Study Guide

From the River's Edge

by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

From the River's Edge Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

With the Missouri River as a background presence, its dammed-up waters forcing change upon Native American inhabitants of the South Dakota grasslands who have lived there for generations, From the River’s Edge juxtaposes modern progress with the Native American struggle to retain a separate culture and identity in a world of white rules and white justice.

This fictional story, related by an unseen third-person narrator, is divided into three parts. Each corresponds, in turn, to the trial, summation, and verdict of the legal proceeding to establish the innocence or guilt of an unnamed young man accused of stealing John Tatekeya’s cattle.

The novel beings soon after the discovery of the theft of forty-two cattle from John’s herd. John, who is in his early sixties, is taciturn and reclusive, yet he is a respected member of the Dakotah Sioux community. He seeks help from the U.S. government to locate his missing animals. After finding three of the missing herd scattered throughout the countryside, he decides to pursue justice through the courts.

In his younger days, John had been a rodeo rider, somewhat wild and reckless, and sometimes in minor scrapes with the law. Now he finds himself somewhat disconcertingly on the other side of the justice system. As John at first rides the wide prairies and grasslands searching for traces of his missing cattle, he muses about his past and about the changes brought on by the damming of the great Missouri River, including the inundation of much of his own grazing land. During his silent and reflective searches, John visits acquaintances and friends, including Harvey Big Pipe, and tries to discover not only his missing cattle but also the significance of the changes around him....

(The entire section is 719 words.)

From the River's Edge Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “As a Dakotah Woman: An Interview with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn.” Interview by Joseph Bruchac. In Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987. Bruchac discusses some of the beliefs and motivations that influence Cook-Lynn’s works. Cook-Lynn comments on her identity as a poet and discusses some of the concerns that show up in her writing, including religion and male/female relationships.

Danker, Kathleen. “ The Violation of the Earth’: Elizabeth Cook-Lynne’s From the River’s Edge in the Historical Context of the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Dam Project.” Wicazo Sa Review 12 (Fall, 1997): 85-93. Recounts the history of the Pick-Sloan Project, which was responsible for flooding 6 percent of five Native American reservations in South Dakota. Shows the relationship between theproject and Cook-Lynne’s novel, a work that details the spiritual and economic loss and community breakdown resulting from alterations to the Missouri river.

Houston, Robert. “Stealing Cattle and a Way of Life.” The New York Times Book Review 96 (September 8, 1991): 35. Houston sees the novel as originating from the best motives and refers positively to its complexity, but he comments that the execution is flawed. He objects to heavy-handed dialogue and confusing diction in the story and complains that the novel merely tells about incidents rather than shows them.

Jordan, Robert. Review of From the River’s Edge, by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Library Journal 116 (May 15, 1991): 108. Jordan comments on how the novel is based upon an actual trial. He suggests that though the story is an isolated portrait of the period, its characters are multifaceted. Jordan also makes brief comparisons to other novels and to the film Dances with Wolves (1990).

Kino, Carol. “Old Loyalties.” The Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1991, p. 4620. Kino praises the day-to-day details of the Indian characters as honest portrayals. Kino, however, objects to Cook-Lynn’s mingling of fact and fiction, noting that John Tatekeya’s dialogue comes from actual court transcripts. Kino suggests that this interferes with the truth of the character.

Matchie, Thomas. “Spiritual Geography in Four Midwestern Novels.” Midwest Quarterly 39 (Summer, 1998): 373-389. Comparative study that discusses a spirituality rooted in goodness as revealed in novels by Jon Hassler, Sharon Butala, Michael Dorris, and From the River’s Edge. Explores the spiritual importance of ceremony and community in Native American society as portrayed in Cook-Lynn’s novel.