• The Good: Exploration of modern urban native identity
  • The Bad: Depressingly deep dive into identity, poverty, and verbal, sexual, and substance abuse
  • The Literary: Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominee

Twelve disconnected Native American characters find their way to the Big Oakland Powwow, including Jacquie, trying to locate her adopted daughter, Dene, working at the powwow to honor his late uncle, and Orvil, a fourteen-year-old sneaking out to connect with his heritage and enter as a traditional dancer for the first time.

The multiple, converging story lines make this a complex book, but each character represents at least one aspect of the modern Native American. I love the exploration of native identity, particularly urban Indians who may or may not be connected to the modern powwow community.

What does it mean to be native? Can modern native culture be separated from its horrific and painful history? Must it always conjure images of sad environmentalism or stoic spirituality (as portrayed by Sergio Leone Italians)? How do the expectations of culture sit on the shoulders of disconnected urban youth or adults who’ve repeated the cycle of becoming alcoholic and absent parents?

This novel is nominated for multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and I can see why. The individual portraits are powerfully visceral. It’s contemporary and unflinching and poignant, and in my mind, highlights how poverty is the culture that supersedes, and often erodes, all others.

Unfortunately, the total number of narratives is probably too many, and it’s about halfway through the book before any begin to converge. I like that this is an emotional story, but mostly it’s sad, and I’m left with that feeling of real-world despair which is often a side-effect of keeping up with the news. And that’s just not my motivation for reading fiction.

Highly recommended for anyone familiar with the Oakland area, interested in modern native identity, or converging story lines in unflinching literary fiction!