Held Hostage by the Past

Maybe through fiction “we can avenge our dead,” author Debra Magpie Earling once told an interviewer. Perma Red is Earling’s attempt to avenge her own dead, the victims of a “White man’s justice” in general, and her remarkable aunt, Louise White Elk, in particular.

Louise balked within the confines of a hostile society and refused to take the easy way out and “pass for White.” Stifled by discriminatory federal policies, the brutalization of women at the hands of men, and an educational system guaranteed to quash any sign of ambition or success, she fought back with the only weapons she had: her wit, her beauty, her courage, and her rage. Earling, a professor at the University of Montana, whose short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Northeast Indian Quarterly, Northern Lights, and half a dozen anthologies, has written a passionate tale about self-destruction, identity and redemption.

Her novel, twenty years in the making–an earlier version was destroyed in a fire–unfolds against a landscape shrouded in fog and lashed by wind and rain, a place as brutal and harsh as the society in which Louise and her kinfolk are trapped. Set during the 1940s in the vicinity of the Flathead Indian reservation in Polson, Montana, where Earling currently resides, this account incorporates a story of love and intrigue, a stinging indictment against the White man, and legends and traditions culled from her past.

She is at her most eloquent when she writes about the “old ways”: “A pressing ache in her hollow chest made her long to sleep near the soft bellies of old men for warmth, the yawning smell of bacon fat in their wet breath, their cupboards lined with food, jars of yeast, barrels of flour she could knead to sweet bread, the golden batter of honey, smooth and clear on crisp toast, hot coffee with thick cream, full to the top rung of her ribs.”

Descriptions like these are all the more moving in contrast to the White man’s world where, in the words of the Ursuline nun, Sister Simon: “Men are civilized. We have telephones and typewriters. Electric mixers and wash machines. Indoor plumbing. You Indians must understand. We can talk to wild animals till we’re blue in the face, but a bird is never going to tell you how to build a nest. Snakes won’t bite our enemies because we tell them to. I’m here to liberate you from the darkness of superstition.”

The Native American world, on the other hand, is rooted in myth and tradition. The weather, the terrain, all growing things, and all living creatures–the rattle snake, salamander, eagle, horse and deer–are each endowed with their own magic. Here, supremacy is granted to those who commune with spirits and are at one with their surroundings. Among the few remaining are Dirty Swallow, who commands the snake world, and her son, Baptiste Yellow Knife, whose power over Louise borders on the supernatural.

Much in Perma Red borders on the supernatural. How else does one explain the ghosts? The Dixon ghost, an old White man who haunts travelers; the woman dressed in black who lives in a church and lights the fire which never warms, or the child who cries out to passersby from its grave dwell alongside the living. Such images give a whole new dimension to Earling’s work. They add symbolic resonance, blend reality and mysticism in a manner reminiscent of Latin American magic realism, and set this story apart from traditional accounts of love and intrigue.

Although Perma Red skillfully recreates popular folklore and legend, it also purports to be a love story–several, perhaps. But I hesitate to refer to it as such because, in general, the characters’ actions are motivated by obsession, lust, and passion rather than by our conventional notion of love. At the center of the story is the relationship between Baptiste, a creepy and generally unlovable wretch, uncomfortably close to the white stereotype of the “drunken Indian,” and Louise, the “Perma Red” of the title. (Perma is the name of the nearest town; “red” as used here, describes her hair color and is a denigrating reference to her Native American heritage. We are also informed, too late in the book I believe, that Red referred to “all the bad names polite company could hiss. Red light district. Slut.”) As in Greek tragedy or opera, Louise’s marriage to Baptiste is the result of a series of ill-conceived yet seemingly inevitable actions. It is their fate. In much the same way, destruction is Louise’s fate. Her continuous attempts to escape through drink, feats of daring, or by running away are manifestations of both her courage and her fear.

She has much to fear. In addition to Baptiste, whose power over her defies rational explanation, several men are determined to exploit her for their own ends. In turn, each of these highly complex and self destructive individuals attracts, but simultaneously repels her; a third plays a role in her downfall, and each represents a segment of her society. If her husband is her link to her people, Charlie Kicking Woman, employed by the White-run police department, represents “the good Indian,” what Louise fears she will become if she relaxes her hold on her identity. Charlie plays by the White man’s rules, but is never accepted. His obsession with Louise clouds his judgement, destroys his marriage, and threatens his career. A number of others, but two in particular, represent the corrupt white world: Harvey Stoner, the richest man in town–unscrupulous, bigoted, lecherous and so evil he comes close to caricature–and Jules Bart, a White rancher.

But if Perma Red is part love story and part recreation of a now-vanished society, it is, in the end, a devastating condemnation of the United States for its mistreatment of Native Americans and its despoilation of their land. Descriptions of an untouched wilderness stand in stark opposition to the destruction wrought in the name of “civilization.” Earling takes this idea one step further with phrases like: “She is beautiful and not beautiful. I connect Louise to the land,” and “I could see the outline of her face in shadows, sad and dark like mountains.” Louise becomes a personification of her surroundings. What happens to the land happens to her, and like the land, she is repeatedly battered and abused, not just physically, but in other ways as well. In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, the nuns at Louise’s school lock her overnight in a small dark room along with her dead friend’s corpse. (By extension, I saw in this episode an interesting commentary on the Native American condition in a white society.)

No doubt, the themes of persecution and identity have been worked and reworked many times previously, and the book sometimes hits us over the head in its eagerness to deliver a message, but it’s one that rings with truth. There is no denying the author’s grasp of subject and her intimate acquaintance with contemporary Native American life and the events surrounding her aunt’s story.

Her aunt, Louise White Elk, died a violent death when she was 29 years old. (The infant she left behind was raised as Earling’s older sister.) Earling has told interviewers that after the manuscript was repeatedly rejected on grounds that its ending was “too dark,” a decision was made to save Louise. As a result, the book now ends on a hopeful note. Such changes are often necessary, but since the writer had carefully laid the ground for a grim outcome, one can’t help but question, given Baptiste’s nature and Louise’s catapult toward self destruction, whether either has undergone a shift in attitude and behavior significant enough to warrant the story’s conclusion.

Despite such weaknesses, there is no denying the author’s strengths. She is a skillful stylist who builds suspense by shifting between two points of view: Charlie speaks to us in the first person while a third, more objective voice, narrates Louise’s story. Earling’s vocabulary is rhythmic, highly evocative, close at times to poetry. In describing a late night collision, she writes: “The man shouted ‘Look,’ and she lifted her head eye-level to the bottom of the windshield. She held the deer in her vision like light. For one moment suspended in its leap. She could see its white throat, the hair bristled on its back. She heard first the thick hide buckling the smooth chrome, then the slow slide of the well-grazed deer over the wind-ridden hood.”

The book is filled with such examples of lyrical beauty and precision. Perma Red is a haunting tale of persecution, brutality and prejudice and, in spite of its flaws, paints a powerful picture of man’s inhumanity to man–one as dark and uncaring as Montana’s midnight landscapes. Like Louise’s perception of the deer it will persist “caught in your vision, like light.”

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).

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