Monday, August 20, 2007

Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling

I definitely recommend this book. I initially picked it up simply because the author is coming to Bend for The Nature of Words. It is a depressing story, but not a depressing book to read. It starts out slow, but once you get into the rhythm of the story it becomes very intriguing.

The events described in Perma Red take place on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. It is a time, probably late 1940’s, when Indians were still sent away to boarding schools. The main character, Louise White Elk, is a reluctant attendee who is often chased down by Charlie Kicking Woman, a police officer. She tries to escape this life by marrying Baptiste Yellow Knife, but her problems only become more complex.

Louise’s relationship with Baptiste has a long history and is quite complex. Of Baptiste the author writes, “He became an Indian who was not afraid of being Indian, the worst kind, the kind nobody liked, neither the Indians nor the whites, the kind of Indian who didn’t care if he was liked.” (pg 134) Louise lasts only four days in her mother-in-law’s house, before she runs off. The importance of visions and long held beliefs about power permeate the book. By the time I reached this quote in the book, at first it did not even seem unusual, “The snakes would be lazy here, without power. She didn’t think they would strike her in her mother-in-law’s house because it would be like striking themselves. She had married snake’s blood.” (pg 126) The pace of the book seems slow and melodic, yet tragic events happen often at breakneck speed.

The novel alternates chapters about Louise with chapters told in the first person by Charlie Kicking Woman. Charlie’s problems are not the same as Louise, but almost seem more real and plausible. “I was sick and tired of those calls, sick of the sign above every small bar and tavern across the state of Montana and beyond, anywhere there was an Indian, no dogs or Indians allowed. Tired of being the authority charged to uphold a law that forbid me to enter a bar when I wasn’t in uniform.” (pg 117) Charlie, like Baptiste and other men in the story, is also obsessed with Louise to his own detriment.

I would have appreciated more chapters focused on Baptiste Yellow Knife and his thoughts throughout.

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