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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Held Hostage By the Past BY DIANA AHNALT Perma Red Debra Magpie Earling Blue Hen Books 296 pages, $24.95. aybe through fiction “we can avenge our dead,” author Debra Magpie Earling once told an inter viewer. 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 selfdestruction, identity and redemption. Her novel, twenty years in the makingan earlier version was destroyed in a fireunfolds 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 Poison, 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 creaturesthe rattle snake, salamander, eagle, horse and deerare 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 storyseveral, 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. tragedy or opera, Louise’s marriage to Baptiste is the result of a series of illconceived 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 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/22/02