Wednesday 23 July 2014

The Grass Dancer by Susan Power

Back in the 1860s, Ghost Horse, a handsome young heyo'ka, or sacred clown, loved and lost the beautiful warrior woman Red Dress. Since then, their spirits have sought desperately to be reunited, and it is the ceaseless playing out of this drama that shapes the sometimes violent fate of those who have come after them. Now, in the 1980s, Charlene Thunder, a teenage descendant of Red Dress, is in love with Harley Wind Soldier, the dashing traditional dancer of Ghost Horse's lineage. When Harley's redheaded soul mate, Pumpkin, dies in a crash, Charlene guiltily suspects her own grandmother, the notorious witch Anna Thunder, of causing it - as she well may have caused the collision that claimed Harley's father and brother, which even today obsesses him. Charlene and Harley each strive in solitude to make peace with the ghosts of the old ways, while they contend with the living: Jeannette McVay, an eastern college student who has been studying the tribe; Crystal Thunder, who must escape the reservation in order to understand her past; Herod Small War, whose spiritual guidance is both revered and resented; Margaret Many Wounds, Harley's grandmother, who walks on the moon.
Goodreads description 

I loved this book and could hardly bear to put it down. In fact it is now one of my favourite magic realist books, which is saying a lot (this is the 116th review on this blog). There are some books that you should read in one sitting or as near to one as you can get. This is one such book. Each chapter in the book is almost a separate story, narrated by different characters at different times (it is important to make a note of the year that appears under each chapter heading). This patchwork of stories comes together to form the larger picture. This structure is why it is important to read the book rapidly, because you can lose your way if you take too long. I felt very much that I was dreaming when I read the book - experiencing a series of instances, visions, references that came in and out of focus, until at last they formed one vision. 

Dreaming and visions are at the heart of this book. The full story of Red Dress does not come until towards the end of the book, but she appears in the dreams and visions of the characters throughout the book. I read somewhere that that is how Susan Power got the idea for the book - the woman in a red dress appeared to her. The line between the real and the dream is constantly blurring. Which is real - the dream or the waking? Power makes it clear how central dreams were and are to Sioux culture. I can't help thinking that they should be more important to the culture of the white man (and woman in my case). It seems to me that we have lost something when we forgot to take our dreamworld as seriously as our waking. 

There are some memorable characters in this book - the most notable being the awful and awesome Anna (Mercury) Thunder. She could so easily have been a stereotype, but Power gives her a back story that shows that she was not always the witch she becomes and also explains why she changed. Of course the book's structure of telling characters' stories in reverse makes the revelation of Anna Thunder's past tragedy all the stronger.

If I have one criticism it is that there are perhaps too many characters to keep track of, especially as the book's chronology jumps about so much. One of the reasons for my confusion was that the storyline is structured almost as a series of variations on a theme, with incidents reappearing through the generations.  In this I was reminded of Alan Garner's books, which so influenced me as a child and which also feature legends that reappear in the present day.

I have read a number of excellent magic realist books dealing with the complexity of life of modern Native Americans in a predominantly white society, but none have shown mixed marriages and mixed parentage as this book does. The different generations (apart from Red Dress's) all feature inter-race relationships. And yet this book shows the native "magic" as very much a part of accepted everyday life. On the reservation magic just happens and everyone accepts it.  This is contrasted with the attitude of the white schoolteacher who comes to live with and study Anna Thunder.  Despite being around Anna and supposedly respecting Sioux heritage and culture, she is shocked and scared when she realizes that Anna can actually work her magic.  As Anna affirms: I am not a fairytale. 

No Anna you are not and nor are your beliefs and nor is magic realism.

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