USEFUL GIRL by Marcus Stevens


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A dreamy, nicely detailed blend of historical fiction and coming-of-age saga chronicles a white girl’s fateful summer romance with a Cheyenne boy from a nearby reservation in Montana.

The sudden death of her mother has left 17-year-old Erin Douglass in the sole care of her stern, distracted father Jack, who doesn’t notice how lonely and directionless his daughter is in their Riverview tract house on the Yellowstone. More trouble comes their way when Jack’s crew of road-layers unearths the bones of an Indian, probably Cheyenne and a casualty of the Custer- Indian wars during the 1870s, who was buried with thimbles on her fingers to show that she was a “useful girl.” Instead of informing the Lame Dear tribal authorities of the find, Jack hides the bones and tries to fire Charlie White Bird, a young Cheyenne worker who leaks the news to his people. Erin, a descendant of Indian fighter Captain Brennan, has torn loyalties but decides to aid Charlie as he seeks to build a proper cairn for the bones. This leads to a forbidden love that drives Charlie to college and Erin to a sad, fruitless runaway spree. Interwoven with her linear narrative is an invented tale of the dead girl, whom Erin calls Mo’e’ha’e and imagines to be part of a ragtag group of Cheyenne refugees moving just ahead of Brennan’s scouting party, determined to purge the hills of Indians in the bloody aftermath of Little Bighorn. These alternating sections demonstrate a researched consideration of Indian and American history, revealing grisly details of hardships and brutality on both sides. Together they form a unified whole notable for its sensitive narrative layering. Despite some heavy-handed plotting to merge the two stories, second-novelist Stevens (Curve of the World, 2002) redeems the book’s technical awkwardness with tenderness toward his characters, particularly when addressing the plight of women and children.

A forthright exploration of Indian-white relations then and now that should provoke discussion in libraries and schools.

Pub Date: April 30th, 2004
ISBN: 1-56512-366-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2004