Susan Power Essay - Critical Essays

Power, Susan


Susan Power The Grass Dancer

Power is an American novelist.

Winner of the 1995 PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for first fiction, The Grass Dancer is set in North Dakota on a Sioux reservation. Presented as a montage of stories told through the voices of several different narrators, the novel centers on Harley Wind Soldier's search for a sense of self and on the automobile accident that killed Harley's father and brother four weeks before Harley was born. Critics note that the movement of the stories between different time periods—including the 1980s, 1960s, 1930s, and 1860s—evokes the theme of the simultaneity of past and present, while the interaction of spirits in dreams and memories reinforces the idea that ancestors are continually present and active in everyday life. Magic also plays a major role in the novel, particularly in the actions of Red Dress, who exploited her magical powers of sexual attraction to kill a number of soldiers at Fort Laramie in the 1860s; Red Dress's grand-niece, Anna Thunder, also uses magical powers to bewitch young men, but she does so to exact revenge against others in the community. Anna is feared by everyone and her machinations against Harley's father contributed significantly to the accident that killed him. Critical reaction to The Grass Dancer has generally been favorable, with most commentators arguing that the novel's central concern is Native-American heritage and white society's treatment of Native-American history. In addition, critics have noted Power's portrayal of chance and its consequences as well as her depiction of the legacies of love and jealousy. As Linda Niemann has argued, Power "chooses to represent indigenous history not as a record of defeat but rather as a continuing process whose outcome is still uncertain."


Michael Dorris (review date 4 August 1994)

SOURCE: "A Dynamic First Effort That Proves to Be the Real Thing," in Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1994, p. E7.

[Dorris is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and critic. In the following review, he remarks favorably on The Grass Dancer.]

The Grass Dancer is a look through an inverted telescope into the rich tapestry of Dakota society. Moving a century backward from the early 1980s and reclosing the loop in the present, its series of related, beautifully told tales unravel the intricate stitch of related lives, the far-reaching consequences of chance acts, the lasting legacies of love and jealousy.

Susan Power, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has written a first novel that hums with serious intention and reads like a sad and lovely lament. The high plains reservation setting is rendered with the kind of authentic realism—the little but crucial details—that only the most acute observer notices, and her prose is both strong and lyrical.

As with other books that deal with the social dynamics of small communities, The Grass Dancer is concerned with the power of thwarted or stunted kinship—mothers who lose their daughters, fathers who die before they are known by their sons—and with marital love gone wrong or betrayed.

The bitterness of one generation literally haunts the next, and the next. Frustrated spirits often meddle in human affairs, and indeed the boundary dividing the living and the dead is occasionally so blurred that a man can marry his fiancee's ghost.

Magic suffuses the world that Power poetically describes. Eyelashes baked in chocolate cupcakes instantly turn high school boys...

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Lawrence Thornton (review date 21 August 1994)

SOURCE: "The Grandmother in the Moon," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1994, p. 7.

[Thornton is an American novelist, educator, and critic. In the review below, he discusses Power's integration of past and present in The Grass Dancer.]

Near the beginning of The Grass Dancer, Susan Power's captivating first novel, an old medicine man tells his grandson to remember that there are "two kinds of grass dancing. There's the grass dancer who prepares the field for a powwow the old-time way, turning the grass over with his feet to flatten it down. Then there's the spiritual dancer, who wants to learn grass secrets by imitating it, moving his body with the wind." The second kind of dancing, both a complex art form and a resonant metaphor for the relationship between humans and nature, functions as the armature of this moving exploration of lives infused with the power of the spirit world.

Ms. Power, a member of the Sioux tribe, writes with an inventiveness that sets her writing apart from much recent American fiction. She is more interested in montage than the progression d'effet of traditional plot. Set on a North Dakota reservation, The Grass Dancer tells the story of Harley Wind Soldier, a young Sioux trying to understand his place among people whose intertwined lives and shared heritage move backward in time in the narrative from the 1980's to the middle of the last century.

The effect of the structure is manifold. The reader responds to the narrative as if it were a series of photographs ranging from the crisp images of a Nikon to grainy daguerreotypes spotted with age. But Ms. Power's method has thematic as well as technical brio, for it...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)

Stephen Henighan (review date 2 December 1994)

SOURCE: "The Sioux Sense of Self," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4783, December 2, 1994, p. 22.

[In the review below, Henighan argues that The Grass Dancer fuses traditional storytelling with contemporary fictional forms and demonstrates the continuing vitality of Sioux culture.]

The act of reclaiming a lost or suppressed cultural identity is often carried out with defiance. Histories that have been denigrated or marginalized tend to be reborn in the contentious language of rebellion. Susan Power's first novel, The Grass Dancer, set on a North Dakota reservation, reassembles the history of the Sioux Indians—a term Power seems to prefer to the currently favoured "Native Americans"—with disarming equanimity.

Four weeks before Harley Wind Soldier's birth, his father and brother are killed by a drunken driver. The driver is white, and, though Power makes little of this detail, the accident epitomizes the offhand way in which, throughout this novel, white society wipes out the Indian past more through carelessness than malice. Harley's mother, traumatized by the accident, becomes mute; Harley grows up feeling that he has a "black, empty hole squeezed in his chest between heart and lungs". When the novel opens, in 1981, he is an introverted seventeen-year-old. At a summer pow-wow, he meets Pumpkin, a red-haired Menominee dancer of Irish ancestry. "You shouldn't ever be too arrogant or too loud about who you are", she tells Harley, in response to his...

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Linda Niemann (review date January 1995)

SOURCE: "Healing History," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 4, January, 1995, p. 23.

[In the following review, Niemann focuses on the magical and supernatural aspects of The Grass Dancer.]

The Grass Dancer flows along the page with the grace of its title character, a Menominee woman named Pumpkin who dances what is traditionally the male role of the grass dancer in powwows. The book as a whole becomes a place—the reservation where the series of stories that make up the novel are heard. Each chapter is as long as one night's storytelling, reflecting different points of view on the same set of events and characters. Susan Power draws on both novelistic technique and oral tradition to create a newly emerging form.

Storytelling, like grass dancing, is a tribal art: Power is working within her tradition to unfold spiritual secrets through the narrative. Each chapter is a discrete story in its own right, taking the reader from the 1860s to the 1980s as the lives of younger generations come to intersect with the still-present spirits of their ancestors.

This structuring of the novel as a series of overlapping stories is similar to Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The difference is in focus: Alexie's stories are deeply rooted in reservation life and are triumphs over despair, while Power is more concerned with myth-making in all its new-car excitement. People get up from their deathbeds and walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong. They come back from the dead in pretty good shape, with consoling messages for the living. They give advice. History is not drenched in gore, as in Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead; it's less of a tragedy than we thought it was.

Power tells stories of how the Dakotas used white magic to defeat their enemies, such as the story about the "Medicine Hole"—the magical opening up of the earth that hid and protected warriors surrounded in a battle with US soldiers in the 1860s. She chooses to represent indigenous history not as a record of defeat but rather as a continuing process whose outcome is still uncertain. The past and the spirit world lie within and around the present.

The germinal story tells of Red Dress, a woman warrior who left her people to go to the US soldiers' Fort Laramie in 1864. There she pretended to accept their culture, but secretly used her magical powers of sexual attraction to lure and kill a number of them. Accepting this role separated her from her lover, Ghost Horse, and she died at the fort before they could be married. Ghost Horse married her spirit anyway, but in his grief he was unable to release her. He sought death in battle, and his spirit went to the place of the ancestors, while hers remained attached to the places of the living.


(The entire section is 1185 words.)