Review of Four Novels

August 23rd, 2020  |  Published in Summer 2020

Everyone has tried to cope, in their own ways, with the surrealist world that COVID-19 has brought us; many people have had too much time on their hands while others are being torn in too many directions at the same time. Since I am someone with a compromised immune system, I’ve been home much of the summer, doing my favorite thing:  reading.  I’ll try with this issue’s book reviews to combine some books with others, when they’re thematically similar, as I’ve read well over 40 novels in the past couple of months.

Jeanine Cummins’ excellent “American Dirt”, which I reviewed earlier this year, seems to have set the tone for a plethora of novels about single women immigrants and/or Native American women.  One of the things all these novels has in common is the super human strength of the women, almost always single and/or abandoned by men along the way,  with children whose lives they hope will be better than theirs, whether they’re new in America or come from historically disenfranchised groups; I think that the strong, single African-American woman may be the prototype of this extraordinarily powerful woman we meet in literature regularly lately.

The best writer about Native American life in America, historical and current, remains Louise Erdrich, whose newest offering is “The Night Watchman”, based upon the real, lived experience of a group of mostly Chippewa natives in North Dakota, of which she is one, and presents a fictionalized version of her own grandfather’s life and experience trying to keep this increasingly small group of people (smaller because the US Government kept evicting native populations from their land; one of the main plot devices in this novel is the attempt by those living on this land to go to Washington to defend their ongoing right to be there. The novel builds and builds to this climax; part of the fascination is how these natives know when to speak “white” –which many learned in boarding schools they were forced to attend).  Erdrich creates quite a number of utterly fascinating characters, including the main narrator/protagonist, Patrice, and her powerful mother, who lives by old native customs; Patrice works in an area factory and goes to Minneapolis to try to find her missing twin sister, who has indeed been kidnapped into the sex industry.  The stories by which the night watchman of the title–the author’s grandfather in real life–sustains himself are gorgeous, and we get a  glimpse into how alien whites were to the natives when they came bullying through to take their land over many historical years in American history.  Babies are absorbed into families when those families need help; a kind of communal existence is described, a noncompetitive, collaborative one, wherein , of course, no one actually can “own” land, a concept whites brought with them to America and which helped decimate Indian peoples. Erdrich also creates secondary characters of considerable charm and interest, just enough of them for the reader to get a real sense of the life of these people on this particular land. And although we meet quite a few strong, powerful women, there’s a fair share of men who are rendered as well.   Poverty is rampant, of course, since the whites stole all the good farming land, but the bond between and amongst the characters in Erdrich’s novel are indicative of a shared life, based upon older cultures while continuing to battle the lies and broken treaties of whites.

Kelli Jo Ford’s “Crooked Hallelujah” is another fascinating new (debut) novel about the lives of four generations of Native American women in Northwest Texas and the parts of Oklahoma abutting it. Each woman is strong; each has suffered from either drunken men/husbands who vanish, or some of the women have been raped as young as age l5 and become pregnant; each one has to give up her dreams in order that the next generation of their women may have a better life, though none really does. During periods of crisis, often familial, the women know to go home, where they are always, ongoingly welcomed.  Ford has the earliest of these women converted into an unusually dour form of Christianity, which discourages any of their individuality and/or sexuality. And these women aren’t just strong, they are often eccentric and stubborn.  Although the novel occasionally feels melodramatic, when Ford’s at her best, when she describes and sums up a secondary or tertiary character in just a couple of pages, her writing is powerful and passionate, and we see what kind of writer we hope Ford will become. Her novel, though, is an excellent debut, and it’s again essential reading for anyone interested in how dispossessed people lived and survived and loved.

Fernanda Melchor’s debut novel “Hurricane Season” is astonishing in its power and passion, too. Written in a seemingly stream of consciousness form of writing—though I suspect that every word is carefully chosen–in sentences that may be the entire chapter–Melchor documents the lives of a small town on coastal Mexico, riven by booze and drugs and prostitution.  Melchor gives us another group of amazing characters, some survivors, others not, living in a kind of poverty that’s difficult for Americans to realize.  Violence is constant; jobs are nowhere, but the backbone of this narrow world is held up, again, by women, women with children to raise and feed and love. The novel partly centers around the murder of a character known as “The Witch”, a person to whom these women come with their troubles, who concocts potions out of native herbs and plants, including one for abortions. The Witch is, of course, controversial, the classic  “other”; in the course of the novel the reader will learn The Witch’s real identity and the existence of an entire homosexual underground, created partly so that “straight” men can be paid for sex by gay men or men living and working with few females around. Melchor’s is one of the strongest novels of the year examining race, gender and class; her writing is wrenching, powerful, withering in its unbridled anger. This novel is one of 2020’s must reads.

A lovely first novel by Lysley Tenorio, called “The Son of Good Fortune”, also Fits into the genres under discussion here. Another single mother, Maxima, born in the Phillipines, escapes to America through the good friendship of her former martial arts teacher, who’s already in America.  Her son, Excel (named for the excellence she hopes he’ll attain), is born on the airplane between the Phillipines and America, so he is actually stateless.  Living in one of those small, generic apartments our immigrants and poor are stuck in here, Maxima makes a living two ways: she works in a nail salon, typical of so many new Asian women immigrants, and she also has established an online presence, which is nonsexual, where she talks to her “clients”, mainly lonely single men in America, who pay her for her time, and she also concocts stories about either physical problems or familial ones, so that these men send her money to help her out; they all think she lives in The Phillipines. (One of the delights of this novel is how Maxima cons $15,000 out of one of these men, who actually insists on meeting her and her son live, and how she pulls that off). Son Excel runs away for awhile with a new girlfriend, to a city in the desert simply called “Hello City”, where they live in a converted bus and find work as best they can; this relationship won’t work out, as expected.  Tenorio is particularly strong writing about the poor, the aimless, the places they shop, how they eat and the like: his detail for the daily lives of the poor is exceptional. Once Maxima is sure that Excel can make it on his own in America (which, in all these novels, involves learning how white people think), she returns to the Phillipines to look after her sister, who’s retired as a maid in Saudi Arabia. The return of the new immigrant to America to their home countries is a new but important strand in immigrant literature; it began, as I recall, with Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” and runs through several African novels as well. The sadness, no, tragedy  of losing these often entrepreneurial people is new in American literature, and the wise reader will take note of the nearly hopeless lives these new immigrants to America live. “The Son of Good Fortune” is tender, often funny, its tone pitch perfect.

So the country seems to be seeking knowledge of peoples who’ve long been ignored or sidelined or written off; there’s no better way to understand some of these people than through writing and reading fiction, and the reader’s in for quite a treat–as well as an education–by reading them.

–Daniel Brown

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