I adore Native American literature – Sherman Alexie, James Welch, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko… all have homes on my bookshelf. They recently had to move over to make room for Debra Magpie Earling.
Earling is a member of the Bitterroot Salish tribe in Montana. She currently teaches Native American Studies and Fiction at the University of Montana. Perma Red (2002) is her first (and to date, only) novel, and it took decades (and many drafts) to perfect. It truly is quite the remarkable novel and well-deserving of all the accolades it has received. Earling has affectively joined the ranks of such greats as Alexie and Silko as far as Native American literature goes, but I’m reluctant to pigeon-hole this book as simply “Native American” literature. Perma Red is literature at its finest; it is a damn fine book.
Perma Red is the story of Louise White Elk, a young Indian girl with shockingly red hair who longs to escape the reservation life and the Indian-way. Yet, even in the same breath as she’s seeking to run, she craves belonging to this world. It’s the story of a girl growing up, finding out who she is, what she’s made of, and what matters to her. It’s a coming of age love story full of violence and heartbreak. It’s a story of split cultures and what happens when they collide in ways that forever alter Louise’s life.
Earling subtly weaves in magic and tradition into her words to such extent the reader is just as apt to believe Baptiste Yellow Knife has used love magic as Louise as. In addition to content, the writing is quite lovely.
In discussing how the school girls matured over the summer, Earling writes: “And their silk stockings and panties hung on the bushes with their boyfriends’ sighs.”
But the novel isn’t all sex and sighs – there’s a brutal violence and scars that not even time can heal. The people are all wounded, but Louise and Baptiste (her husband, her curse, and the man who beats the hell out of her) appeal the reader. There is something real in their relationship – something real and something magic. Despite all his flaws, I loved Baptiste.
The novel is divided into chapters. Louise’s chapters are told in third person at a distance. The other chapters are told in first person from the point of view of Charlie Kicking Woman – a tribal officer who seems to often forget his identity. Initially, I liked Charlie quite a bit. He’s a bit too obsessed with Louise, but I could overlook it as I thought he truly had her best interests at heart. But the more he appeared, the more of the story he told, I hated him. I hated everything about him. Perhaps the most violent scene, minus when Baptiste beats Louise and slices her open with the broken beer bottle, is what Charlie witnesses and walks away from without doing nothing. He turns his back on his people and his history repeatedly in the novel – but when he literally turned away, my stomach turned. To me, that hatred signifies excellent writing.
Your bookslut highly recommends Perma Red.