Although Gerald Vizenor’s understated humor in this story typifies his style, his language and plot here are more straightforward than usual. Vizenor’s characters ordinarily act more strangely, his plots contain more bizarre twists, and his creative use of language leans far more toward the punningly incomprehensible. Some puns here are almost subtle enough to be dismissed as mere details: For example, the mangled English travel ads in the Beijing station (especially “Make Wind on a Phoenix Bicycle”) may serve simply to identify the setting as non-English.
Vizenor’s best extended pun, of the elusive sort that he often uses, may be his repeated reference to the capital-punishment article on the newspaper in which the teachers have wrapped a package. The joke is that the unending care for and carrying of their material possessions constitutes a form of punishment that the materialistic capitalists Cinch and Angel joylessly endure. Only the incident of China shouting into a “panic hole” eludes easy explanation; however, multiple references to the hot weather may suggest that the topsoil has dried and cracked under the stress of the summer heat. Despite this story’s uncharacteristic clarity (relatively speaking), Vizenor’s trademark word-play and tricks with names abound.
The characters are realistically drawn, with little overt mingling of fact and fiction. Only China’s claim that her grandfather was “the Baron of Patronia” exemplifies the way in which Vizenor often blurs distinctions between the real and the imaginary. In another story in The Trickster of Liberty (1988), in which “China Browne” originally appeared, China reveals that her family lives on the White Earth Reservation—a real reservation in west-central Minnesota, where Vizenor spent much of his own childhood. As in many of Vizenor’s stories, such distinctions underscore the oddly realistic and humorous ways in which reality and fantasy often blend indistinguishably.