The Sharpest Sight

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A shaken young deputy sheriff stands beside his car on a dark and rain-swept bridge in central California, where he has just avoided hitting what he swears was a panther. Peering over the guardrail and into the dark, flood-swollen waters of the river, Mundo Morales watches as the dead body of his best friend, Attis McCurtain, floats past beneath him—its arm raised “as if in casual farewell.”

Attis McCurtain spun in the river, riding the black flood, aware of the branches that trailed over his face and touched his body, spinning in the current of the night toward something he could feel coming closer, rising up to meet him. He knew he was dead, and in death an ancient memory had awakened, a stirring in his stilled blood, moving with him and around him on the flood.… [A]long that shore stood thin old men and women with deep eyes and long, stringy hair. They grasped at him with hands gnarled and twisted as tree roots, the nails of the thumb, middle, and index fingers long and sharp as knife blades, slicing the damp air.

At the same time, hundreds of miles from the bridge in a rough, one-room cabin hidden deep in the swamps of western Mississippi, an old Choctaw Indian man, Luther Cole, is pulled from his sleep by the cry of the koi, the panther. As the old man sits in the dark, he speaks to the shadow that stands in the dim corner of the small room—in the Choctaw language, it is the shilup to which he speaks, the outside shadow, or ghost, or the murdered Attis McCurtain.

Thus Louis Owens, himself of mixed-blood Choctaw descent, begins The Sharpest Sight, an important novel filled with magic and truth. The first volume in the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series from the University of Oklahoma Press, the book is a celebration of the traditional storytelling art of Native America as reexpressed in modern terms.

It is an unfortunate reality that mainstream America is largely ignorant and unappreciative of its native cultures. America is especially unfamiliar with those cultures that—often by reason of their unwarlike natures—have been largely ignored by the purveyors of popular culture, that is, popular books and popular motion pictures. What is popular Choctaw history? It was a peaceful village not of Choctaw farmers but of Cheyenne and Arapaho families that was slaughtered at Sand Creek; it was not the Choctaw but rather the Sioux who engaged Custer at the Little Big Horn; Geronimo was Apache, and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were great Sioux warriors. Moshulatubbee—is the name unfamiliar?—was a great Choctaw leader; and it was the Choctaw who were the first to be forced by the U.S. government to leave their ancestral homeland in Mississippi and walk to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma under Andrew Jackson’s policy of removal. Even so, it is the Cherokee that come to mind when one thinks of the Trail of Tears. All of this is to say that the Choctaw—the third largest tribe of Native American people—have not enjoyed much recognition. It is to Louis Owens’ credit that The Sharpest Sight provides the reader with an insider’s look at the search for traditional cultural values in a world gone slightly screwy. More important, perhaps, the book affords those who attend closely truths that are quite wonderful to encounter.

In September of 1830, the Choctaw Tribe of Indians sat down with representatives of President Andrew Jackson on the banks of Dancing Rabbit Creek and ceded to the United States all that remained of their rich and fertile ancestral homeland east of the Mississippi River, in exchange for a portion of the then-wilderness of what is now Oklahoma. Over the next few years, some fourteen thousand men, women, and children left their homes and any of their belongings that they could not carry and made what their tradition remembers as the Long, Sad Walk to Indian Territory. According to the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, those Choctaw who chose not to remove but rather to remain in Mississippi and “conform to the white man’s way” were required to register with the Indian agent within a period of six months. Once registered, those Choctaw...

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The Sharpest Sight Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cunningham, Lisa. Review of Other Destinies, by Louis Owens. American Studies International 36 (February, 1998): 93-94. A critical work by Owens that discusses the works by a variety of Native American authors. Although this work does not cover Owens’s fiction, it provides valuable insight into the role of American Indian fiction in the American canon.

Gish, Robert F. “The Sharpest Sight, a Novel.” The American Indian Quarterly 17 (Summer, 1993): 433-444. Discusses how Owens mixes realism and Magical Realism, as well as the Western and mystery genres, to create a novel that mirrors Native American experience.

Jakowski, H. Review of The Sharpest Sight, by Louis Owens. Choice 29 (June, 1992): 1546. Though he calls the landscape a “palpable character” in the narrative, Jakowski misplaces the Mississippi sequences in Arkansas. He praises Owens’s “lyrical prose” and calls the novel “a graceful literary production” that he compares to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane.

Mitten, Lisa A. Review of The Sharpest Sight, by Louis Owens. Library Journal 117 (January, 1992): 176. Mitten calls the narrative a voyage to discover the self and the false divisions between this world and the spirit world. She praises Owens’s work as “a fine inaugural novel” for the beginning of the Oklahoma series on the American Indian.

Paulson, Gary. “Noonday Arrows of Death.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 21, 1992, 12. Paulson, a novelist himself, praises Owens’s novel as a mystery but shows how it extends the genre into a serious, even philosophical work that investigates “the relationship of Anglo literature to Native America.” Yet he consistently confuses the Choctaw Indians of the novel with the Chickasaws.

Seaman, Donna. Review of The Sharpest Sight, by Louis Owens. Booklist 88 (February 15, 1992): 1089. In its study of the destruction of the Indian nations and the evil of Vietnam, Seaman finds Owens’s novel “a wise and poetic tale set to the seductively enigmatic music of magic and dreams.”

Vizenor, Gerald. “Authored Animals: Creature Tropes in Native American Fiction.” Social Research 62 (Fall, 1995): 661-683. Vizenor explores the ways in which animals are used as tropes in American Indian fiction. He asserts that the animals portrayed in Native American fiction are rarely literal representations, but function metaphorically. Works discussed include Owens’s Bone Game and The Sharpest Sight.