THE DEATH AT AWAHI by Harold Burton Meyers


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The experiences of a young white man overseeing the lives of the fictional Awahi Indians of New Mexico.

Quill Thompson and his wife, Jane, are from poor Texas farming families. Quill taught for the Indian Service for three years in Phoenix before, in 1923, becoming principal of a school in a remote pueblo near Gallup, N.M. He has acquired a reputation as a Young Turk, opposed to the Federal policy of “Christianize and civilize” initiated by President Grant. He believes the Indians should be allowed to preserve their own languages and customs, though his bureaucratic supervisor has warned him not to rock the boat; as Indian agent, he will oversee all aspects of pueblo life while Jane, a nurse, establishes a clinic. Awahi is an unattractive assignment; the land is infertile and the wind blows constantly. Quill must confront not only Mrs. Wallis, a battleaxe who whips the children, but two obnoxious Protestant missionaries. The more prominent is Thomas Sandringham, an eccentric figure who performs magic tricks, has done time for mail fraud and chastises the Indians at every turn. (A similar charlatan was the protagonist of Meyers’s 1989 debut, Geronimo’s Ponies). The Awahis are represented by two canny but taciturn leaders, one secular, the other spiritual, and also by colorful masked figures at a rabbit hunt and a harvest celebration. The community has a severe water shortage, and Quill persuades the leaders to have wells dug inside the pueblo; this he will regard as his “supreme achievement.” Meyers writes fluidly, but he plots like a rank amateur. He gives us episodes but no storyline; what should have been its centerpiece (the murder of Sandringham) does not occur until almost the end, and it leaves his protagonist, Quill, high and dry, with nothing to do but concur with Awahi justice.

Meyers’s work occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between historical truth (Grant’s policy and its repercussions) and an extrapolation into fiction of Indian tribal customs.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 2007
ISBN: 0-89672-599-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Texas Tech Univ. Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2006