Crazy Brave Summary

Crazy Brave is a memoir in which US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo recounts her early life through a mixture of prose and poetry.

  • Harjo, who is Native American, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and experienced a connection to creativity, imagination, and the sacred from an early age.
  • As a teenager, Harjo escaped her abusive home by enrolling in the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
  • After briefly returning to Oklahoma and giving birth to a son, Harjo moved back to New Mexico, where she attended the university, had a daughter, and embraced her calling as a poet.


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Last Updated on October 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612


Published in 2012, Crazy Brave is a memoir by Joy Harjo, who is the current US Poet Laureate and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an Oklahoma-based Native American tribe.

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Plot Summary

Harjo employs a mix of personal memories, poems, stories, and flashbacks about the lives of family members to construct a narrative with both ordinary and mythic elements. By invoking the cardinal directions to structure the sections of her book, she navigates the course of her young life and arrives at the moment that leads her to poetry.

After a prologue that describes her view of Earth before she is born, Harjo describes her childhood in the "East" section. East symbolizes the sunrise, beginnings, and Harjo's birth state of Oklahoma, where her ancestors were forced to move during the Trail of Tears. She describes her parents and notes their shared love of music as well as their ancestry: her father is Muscogee, and her mother is partially of Cherokee descent.

In this section, Harjo describes her strong connections to nature and spirituality as a child, during which time she relies on her dreams and what she calls her "knowing" to guide her through life—including her father's alcoholism and a near miss with polio. Her creativity appears in kindergarten, when she discovers that "For me drawing [i]s dreaming on paper," and poetry is "singing on paper." She also describes the importance of remembering ancestral stories and songs, and she discusses her struggle to be brave.

In the "North" section, Harjo describes the challenges she experiences during her later childhood and teen years. Her parents divorce, and her mother enters an abusive marriage with a white man who psychologically and physically abuses the family. Harjo turns to the visual arts because singing, writing, and participating in theater trigger her stepfather's cruelty. She writes, "I imagine this place in the story as a long silence."

As her situation becomes desperate, she turns to drinking and fantasizes about moving to San Francisco. Through her knowing, she realizes that path will not end well. Her life significantly improves once she begins attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, she finds a community, experiences friendship and community, and grows as a person and an artist.

When Harjo's narrative turns to the "West" section, she encounters new hardships as her time at the IAIA comes to an end. Pregnant with her boyfriend's child, she moves back to Oklahoma with him. There, she struggles with an unfulfilling marriage, raising children, and poverty. Her creative and spiritual outlets stagnate as she works various jobs in what she calls "the drudgery of survival."

This impasse in Harjo's life finds a resolution in the "South" section. Urged on by her ancestors, Harjo breaks away from her marriage. She returns with her son to New Mexico to attend university, eventually majoring in studio art. It is here that she becomes involved in the American Indian Movement and meets a Pueblo activist and poet.

She marries the poet, but her new husband becomes abusive when he drinks. Harjo continues to attend classes, paint, and raise her children, but she suffers from anxiety attacks. Her "knowing" self warns her to make a change, and the legacy of her ancestors reminds her to be brave. One night she happens to watch a television news report about a shaman from a South Pacific culture and experiences a renewed connection: a "doorway" back to her creativity and spirituality.

As Harjo acknowledges and works through her anxiety, she meets the "spirit of poetry" and reclaims her voice—thus beginning the next stage of her life, where she finds poetry, peace, and forgiveness.

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Chapter Summaries