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Category Archive for 'Native American'

The scale, scope, and significance of this magnificent biography by National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan are only slightly eclipsed by the immense scale, scope, and significance of the work of photographer Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952). Curtis, at age twenty-eight, took his first photograph of a Native American when he did a portrait of “Princess Angeline,” an aged woman who was the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, for whom the American city was named. By 1896, when Curtis took this photo, it was illegal for Princess Angeline and other Indians to live within the city named for her father, and Curtis was all too aware of that sad reality. Though he was married with several young children, Edward Curtis spent the next thirty-three years investigating the remaining cultures of Native Americans throughout the West, determined to record every aspect of their cultures before they vanished completely from history. Ultimately, he traveled on a mission that took him to virtually every remaining tribal area and state west of the Mississippi River. Totally devoted to his self-imposed task, he gave up virtually everything of personal value, working for no money at all, and living most of his life hopelessly in debt in order to fulfill his personal mission. As Egan presents his insights into Curtis’s personality, quirks, and even blind spots, this biography becomes a rarity – a biography closer to a classical Greek tragedy than to the more familiar saga of a man’s life.

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Escaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. After fighting in the Indian Wars, they end up fighting in the Civil War. Sebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Barry makes everything real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.

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Within the first two paragraphs of this dramatic and incisive study of human relationships, author Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indians, introduces a series of powerful conflicts which pit family against family, culture against culture, and generation against generation. In the opening scene, quoted at the top of the review, Landreaux Iron, a careful and respected member of his culture, accidentally kills Dusty Ravich, the five-year-old son of Peter Ravich, a friend and family member with whom he had planned to share the meat from the buck. Racing back to Peter’s house, Landreaux encounters Peter’s wife Nola, who becomes understandably hysterical, and by the time the tribal police, the county coroner, and the state coroner have arrived, the trauma has been felt by all the members of both devastated families. Later, Landreaux, his wife Emmaline, and their five-year-old son LaRose take solace in the traditions of their Indian culture by going to the sweat lodge. There, in their mystical dreams, they have a vision of the future. True justice and repentance, they decide, can only be achieved if Landreaux gives his own five-year-old son, LaRose, to Peter Ravich and his wife Nola to raise as their own. The action of the novel evolves from this decision in the first few pages of the book.

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Author Louise Erdrich, herself a member of a Chippewa (Ojibwa) band of Native Americans, here writes one of her most powerful and emotionally involving novels. Though it starts as a crime story, it is, like all Erdrich’s novels, much more than that, quickly developing into an examination of the lives of her characters, both old and young, as they face the challenges of reservation life. In a powerful opening scene, filled with symbols and portents, thirteen-year-old Antone Basil Coutts (Joe), only child and namesake of Judge Coutts and his wife Geraldine, is helping his father to pull tiny seedlings from cracks in the foundation of their house. They are awaiting Geraldine’s return from the office, where she works recording the genealogies of the members of their band of Chippewa, keeping track of marriages, births, who is living there, and who has moved away. When she finally arrives at home, she is almost unrecognizable, so badly beaten she can hardly see, reeking of gasoline and so traumatized by rape and other crimes against her that she has become mute. She claims not to know who has committed this crime or where it took place, hiding out in her room after she is released from the hospital and refusing to leave. The boy, known as Joe to his friends, knows that it will be up to him and his father to try to find out who has done this. They begin to study cases in which his father has been involved to look for clues.

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In this relentlessly domestic novel about a failed marriage, Louise Erdrich changes her focus from grand themes and the on-going history of Native American cultures to a microscopic analysis of the interactions of two people who have failed, not just in their marriage, but in virtually all their other relationships. Gil, a well-recognized, almost-great artist, is thirteen years older than Irene, who had been his student and model when she was in college and he was a teacher. Whereas many other Erdrich novels soar with theme, this novel is firmly grounded in domestic torments and tribulations, created with such emotional intensity that I could not help wondering about the degree to which this novel might have sprung from Erdrich’s own marriage difficulties. Others have stated outright that the novel is semi-autobiographical. The novel is hard to read, almost too personal, too open (and it would still feel that way even if it were completely fictional).

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