Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Sharpest Sight champions the heritage of Native Americans and condemns their exploitation by a society that drafts them into the military and sends them to a senseless war in Vietnam, from which no one escapes without at least psychological trauma. There, Indians are given the most dangerous assignments, put “on point” because they supposedly have innate tracking skills. The government wants to hide Attis’s tragedy, the way it has been hiding Indians on reservations “so they won’t embarrass rich white folks by looking poor and hungry.” Vietnam becomes a symbol of a world “screwy, cockeyed,” of the circles broken, the balance destroyed. While soldiers die in Southeast Asia, students are shot at Berkeley and Kent State. Though Uncle Luther is trying to learn more about his people’s history and in turn relate it to Cole, he concludes that there may be no difference between a warrior and a murderer; instead, he says, “We just kill each other over and over, forever.” Just as ghosts visit him and Mundo, the ghosts of the dead haunt the jungles of Vietnam. Luther says the healing Indian medicine must go beyond the swamps, must go through the entire world, because “the whole world’s out of whack and people like us Indians is the onliest ones that knows how to fix it.” Such people will heal the world by respecting every part of it, treating it with care, not raping it as the whites have done. To do this, to live in balance, one must learn the stories of one’s people. To prevent a blood feud from spreading, Luther sends Cole back to California to find his brother’s body once Cole has learned what he needs to know.

There are many searches in the novel—for Attis’s body, for his murderer, for vengeance, for identity, for insight, and for roots. Owens writes with sharp, precise imagery, dramatic dialogue, poetic description, and a vivid sense of place to produce a novel that is far more than a genre mystery.