A knotty portrait of Ojibwe life with some winningly uncanny touches.


A young gay man reckons with love, tribal lore, and a decades-old murder in this rangy debut novel.

Marion, the main narrator of Staples’ first book, isn’t where he wants to be, and that’s back in his hometown on Minnesota’s Ojibwe reservation. A brief stint in the Twin Cities ended with busted relationships, but his best romantic prospect in the area is deeply closeted former high school classmate Shannon, who has the unglorious job of attending to animal carcasses on a resort island. Still, Staples, an Ojibwe writer, wants to suggest that the best way to move forward is by facing one's past head-on. The notion arrives first via symbolism: As children, Marion and his friends spooked each other by saying a dog died under the merry-go-round at the playground, and now that dog reappears (or seems to) in Marion’s presence. That incident sparks Marion’s investigation into his high school days, in particular the murder of Kayden, a basketball star who became a father shortly before he was killed. Plotwise, the story is a stock hero’s-journey tale, as Marion lets go of his skepticism of Ojibwe spiritualism, discovers the truth about Kayden’s death, and finds a community along with a degree of emotional fulfillment. But credit Staples for complicating the story in some interesting ways, from shifting perspectives from Marion to other townspeople (with a particular emphasis on Native women), a smirking humor that cuts the mordant atmosphere (“What do Indians call a lack of faith?” “Being white”), and a graceful handling of Ojibwe culture. In its later stages, the story seems to keep sprouting tentacles as new characters and revelations emerge, which saps some of its narrative drive, but it returns affectingly to the messy fates of Marion and Shannon.

A knotty portrait of Ojibwe life with some winningly uncanny touches.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-64009-284-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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