The Only Good Indians

This novel by Stephen Graham Jones begins with a mysterious and brutal death outside a North Dakota bar. Newspapers linked the death to a “dispute,” but in the moments before his death Ricky Boss Ribs had a vision:

When he stood, there was a sea of green eyes staring back at him from right there, where there was just supposed to be frozen grass and distance.

It was a great herd of elk, waiting, blocking him in, and there was a great herd pressing in behind him, too, a herd of men already on the blacktop himself, their voices rising, hands balled into fists, eyes flashing white.

Ricky was one of four Blackfoot men who grew up together but whose relationships were transformed after hunting on forbidden land 10 years earlier. Lewis, like Ricky, has moved away from the reservation, married a white woman, and works for the postal service. But now he’s seeing visions of an elk and is becoming increasingly unsettled and suspicious. The way the action builds here is unsettling to the reader, too, as it’s not clear what exactly is happening, how much is attributable to Lewis’s imagination, and how Lewis will ultimately react to his growing terror. In this section, I loved how Jones made it clear something strange is happening but makes the terror as much about Lewis’s internal struggle as it is about the monster.

The next section, titled “Sweat Lodge Massacre,” was less exciting for me. Here, the story turns to Cass and Gabe, the other two friends. They are planning a sweat lodge ceremony to help a local teenager named Nathan get his life more on track. At this point, readers know more about what is happening, so it’s just a matter of when and how the attack will occur. There’s not as much of a sense of unease because the characters are so oblivious, and a lot of the interpersonal dynamics felt like a distraction, rather than adding to the story. The book ends, however, with a really exciting chase sequence and a very satisfying ending.

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