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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 6/27/2009

Dave Beck

Perrin Ireland's novel "Chatter" is about a woman who discovers, 18 years into her marriage, that her husband has a daughter from a previous relationship. Our book reviewer Nancy Pearl says it's also about the reality of the post 9/11 world; a place where people find themselves desperate for comfort and shelter from emotional and physical traumas. Nancy spoke with KUOW's Dave Beck.

When I picked up Perrin Ireland's "Chatter" (Algonquin, 2007), I wasn't familiar with her writing. I hadn't read her first novel, "Ana Imagined" (although I imagine I will, now) and consequently had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn't expect to find a novel that I would end up not only enjoying enormously, but also one that I found extraordinarily affecting. Ireland is a smart and gifted writer, and it shows on every page of this story about a marriage in trouble. The title is both ironic and, at the same time, in a certain sense, totally straightforward. The plot is revealed almost entirely via dialogue, and, just like in real life, what people really mean to say often appears between the lines of what they actually manage to articulate. What narrative there is appears in short, sound–bite–like sentences. It may take a few pages to get used to Ireland's style, but trust me, just hang in there, because you're in for a treat. Eighteen years into their marriage (the second for both) Sarah learns that Michael, in addition to being the father of Lisa, who lived with the couple when she was a teenager, has another grown daughter, whom he's never met, from a part of his past that he's resolutely kept secret from her. Now, not only does he want to meet Camila, but he also wants to reconnect with her mother, his first love, who lives in Chile, where Michael was stationed as a Peace Corps volunteer. In response to this stunning and disturbing news, and Michael's refusal to discuss it, Sarah determines to find out the facts of Michael's past. But the details of the plot aren't the main point here. Instead, what matters is the dialogue, and the way the characters respond to one another and the situations they find themselves in. These include not only a deteriorating marriage and possible infidelity, but also Sarah's best friend, Rachel, who is dying of cancer and Sarah and Michael's beloved dog, Random (reading about him is such a treat for both dog and novel lovers), and, of course, the reality of a post 9/11 world in which people find themselves desperate for comfort and shelter from emotional and physical traumas.

In "The Color of Lightning" (Morrow, 2009), her powerful and moving third novel, Paulette Jiles begins with a real person and, taking the little that is known from the historical record, creates a life for him that illuminates a morally complex time and place in American history — from the last years of the Civil War, when Texas was opening up its land for settlement, and the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, losing their traditional hunting grounds, were kidnapping and/or murdering the settlers until the early 1870s. During this same time, the U.S. government was trying to corral (almost literally) the Indians on reservations. The book's hero, Britt Johnson, is a black man, a freed slave, who, along with his wife and three children, accompanies his former owner and several other white families to homestead on the north Texas plains. One day, while Johnson and most of the other men are away, their settlement is raided, many are killed (including Johnson's oldest son), and the others, mainly women and children, are taken north with the Indians. (These are dreadfully vivid scenes of carnage, torture, and pain, not for the queasy of stomach.) Heartbroken, and in an angry despair, Johnson rides to the Indian camps to rescue his family. Another major character (one wholly invented by Jiles) is idealistic Samuel Hammond, a member of the Society of Friends who is appointed as an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to use peaceful means to disarm the Indians and get them to agree to become farmers. Other characters for whom we grow to care deeply are Tissoyo, who was banished by his tribal leaders; Mary, Britt's wife, almost fatally damaged both physically and psychologically by her treatment in captivity; and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a terrifically stubborn white woman taken in the same raid as Mary was. Along with her fully developed characters and vivid, brilliantly crafted writing, Jiles explores the conundrum at the heart of the America following the Civil War, as can be seen in this discussion between Hammond and another white man, Deaver, an itinerant painter. Deaver says:

"They (the Indians) are our great mystery. They are America's great otherwise. People fall back in the face of an impenetrable mystery and refuse it. Yes, they take captives. Sometimes they kill women and old people. But the settlers are people who shouldn't be where they are in the first place and they know it and take their chances."
"You are very cavalier about this."
"So are they, my friend. The Texans are cavalier as well. Perhaps we can regard this as a tragedy. Americans are not comfortable with tragedy. Because of its insolubility. Tragedy is not amenable to reason and we are fixers, aren't we? We can fix everything."
I was especially moved by the dilemma of the white children who were kidnapped at a young age and had little memory of their early years, as they grew up knowing nothing except their life on the plains. Here's how Jiles describes one little girl's feelings about being brought back to the white family she scarcely remembered:
"...she was not afraid of going hungry, or starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing. Of the sky shuttered away from her sight, herself hidden from the operatic excitement of the constant wind and the high spirits that came when they struck out like cheerful vagabonds across the wide earth with all of life in front of them and unfolding and perpetually new. And now herself shut in a wooden cave. She could not go out at dawn alone and sing, she would not be seen and known by the rising sun."
Incidentally, Britt Johnson's adventures as an Indian hostage hunter became the inspiration for Alan Le May's 1954 novel, "The Searchers," which was turned into the 1956 John Ford film of the same name. In the movie, the character based (very loosely) on Johnson, through the vagaries of the creative process and Hollywood casting, is played by John Wayne.

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