Walking the Rez Road

This is the first book for Jim Northrup, a Chippewa (Ojibway) born and living on the Fond du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota. Northrup’s writing style is almost no style at all, which is both the charm and flaw of this book.

The stories work well. Northrup fills them with a kind of backwards, quietly defiant humor—maybe the only kind of laugh possible in the face of the poverty, alcoholism, police abuse and other desperations of reservation life. Hary, a young man on the run, tries a new tactic with Bobo, the police dog. He stares the dog down and says, “Sit.” When Bobo complies, Hary adds, “Stay,” whereupon the dog settles in and Hary strolls into the woods. Called on to raise the flag at an alcoholism center where they are being treated, Luke Warmwater and another “skin” solemnly place their hands over their livers. There is, also, a good deal of terrible punning and crassness (Hary’s full name is Hary Pitt) in the language of this book.

Northrup’s blunt storytelling gains a depth of feeling from the rich and constant sense of family and of community support that the traditional Chippewa life affords. The collection opens with a moving story chronicling a Vietnam vet’s return and welcome at a powwow. Other stories center on rice gathering, fish spearing, or storytelling itself.

The poems, which are interspersed among the stories, are less impressive. They are poems in the most basic sense of the word, but evidence no real poetic craft. In the introduction to the book, Northrup’s poetry is compared to the work of Joy Harjo and his stories to those of N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko. This is just inappropriate. Northrup does not have the technique or subtlety of these other Native writers. What he does have is his own very funny, gutsy, and immediate voice. His stories show us a rich and embattled people we need to know more about, care more about, and learn from.