(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In her novel The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, Paula Gunn Allen employs Laguna women’s traditions to trace one woman’s search for psychic balance. The novel is divided into four parts, each preceded by a prologue. These prologues tell the traditionally oral stories of Thinking Woman, also known as Spider Woman or the Grandmother, and of her two sister goddesses whom she sang into being, Uretsete and Naotsete. The bodies of the four parts are sectioned into short vignettes that follow middle-aged protagonist Ephanie Atencio as she struggles to gain a sense of self and purpose. Allen parallels Ephanie’s own experiences to the goddess stories and in doing so establishes the acceptance of traditional woman lore as the key to a woman’s individual spiritual harmony.

Told in stream-of-consciousness style, the novel begins with Ephanie, recently abandoned by her husband, in a state of mental turmoil. She vaguely hears Stephen’s attempts to aid her in grasping reality, yet she feels suffocated by him and longs for him to understand her and to let her be herself. With Elena, Ephanie had been who she wanted to be; as children, the two seemingly had complete understanding of each other, seeing themselves as Snow White and Rose Red, as two halves of a whole. Ephanie recounts their separation and the final words of betrayal spoken by Elena that separated them forever. Ephanie connects this memory to her present need for a friend, someone who will accept her as Stephen does not. After Stephen makes love to her, she realizes that something is “out of time, off-pace.” She flees Albuquerque, leaving her children with her mother.

Settling in San Francisco, Ephanie sends for her children. The three experience city life and attend the local powwows, looking for acceptance into that community as something connected to and yet different from their home. Ephanie is discontented, however. Going to the Indian Center less and less, she rationalizes her withdrawal by claiming a desire to...

(The entire section is 819 words.)

The Woman Who Owned the Shadows Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism.” Sinister Wisdom 25 (1984): 34-36. This article, in which Allen discusses what she calls “gynarchial societies,” illuminates Allen’s vision of a holistic female-centered society. She explains the similarities between Native American female-centered traditions and the peace-seeking radical movements of the West. Allen suggests that it is vital for feminists and society in general to turn toward this tradition to heal a warring existence.

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Whose Dream Is This Anyway? Paula Gunn Allen: Generation, Regeneration, and Continuance.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Allen describes the Keres supreme being Grandmother Spider and shows how her novel reflects the relationship between woman lore and the events in an individual’s life. She also discusses time and structure, suggesting that the four geographic locations in the novel parallel the four female life phases in Keres cosmology. Finally, in this short but useful discussion, Allen explains her attempt to emulate the oral tradition and her belief that traditional rituals are life-affirming in whatever form they are presented.

Keating, Analouise. Women Reading Women: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and...

(The entire section is 477 words.)