This novel by Susan Power meanders backward and forward in time. Its nonlinear structure feels right while you’re reading it; it’s like when you’re hearing a long family story from a parent or grandparent and they say, oh, let me back up a minute, I forgot to tell you about when your grandfather was selling shoes in the 1930s and he met Uncle Jack — this will become relevant later — The Grass Dancer is like this. Each chapter is time stamped, sometimes a year or two later than the previous chapter, sometimes eighty years earlier. Each time, we’re getting more information about the families involved in the tangled relationships on this Dakota reservation.
The Grass Dancer has a big cast of characters, but there are basically two families involved: Harley Wind Soldier’s family and Charlene Thunder’s family. In the opening chapter, there’s a big powwow, and people come from all over. During the dancing, Harley meets a young woman named Pumpkin from another reservation. Pumpkin is a grass dancer, even though that’s not a traditional role for a woman, and she excels at it, her body flowing like the long grass on the prairie. Harley falls for her immediately, to Charlene Thunder’s chagrin. Charlene’s grandmother, Mercury Thunder, notices Charlene’s unhappiness, and that night Pumpkin and her friends get into a fatal car crash. Was it Mercury’s doing? Well, it could have been. Mercury is known for her powerful medicine — medicine that’s meant to be used for the community but that Mercury keeps all for herself.
After this, we drift backward and forward in time, to understand the circumstances surrounding Charlene’s birth, the powerful ancestors from the reservation whose love for each other caused some of this tangle to begin with, and some of the stories the Dakota people tell. We see Christianity come down the Missouri and find the tribe, and we see the tribe adapt those stories to their own needs. There’s love, jealousy, kindness, cruelty, sex, power, creativity, a one-room schoolhouse, and the Apollo 11 landing.
I notice that a lot of critics talk about this book in terms of magical realism. Terry Windling even gave this book an award for best fantasy novel. I’m not so sure about either of those designations. There’s powerful magic, important rituals, ghosts, and visions, certainly, but those things are deeply grounded here, and meant to be believed as everyday occurrences. There’s a white character in this novel, Jeannette McVay, who comes to town to learn all about the tribe. She takes a job as schoolteacher and coerces the children to tell their stories aloud; she talks about how wonderful and natural “you people” are. She lives with Mercury Thunder and witnesses her spells and listens avidly to her stories. But when Mercury pulls off one particularly cruel spell that has consequences for several people, Jeannette doesn’t really believe that Mercury did it. She can’t take in the idea that the medicine could be real. And it seems to me that treating this book as fantasy is the same approach. Susan Power has said that the culture described here is her reality. This is fiction, yes, but not some special brand we have to treat with tongs.
I enjoyed this book, though in some ways it wasn’t as structurally sound as I might have liked. Even with the rather baggy structure, though, the more time I spent with the characters, the more I enjoyed them. I’m glad I read this, and you might be, too.