Brave Book Pairings: Indigenous Peoples' edition
Pair a stunning literary debut with YA speculative fiction, both by indigenous authors, and what do you get?
I’m starting a new thing in Be Your Own Hero called Brave Book Pairings. I’ll pair two recent reads, dig into how they inform each other and how the combo makes for more than the sum of its parts.
Reading is an inherently political act; what we choose to read and how we talk about it matters.
What makes it brave? Reading is an inherently political act; what we choose to read and how we talk about it matters. Talking about books not only as individual works, but as part of a literary universe woven into society goes against a narrative that separates art from life.
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I don’t want this to be just me spouting opinions — please chime in with your thoughts. There’s a whole world of reading out there and I’d love to know what you think.
Let’s dive in.
There There is literary fiction, the 2018 debut novel by Oakland-raised Cheyenne/Arapahoe author Tommy Orange. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year. It’s set in contemporary Oakland, California, and follows a dozen or so “urban Indians” whose lives converge explosively at the Big Oakland Powwow.
The Marrow Thieves is young adult (YA) speculative fiction set in the not-too-distant future of Canada, where indigenous people are forced into hiding and running ever northward. Climate change has fouled much of the earth’s waterways and non-Native people are losing the ability to dream, leading government “Recruiters” to hunt down and capture Indigenous people for their bone marrow — the only thing that can restore it.
These were the seventh and eighth books by Indigenous authors I read this year as part of a goal of 12 by the end of 2022. Each one widened my appreciation for the breadth and depth of Native literature. But there was something about the combination of these two that helped me finally sense of the weight of the generational trauma that inflicts itself on Indigenous people.
There There is populated entirely by Native characters. I don’t recall anyone interacting with a White person. It’s one of many ways the novel pushes back on myriad Native American tropes: the Noble Savage, the Vanishing Indian, the Wise Sage, even the Resilient Indian. Tropes explain and categorize the Other, but if the world of the novel is Native, you take away the opportunity to be Othered.
The Oakland setting of the Urban Indian further pushes back, as do the characters themselves. Each of them is a flawed, complicated human being wrestling with family, identity, sexual trauma, body shaming — and yes, addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and other challenges that have come to be associated with Native stories. But their struggles are with each other, in this urban setting that — to me at least — was so different from anything I’d read that it kept me from slipping back into relying on those tropes.
These Indigenous stories have been robbed of just being able to be what they are. They must always exist against a backdrop not of their choosing.
And yet — and yet. Even though the intertwined storylines exist in this Native-centered world, there is the bigger backstory of genocide and forced relocation that cannot be evaded. Several characters have backstory from the Native Occupation of Alcatraz in 1970, and one character moves to Oklahoma for a time to attempt to connect to tribal roots there. There is no escaping the greater context. And that to me seems the greatest tragedy — that these Indigenous stories have been robbed of just being able to be what they are. They must always exist against a backdrop not of their choosing.
Then there’s The Marrow Thieves. Since it’s YA, the characters and storylines are more straightforward. I don’t usually read YA, nor do I read much speculative fiction, so this was something different for me.
The story follows Frenchie, a First Nations teen who’s forced into fleeing north on his own after his parents disappear, presumed taken by Recruiters, and his brother is later also captured. After a near-death experience, Frenchie is rescued and taken in by a multigenerational band of similarly fleeing Natives led by Miigwans, whose partner has also been taken. They become Frenchie’s found family in a quest to survive and later attempt a rescue of their elder Minerva.
The particulars of The Marrow Thieves plot didn’t make an impact on me so much as the language used to describe the sinister state-run labs where the dreams are harvested. Though officially known as the Department of Oneirology (from the Greek oneiros, meaning “dream” — I had to look it up), the facilities are referred to as “schools,” with “school truancy officers” aka Recruiters who track down and capture Natives.
“Miigwans says the Governors’ Committee didn’t set up the schools brand new; he says they were based on the old residential school system they used to try to break our people to begin with, way back.”
Talk about your symbolism. I’d heard about the Canadian residential schools (although am embarrassed to admit I only recently realized we had them in the U.S. too; why is a separate story). But until The Marrow Thieves it didn’t hit me how very present the schools still are in the minds and lives of Indigenous people. It’s not too surprising when you learn the last Canadian residential school didn’t close until 1996.
That the author chose this language and brought the specter of re-invigorated “schools” to this futuristic landscape hammered home in ways no museum exhibit or documentary ever had the ways this system inflicted generational trauma.
The story is engagingly told through its teen protagonist, intercut with chapters of several characters’ “Coming to” stories of how they came to be in their band of survivors. The female characters are given agency, particularly the elder Minerva, which appealed to my feminism, and Miigwans matter-of-factly refers to his husband, which was a surprising touch. But it is surprising perhaps only because my stereotype of Indigenous people is that they can have only one identity.
It’s important to engage with the stories of Indigenous people. By doing so we become less fragile when faced with the truth.
If it sounds like both these books are downers, you’re kind of right. But it’s important to engage with the stories of Indigenous people. By doing so we become less fragile when faced with the truth.
The characters in There There are not warm and cuddly. Neither are they inspiring and noble. Most of them are damaged, and they inflict some terrible things on each other — just like characters in any other book or in real life.
The Marrow Thieves arrives at a point of redemption, but there is plenty left unresolved. And climate change having an outsized impact on Indigenous communities is just a fact of its world — and ours.
I got a lot out of reading these books. I hope you got something out of this Brave Book Pairing. Have you read either of these? Did I completely miss the mark? Are there other Indigenous authors you recommend? Have ideas for future pairings? Please let me know.