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by Greg Sarris

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1998
ISBN: 0-7868-6110-X
Publisher: Hyperion

An ambitious, meticulously detailed story about modern Native American life, focusing on the struggle of a small, disenfranchised tribe in modern-day California to reclaim its heritage and identity. Sarris’s debut novel, like the tales in his collection, Grand Avenue (1994), is set in Santa Rosa, a small town on the California coast that’s been the home of the Waterplace Pomo since the tribe was forced off of its traditional lands. One of the many ironies at work here is that, while the local whites only guardedly accept the Pomos— presence, the town had in fact been founded by a Pomo (Rosa), who, more than a century before, gathered the remnants of the tribe together after it had been devastated by Mexican raiders. In present-day, it is Elba, an elderly woman, who has quietly labored to preserve Pomo traditions and the sense of tribal identity. Her 17-year-old grandson Johnny, who ekes out a living selling secondhand clothes, has become active in the battle to secure federal recognition for the Pomo so they can qualify for federal assistance—and even, perhaps, reclaim some of their land. Johnny’s mother, Elba’s daughter Iris, is furiously opposed to all of this, having spent her life trying to gain acceptance in white society. The story is narrated in turn by each of these three characters, allowing Sarris (himself the chairman of the Federated Coast Miwok tribe in California) to illuminate the varied ways in which Native Americans have tried in modern times to deal with the tribal devastation they—ve undergone. Elba is the dominant figure here; her memories, both of her people’s past and traditions and of her own tragic past, are haunting. The resolution, in which the three family members and the varied (and vividly rendered) tribe members begin to draw together in the wake of violence, is both subtle and deeply moving. Despite a pace that sometimes dawdles, Sarris’s vigorous prose and robust characters make for a distinctive work, marking the debut of a singularly talented novelist. (Author tour)