By Louise Erdrich
A really well-done novel.
Joe is the thirteen year old Native American protagonist/narrator. A crime befalls his family, and the novel describes his coming-of-age, while working through with the emotional damaging effects of the crime on his parents and him.
A lot of the expository sections, particularly those that describe the episodes of Joe and his three friends reminded of the film, Stand by Me. In terms of the pacing, the tone and the actual stories, in which they play, get in trouble and fall in love, they tread on familiar ground, but are done well.
The parts that lift this work above other coming-of-age stories are the ones describing Joe's emotional states. Erdrich's word choices and analogies are just particularly striking:
I had to do what I had to do. This act was before me. In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart. I didn't want to blurt out the sound. I didn't want to give a voice to this roil of sensation. But I was naked and tiny before its power. I had no choice. I muffled the sounds I made so that I alone could hear them come out of me, gross and foreign. I lay on the floor, let fear cover me, and I tried to keep breathing while it shook me like a dog shakes a rat.Also, Joe's relationship with his parents are well-written: it's refreshingly loving, honest, but still anchored in reality with nuanced differences in opinion and feelings of teenage confusion.
I lay under this spell for maybe half an hour, and then it went away. I hadn't known whether it would or not. I had clenched my whole body so tightly that it hurt to let go. I was sore when I got up off the floor, like an old man with joint pains. I shuffled slowly up the stairs to my bed. Pearl had stayed by me all along. She'd huddled next to me. I kept her with me now. As I fell into a darker sleep, I understood that I had learned something. Now that I knew fear, I also knew it was permanent. As powerful as it was, its grip on me would loosen. It would pass.
He came downstairs sweating again, and tole me that every night at six o'clock I was to be home for dinner, which we'd bring upstairs and eat together. Like a family again, he said. We were starting this regimen now. I took a deep breath and carried up the tablecloth. Again, though my mother was angry, my father opened the shades and even a window, to let in a breeze. We brought a salad and a baked chicken up the stairs, plus the plates, glasses, silverware, and a pitcher of lemonade. Perhaps a drop of wine tomorrow night, to make something festive of it, Dad said without hope. He brought a bouquet of flowers he'd picked from the garden that she hadn't seen yet. He put them in a small painted vase. I looked at the green sky on that vase, the willow, the muddy water and awkwardly painted rocks. I was to become overly familiar with this glazed scene during thse dinners because I didn't want to look at my mother, propped up staring wearily at us as if she'd just been shot, or rolled into a mummy pretending to be in the afterlife. My father tried to keep a conversation going every night, and when I had exhausted my meager store of the day's doings, he forged on, a lone paddler on an endless lake of silence, or maybe rowing upstream.Lastly, the story is set in a Native American reservation and almost all Native American characters. I am unfamiliar with the culture at all, but I thought this was done well. She was able to mix in the general aspects of any teenage boy growing up in the US (Joe and his friends are Star Trek fans, they sometimes sneak out to drink and smoke) with activities more specific to their culture (picking up
"grandfather" stones for the sweat lodge, the cultural acceptance of visions in dreams), without the exotic-ification or the "look at these interesting things I, as an outsider, know of this culture" proud tone that so too many authors fall prey to.
All in all, this novel was both easy-to-read as well as thought-provoking.