IF THE TERM "Native American fiction" conjures up "You took our land, you took our people," white guilt, a tear slowly draining down a leathery Indian chieftain's cheek--recreate your vision and dream again.
Better yet, get a fictional primer on Nez Percé dreaming in Killing Time With Strangers, the latest novel by W.S. Penn, a widely acclaimed author and an urban mixblood Nez Percé, a still-extant tribe that once ranged across portions of Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
Penn's second novel doesn't chide white culture, nor does it solemnly proclaim the shame of yesteryear's Indian wars. Not pedantically. That message, however, is tightly woven into its cloth. When you put this book down you surely will feel its spine. Yet its supernatural inventiveness and witty irreverence will so disarm you, while its characters so weave you into the warp of their story-dreams, that you may close the book, close your eyes and begin to wonder how you, too, can learn to dream--to dream a spirit guide to save your only begotten son, as the book's Dreamer, Mary Blue, did.
You see I, too, have an only son now caught in what some call the centrifugal years, that painful purgatory between boyhood and manhood. Like Mary Blue, I want to change the content of the ill-formed dreams of a young man who needs a path, a life and a one true love. If dreaming worked for Mary, maybe it could work for me. Maybe it's not too late this time to remember that for some, like spirit guides, time does not exist.
Mary Blue, the product of a Scotts-Irish-Nez Percé union, dreams up a weyekin, or spirit guide, so saucy and endearingly inept that you, too, might wish he was yours. As the story begins, with no beginning at all, the mother Dreamer chats with her weyekin, who, as narrator, clues us in that he's taken many a form in his day, and "if you screw up" taking a human form, "the next time you ... might just show up as a seagull or a corpse, a squirrel or a coastguardsman with an excess of melanin in your skin."
Right away we know this is no diatribe but a delightful fictional romp that will amuse us while challenging conventional perceptions about racial identity and who we might be in the long march of time or no-time.
In answer to our expected but unspoken protest that we are reading a book written by a timeless soul-traveler who once was a seagull, the weyekin sets us straight: "Yep. It isn't my fault that I was never alive the way you think you are. I have never been a human being in the sense of 'He was born, drank coffee, and died, may he rest in peace.' But I have been imagined as existing in your world by a real human being. As hard as it might be for you to believe, that makes me a whole lot more alive than a whole lot of folks. Not you, of course. You're not among the people made deaf and blinded by their unexamined lives. The walking dead don't tell stories and they definitely don't read them."
Even the walking dead might enjoy this story of Palimony Blue Larue, a shy, insecure young mixblood Nez Percé coming of age in contemporary California, who learns to dream his true and lasting love into his lonely life. Mary's bumbling spirit guide's maneuvers, though ably and patiently coached by her, are ridiculed by his fellow weyekins, who comically come and go in their many guises. Penn uses these colorful beads to weave his backward, inside-out tale that, in the end, affirms that "with love, death gives way to life."
In that end, which really is only the beginning, we see the pattern that earlier had no discernable shape, not unlike the cradle board Mary Blue creatively beads throughout the novel, knowing one day it will rock her first grandchild, Pal and Amanda's baby, If the weyekin does his job right, that is.
Penn, a creative writing professor and resident writer at Michigan State University, packs this story with a panoply of razor-tongued spirit guides and unexpected plot turns underpinned with a serious message about how we perceive ourselves and our racial identities. Penn says the novel is not autobiographical, but his sense of fun prompted him to slip in tidbits of truth and anecdotes from his forebears. Since dreaming figured in Penn's first novel, The Absence of Angels, as well as in his well-received essay collection, All My Sins Are Relatives, the author says he pivoted his second novel around a Nez Percé Dreamer with a mixblood son.
"My grandfather was one of the last, if not the last of the Nez Percé Dreamers," Penn says. "And my great grandma's name was Mary Blue." Killing Time refers to an illegally disinterred Nez Percé skull being used as a candy dish, which Penn says actually happened to his great-great uncle's skull before it was reclaimed through the "bone courts."
Yet Penn says his purpose is not to solve the racial wars, though he allows that for many Native Americans such as he, there is "a need for it, a desire for it, an inclination for it." Penn says his oral tradition as a "slightly skilled imager" enlivens his tales, tales of Dreamers who pass their ways through generations of their children and children's children. It's like beading, Penn says, "like matching and creating patterns, establishing connections." Dreaming is an activity Penn practices and jokingly likens to a sort of "Zen Catholicism" he is teaching his own two young children.
As an urban Nez Percé mixblood originally from California, rather than a traditional tribal member, Penn says he wants to give back to the community through his writing, stick close to home and get beyond the culture wars. "People need to be respected," he says, and the Indian story must not be forgotten, children need to hear where they came from. "But I don't want to live history all over again. I only know what I know."
Penn cautions that if historically wronged minorities don't just live their lives but note injustices every day, "If Indians do this, we're really dead," he laughs, "and I mean really dead this time."
Killing Time With Strangers pulls us through Mary Blue's odd relationship with her husband, an Osage-Anglo crossbreed, La Vent Larue, a city zoning planner who becomes a puppet the white mayor uses to steamroll Indian homes and valleys. Since La Vent is no help, Mary returns to her forefathers' ways to dream up some real help for her son.
Palimony, whom Mary named Palomino but whose name was changed by a baffled Anglo birth-name recorder, runs into and through some sharply drawn women in his life search: Sally, the horny preacher's kid; Brandy, a waitress waiting to become a flutist; and Tara, the upscale man-user with the posh condo on the beach. Mary Blue, however, had envisioned a different woman for him since he was a boy: Amanda. His Amanda.
The spirit guide narrator pops in and out of this odyssey; sometimes Pal even recognizes him as his Chicano childhood friend, Chingaro, the one Mary Blue sent to help him years before. Pal seems to know Chingaro is from his mother. Eventually he learns his own story and how to tell it and retell it.
How Pal finally dreams Amanda, how La Vent crumbles away under his much-admired white boss, how spirit guides--who play Uno in their downtime--intervene in unexpected ways, how racial injustice can taste bittersweetly humorous served up by a skillful wordsmith, all make Killing Time With Strangers an entrancing, timeless novel. It's a work whose social observations subtly upset what some think they know about the Native American experience.
Not only that, it just might teach you how to dream.
Penn's newest collection of essays, slated for next fall through the University of Nebraska Press, deals with the oral traditions of Chicanos, Native Americans and, of all people, John Donne, the English metaphysical poet. Check the listings on page 25 for this week's literary events.