Power by Linda Hogan

Power is a beautiiul book. It was a thick read, even at 235 pages. It’s heavy on description and much of this is loaded into the first three chapters of the book which take up 83 pages. Omishto is our narrator and tells all of the events of the story. She is a Taiga Indian, member of a tribe that is only thirty members strong and appears to be dying. Along with the disappearance of the tribe will be the disappearance of the Taiga language and stories about Sisa, the grandmother panther who brought the Taiga people into the world and breathed life (Oni) into them.

It’s through the eyes of Omishto that we see everything in the novel: the geography of the part of Florida where the events of the book take place, Ama, her mother’s cousin who functions as an aunt and guide, the hurricane, the hunt for the panther and even visions into a world we could not be aware of without having made a spirit journey of our own. Omishto sees the historical past, flashes of a vision of the future and even the eternal present of Taiga myth and storytelling.

This is a complex book, I think. One that would be hard to teach without the benefit of a teacher serving as a guide. Very little of the book is told through dialog. I loved the story that is told in Power. I didn’t love it as a thing of beauty, though passages are beautiful. I didn’t love the book because it told the story I wanted to hear. It didn’t. The driving event of the entire plot occurs on page 65 and I spent the next 170 pages exploring the meaning of this event and its effects on Omishto.

After a hurricane has hit the Ama’s house and the surrounding area has been devastated physically Ama leads Omishto on a journey that appears to take them outside of ordinary time and geography. It is a hunt for the Florida Panther, so Omishto loses track of time and, later, has difficulty identifying the route that they have taken, knowing only that they haven’t strayed off of Taiga reservation land. The passage on which the book turns involves Ama’s shooting of the revered panther.

And then Ama says, “Omishto, come stand beside me,” and I do. The cat looks up and she shows me to the cat, and what she does is, she introduces me to it, it to me. She says my name as she looks at me, as if I am both an offering and a friend.

Then, when Ama fires the gun, I jump back and cover my mouth with my hand and the world breaks apart in the terrified screams of small animals. Birds wake in trees and call out. But after the noise, everything goes quiet. A great silence spreads over the place. It is bleeding silence.

There is so much to say about this novel. I think that it goes beyond simply being a novel that explains “Indian ways” to a white audience. It even goes beyond being a political statement about treaty rights or the history of America’s genocide directed at the original residents of the North American continent.

Hogan appears to be trying to take all of us, Native and non-Native alike, to consider a future which doesn’t result in the death of all species and a determined ignorance of the natural world. For Omishto, the time in the distant past when human beings were in a closer relationship with nature, humans could ask “the animals to lay down their lives for us and in turn we offered them our kinship, our respect, our words in the next world over from here, our kind treatment.” The illusion, according to Hogan’s character, Omishto is that “…people believe, falsely, …that all this can no longer be so.”

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Sherman Alexie’s “Flight”

Sherman Alexie’s Flight is a good young adult novel. It owes quite a bit to both Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Vonnegut’s character, Billy Pilgrim, Alexie’s main character, Zits, is a time traveler who doesn’t get to choose his destination or when he will travel in time. The slips through time happen to him; they’re not of his choosing. Like George Bailey in Capra’s film, Zits is given the chance to see something similar to Bailey’s experience of what the world would be like if he hadn’t lived.

The original twist that Alexie puts on this idea is that Zits gets to see how much has had to happen to make his existence possible. Even more than that, he gets a chance to take part in decisions that others have made and which have changed them in ways only a person who makes such a choice can understand. It’s for this reason that Alexie’s book becomes more than an imitation of either Slaughterhouse Five or It’s a Wonderful Life.

The main character is Zits, a 15-year-old boy who’s Native American father left when Zits was born. He hasn’t even given Zits or his mother the name of the tribe he belongs to. Zits’ questions about his heritage and sense of belonging in either the white or Native worlds are a large part of what haunts him throughout the novel. Zits’ mother died of breast cancer when Zits was only six and he has been moved from foster home to foster home ever since. He has been sexually abused (implied) and psychologically abused (described explicitly) in ways that have left him with a hole at the center of his life. If he is unlovable and unwanted, why would any decision he makes be of importance?

The lessons that any adolescent has to learn are complicated enough. For Zits they are the difference between having a future filled with choices and possibilities or having a future defined by the state of Washington through its Department of Corrections. By having Zits travel through time and take part in the lives of others, he’s given a quick, but deep education on empathy and taking a more far-sighted look at the long-term effects of good and bad decisions.

Zits is given the chance to see how taking another person’s life could change him forever. In two scenes in which he travels back to the nineteenth century he gets to see how the selfless actions of one person made such a difference that it saved one of his ancestors and made his own life possible. He’s also given a very graphic view of the life of a Native who has spent his life as an alcoholic living on the street. The lesson hits him even harder when he realizes he is getting the chance to view life from the perspective of his own father.

Alexie’s Flight is a book intended for any adolescent who is unsure if their lives have any future or if their present actions have any importance. He tells the story firmly from the viewpoint and problems many Native American children face but the lessons related to the importance of empathy and the ability to look beyond one’s immediate impulses and see long-range consequences are universal.

Comment on Rainy Lake, a novel by Mary Francois

Throughout the first, and even in to the second, chapter of Rainy Lake I thought that this would be a book I read for Adolescent Literature rather than a book I’d enjoy. The first chapters do what one would expect from any novel: give us characters, a setting and a hint at what would follow in terms of theme and plot.

The first few chapters did, however, function more as short stories than chapters in a novel. Having the timeline of the novel divided into summers was a natural choice in telling a story centered around a lake home. It just took me a while to get accustomed to this approach to storytelling.

The feeling that this book was flowing along as a novel really only became apparent to me in the chapter “BYOL Party (1966)”. There was just a hint or foreshadowing of this at the end of the previous chapter when Bryan tells his sister, “‘Something’s happening, Danny. Can’t you see it?'” In this chapter we finally get the main action and recurring situations that make up the rest of the novel: the father’s alcoholism, Bryan’s disillusionment with his father, and Danny’s coming of age highlighted in her own first taste of being drunk.

It isn’t until the next chapter that we really get to understand that her sexual identity is going to be a major part of Danny’s story. Until she finds herself attracted to Billy Dove and recognizes the sexual feelings she has for him, this theme doesn’t really take off. In the earlier chapters, she is the tomboy in her group of friends. She is the one with the figure that no one notices yet and who cares little about getting attention from boys. Although Billy Dove had rescued Danny’s copy of Jane Eyre from the lake, it was an event perceived by Danny as a chivalrous gesture, but there’s no romantic spark struck here, especially on Billy’s part.

There were parts of the novel I felt were really underdeveloped. A lot of time is spent on the subject of Danny’s view of her mother, May, in the earlier chapters of the book. This seems to reach a peak with the Danny’s observation of the friendship between May and Nini, the mother of one of Danny’s close friends from the lake, Therese. After Danny’s befuddlement over watching her mom try to fit into a dress that is two sizes too small for her we get little of Danny’s relationship with her mother after this point.

Rockcastle spends, I thought, very little time with the friendship between her and the two girls, Therese and Carline, who are her friends and become of greater importance to her by the end of the novel. I understood that a lot of this hinged upon Danny’s personality and her ability to stay within herself. She seems to need very few people to really connect with. The detail that spelled this out most clearly for me was that she couldn’t trust her closest friend, Therese, with the fact that Billy Dove was her first lover. Even that physical connection with Billy Dove ends up feeling like another compartment in her life: social observations in the Bryan compartment, dreams of the future in the Charlie/father compartment,  learning about female identity and role in the Therese department, and so on.

Billy Dove is the most fully developed character in the book aside from Danny. His character manages to have involvement in three important areas of Danny’s life by being a fishing partner, a friend, her lover and the gateway to understanding racism in America, especially the Rainy Day corner of America, and how she will come to an understanding of white privilege as part of her growing up.

About

Barrie Evans /photo by Truly Evans

My name is Barrie Evans and I am an MFA student in Creative Writing at Minnesota State University–Mankato. I am writing this blog to record my responses to readings for a class on Adolescent Literature taught by Jacqueline Arnold.