The novel blends the stories of ordinary people from a Blackfoot community in Canada with the observations and activities of four older Indians who tell each other stories as they undergo a quest to fix the world. The stories merge at the Sun Dance in the small town of Blossom.
The characters made this novel for me. Each one seemed so real, and their dilemmas so honest. Most of the principal characters are, in one way or another, trying to figure out how to live in the modern world while also honoring (or not) the traditions rooted in the past. It’s a universal dilemma, really, but King grounds the dilemma in how the characters approach the particular Blackfoot tradition of the Sun Dance. Some attend every year, and some do not. Some are there to please others, and some are there because it’s just what they do. And some don’t even seem to know why they go.
I was especially taken with the story of Eli Stands Alone, a man who first appears in his family’s small cabin, which he refuses to leave in protest of the building of a dam. It’s remarkable that he took this stand, because he spent many years away from his family and his people, refusing to attend the Sun Dance even when his wife Karen, a white woman, longed to go again. I appreciated the complex way King depicted Karen’s enthusiasm for Eli’s traditions and Eli’s feelings about her interest.
Lionel is another character I liked a lot, mostly because he felt so utterly real. A 40-year-old television salesman, Lionel was expected to be much more than he is. But he was never particularly motivated, and his lackadaisical approach to life got him into some legal trouble while he was at university, and he was never able to get his degree. He keeps saying he’s going to go back, but it’s hard to know whether he wants to or whether he senses everyone else’s disappointment in him.
And then there’s Alberta, Lionel’s lover. She’s a college professor who is involved with both Lionel and the lawyer Charlie Looking Bear. She doesn’t particularly want to give either man up, although she’s not sure she loves either one. Neither one really seems like an appropriate father for the child she wants to have, so she methodically works out her options, only to find that life doesn’t follow her logical rules.
These realistic stories appear alongside the story of four Indians who mysteriously vanished from a hospital room and are making their way to Blossom. As they travel, the four women each tell a creation story that draws on biblical images and on images from Western culture. In these stories, they take on the identities of the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye, Ishmael, and Robinson Crusoe. I found these sections fascinating for their subversive qualities, but I didn’t entirely understand what King was up to in these sections.
At times, it seems like these stories are meant to be re-imaginings of legends that often reduced Native Americans to stereotypes, if not leaving them out altogether. The Lone Ranger story seems especially empowering to both Indians and women. I think, too, there might be something going on involving Native American’s role in their own troubles. The Hawkeye story in particular gives that impression because Hawkeye lets herself be defined by others—but how could she know the consequences of going along with them? And what other choice did she have?
There’s also the Coyote, whose role in all the stories is difficult to nail down. He’s mischievous, and he acts as a companion to the novel’s unnamed narrator and the four old Indians. And he seems to be the mover behind some of the stranger events in the book. In understand that King is drawing the character from Indian oral traditions, but I don’t know those stories well enough to get at the significance of what he’s doing.
Whatever the meaning of the book actually is, I found it fascinating to think about. The twists on familiar tales and the realism of the characters made this a pleasure to read. If any of you have read it, I’d love to hear your take on some of the more mystical elements. And if you can point me toward any articles or reviews that delve into that aspect of the novel, I’d be glad to read them!