I read Linda Hogan’s novel Solar Storms back in January, and since it’s now March, I thought about not writing a review for it at all. But it made such an impression on me, I decided that I would write something about it — perhaps not a review (insofar as what I write can be called reviews, anyway), but some of the things that make this book so striking and beautiful.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, Angela, is coming north — far north — to the town of Adam’s Rib on Tinselman’s Ferry. She was adopted away from her tribe and her reservation when she was a tiny girl, because her mother brutally abused her. Now, as a teenager, she is returning to the women who love her and want her back: her aunt Agnes, her grandmother Dora-Rouge, and the healer, Bush, who couldn’t heal Angela’s mother.
Angela is skeptical at first. She has to start at the beginning, to understand a completely different way of knowing the world. People don’t tell the same stories, want the same things out of life, speak the same way, move at the same pace. But she learns about her people, and she learns about the land she lives on: the plants, the animals, the water, the sky, the air. Her name changes, from Angela to Angel to Maniki; she learns the secret names of the world around her, too.
Perhaps most importantly, in those first few months, Angela learns about her own history and fate. She is badly scarred — a result of her mother’s abuse — and until she can come to terms with that deep rejection, she can’t learn more. Broken mirrors recur in the text: first, a mirror Angela breaks on purpose, out of anger at her ugliness, and then one she drops accidentally:
One day I dropped the mirror and it broke into many pieces. For a while I kept these, looking only at parts of myself at a time. Then I had no choice but to imagine myself, along with the parts and fragments of stories, as if it all was part of a great brokenness moving, trying to move, toward wholeness — a leg, an arm, a putting together, the way Bush put together the animal bones.
This vision of herself as a broken reflection moving toward wholeness is echoed in the way Angela learns to see the land. Just as her mother’s destructive force scarred Angela and left her with permanent changes, the land of Tinselman’s Ferry and further north has been permanently damaged by roads, dams, electricity and floods. Is healing possible out of such brokenness, such mistrust, such scarring?
The first half of Solar Storms, as I said, is given to Angela’s return to her family and to her land. The second half is a strange, epic voyage. Angela, Agnes, Dora-Rouge and Bush receive word that a tribe to the north of them — the Fat-Eaters — have been threatened with a dam that will flood their lands. This will not only force them to move, it will destroy the heritage of the land itself: the plants, the grazing of the animals, the nesting places of birds. The women — all of them quite elderly except for Angela — decide to kayak north to help in the protest against the dam. Their long, arduous trip and the apparently-hopeless protest against white people determined to make a profit and install a hydroelectric dam show Angela the consequences of the wisdom she’s learned: knowing about water, land, and loss are infinitely valuable, but they make her vulnerable to still more loss. After losing her mother, is she prepared to lose her greater mother, the scarred and beleaguered land?
One thing that’s particularly interesting about the protest itself is that this book takes place during the Vietnam War. The young men — boys, really — that Angela and the other members of the tribe are protesting against are there because they are not in Vietnam. Linda Hogan balances the irony beautifully: they are here, ignorant of thousands of years of history of this land, because they are not there, ignorant of thousands of years of history of that land. Hmmm. Perhaps some listening is in order, some time or other; perhaps it would be possible not always to start fresh at zero with every new set of people?
Still, with all the weight, with all the inheritance of pain and loss that this book bears, it isn’t depressing. (Roger Ebert notoriously said that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.) There’s wry humor here:
One soft morning, Dora-Rouge sat in her white chair on “the front line.” The trees gave off a perfume in the heat. The air was still and heavy. It was going to be a warm day. But there was a tension to things. I felt anxious and I didn’t know why. Aurora also seemed disturbed. I stood a short distance away from Dora-Rouge, speaking with Bush, and I heard a young policeman say, “Oh, shit. It’s one of those old ladies again.” He trained the gun on Dora-Rouge, set his sight as if to scare her, took aim.
I ran toward him. “No!”
But Dora-Rouge looked right at him and said, “I’m not that old.”
There’s a complex understanding of how love strengthens us to meet even the most painful challenges. There’s wolverine, a trickster. There’s new life, and romance, and a sense that the land — and therefore its people — however scarred, is beautiful and whole.
This book was gracefully written, from a perspective I don’t see often. Have you read any of her other work? She is a poet as well as a novelist, and I’d love to hear about anything she’s written.