thoughtful meditation about the attempted genocide of indigenous people, told historically and figuratively through the motif of the infamous Indian-head test tv pattern. I was kinda disappointed when this part was over, ’cause I could have read this for another 50 pages. It’s never OK when the prologue is better than the story, but I’ll digress here.

As much as I didn’t really care for this book, I won’t go lower than 4 stars. There is a story here, somewhere in the rubble of all of this. I respect what Tommy Orange is attempting to do by giving us an alternate perspective of Native American life that’s outside of the images of dusty reservations and old stereotypes. I just don’t think this was executed well. This is his first book, however, so the structural issues are forgivable.

I definitely recommend this book, perhaps you’ll like it more than I did.

Review: Heart Berries

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Review for "Heart Berries: A Memoir" by Terese Mailhot (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Let me start this review off by saying the Terese Mailhot is a sensational writer. “Heart Berries” is a raw, personal account of Mailhot’s life and experiences as a First Nations woman who has witnessed abuse, poverty, addiction, as well as generations of family members who have passed through Canada’s brutal residential school system, which separated indigenous children from their families and, in many cases, subjected them to sexual and physical abuse. Mailhot talks about this and a myriad of other topics in her writing, often taking on the form of missives to former lovers.

There were definitely moments in this book where I found myself underlining passages in my Kindle, saying “yes!” But then these flashes of brilliance would signal the moment when the magic would end, because moments later the author would switch time, location, and subject without warning. I am a bit confused with the classification of this book as a memoir, because the selections together as a whole seemed terribly disjointed and didn’t tell a cohesive story. The lack of cohesion put up a barrier for me–I wanted to understand her and the writing was certainly drawing me in, but the lack of a solid story here made this something I couldn’t access.

I almost feel bad for giving this two stars, because this book has gotten glowing reviews in the mainstream press. I definitely like the way the author writes, but I just don’t think this is my kinda book.

Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking

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Review for “Where the Dead Sit Talking” by Brandon Hobson (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in late 1980’s rural Oklahoma, “Where the Dead Sit Talking” is the sad, dark tale of a 15-year-old Native American teenager named Sequoyah, sent to live with a foster family after his mother’s imprisonment. From the outset of the novel, it is evident that Sequoyah carries many emotional scars, having dealt with his mother’s alcoholism and abuse in previous detention settings.

Harold and Agnes Troutt are also the foster parents of two other children: George, a younger, also emotionally damaged boy (his behavior strongly suggests that he’s possibly on the autism spectrum), and Rosemary, an older Native American girl with whom Sequoyah becomes obsessed. They bond over their shared heritage (he is Cherokee, she is Kiowa), smoking cigarettes in her bedroom at night and sharing their deepest secrets with each other. Their relationship is equal parts platonic and disturbing, with Sequoyah’s violent fantasies and obsessive thoughts of Rosemary taking up much of the novel.

This book has a very dark, brooding tone all throughout. There is no happy ending or ‘triumph’ by the main character. What is here is an unsettling silence at the heart of the story that betrays the notion that even though everything seems ok on the surface, it’s apparent that it isn’t. Despite the Troutts kindness and “good” intentions, they are powerless to stop the human catastrophe that simmers beneath the surface of their home. I think the author does a great job of depicting how even the most well-intentioned acts of goodness can be misdirected and to the complete detriment of the individual.

I highly recommend this book.